My Parents’ Journey

Grandfather's Journey

The first time I read Grandfather’s Journey out loud to my children, I kept having to stop to recompose myself. My children were entirely used to this kind of nonsense. It would happen every. single. time I read them Eileen Spinelli’s Sophie’s Masterpiece, at many points throughout the years it took us to read through the entire Harry Potter series, every Christmas when I would read them Max Lucado’s The Crippled Lamb…When I would pause to gulp back a sob that threatened to escape, they would glance up at my face and then look back at the page I was in the middle of trying to read, politely ignoring the tears dropping on their little heads, waiting patiently for me to resume.

I felt a keen pang of recognition as I read Allen Say’s story, the Caldecott Medal winner in 1994. In spare language and restrained watercolors, Say recounts the story of his grandfather, who immigrated from Japan to America and then back again to Japan. It reminded me of my own parents’ story:  their love for two different countries, and their irreconcilable longing for both. Say’s book ends with these words:

“The funny thing is, the moment I am in one country, I am homesick for the other.”

My mother told me once long ago that the minute she stepped off the plane in San Francisco for the first time in 1963, she felt at home in a way she never had in Korea. America suited her. As a woman, she relished her newfound freedom. She felt like she could finally be herself: an irrepressible charmer, who would easily chat up strangers everywhere she went…a woman who, instead of demurely tittering behind a hand covering her mouth, would toss her head back and give a full-throated chortle that would carry for miles…a Drama Queen, who could always command an audience. She discovered her true self in this country, and she was proud to become a naturalized American.

It never occurred to us that our parents would ever leave their adopted country, which they both embraced with a frank and almost corny patriotism. After many years, however, when they had lived longer in America than they had in Korea, they were reluctantly drawn back to the country of their birth by an overwhelming sense of duty and filial piety to help run a university that my grandfather had founded. When they would come back to visit their children at Christmas they would tell us that they couldn’t wait to get back to their own house in Virginia, the clean air, and us, of course. Every year they would declare that they would stay in Korea for just one more year. We believed them for the first few years, but these conversations were repeated every Christmas for more than a decade.

My mother finally returned to America when she was diagnosed with primary amyloidosis and was given 18 months to live. My sister found a clinical trial at Memorial Sloan Kettering, and convinced her to come for treatment. After multiple rounds of punishing chemotherapy it became clear that the treatment would kill her faster than her disease. My mother was kicked out of the clinical trial. To our utter dismay, as soon as she could manage to drag herself to the airport, she returned to Korea.

That summer my family and I went to Korea for a month. We were terrified that we would lose our mother at any minute and we wanted to make the most of the time we had left. We acted upon the premise that this summer might be our last one together…We took a long and grueling trip to the countryside to visit our maternal family’s burial grounds, assuming that it would be the last time my mother would ever be able to visit her parents’ and brother’s graves:

My dad showed my brother and me where our own names were engraved on our grandparents’ markers:

My mother recognized someone from my grandfather’s church, who was there tending the graves that day. She took the opportunity to point out to him the spot she had picked, not far from her parents’ graves, where she wanted to be buried.

My mother was spending most of her days in bed, but one day she insisted on taking us to the center of bustling Seoul to buy my daughter a traditional Korean dress. I remember nervously holding my breath as she made her way across busy city streets at a painfully slow crawl, not bothering to look left or right. My daughter has never been one to tolerate itchy clothing, and she was never shy about letting her displeasure be known if we tried to force her into anything that looked remotely uncomfortable. I was so worried that she would complain about having to try on the dress and ruin an experience that meant so much to my mother and had cost her so much energy. I could have wept for joy when she beamed with delight at the sight of herself in the extremely itchy Korean dress my mother bought for her.

I will always cherish the memory of my mother’s smile as she watched my daughter twirl this way and that, admiring herself in the mirror. Later that day when my mother had collapsed in bed, my sister and I dressed my daughter up in the hanbok again. We taught her how to bow in the traditional Korean way so that we could videotape it to show my mother later:

I noticed a change in my mother that summer. She was sick and weak, and yet she somehow seemed more powerful in Korea. One day we were on the campus of  the university when we noticed a young man skulking against a wall smoking a cigarette. She imperiously demanded that he leave the premises and that he take his offending cigarettes with him. He did so, repeatedly bowing apologetically as he hurried to obey my mother’s orders. Speeding cars hurtling along the streets of Seoul would come to a screeching halt as she would step into the street, staring straight ahead. Like Moses parting the Red Sea, she would hold up her wrinkled hand, commanding the drivers to stop for the several centuries it would take her to shuffle across the street. She knew all the best restaurants and their proprietors. She knew the best stalls at the marketplace and would chat amiably with the women who sat on their haunches serving up whatever mysterious roots or vegetables they were selling that day. One afternoon she called to tell me that she had picked out a bracelet for my daughter and that she wanted me to come with her to the jewelry shop across the street from her apartment. I watched awe-struck as she bargained with a woman, who helplessly caved in the face of her calm insistence that the price she would pay for the bracelet would be a ludicrously tiny fraction of the price listed on the tag. She was comfortable. She was home.

We didn’t know it at the time, but the chemotherapy that almost killed my mother, saved her life in the end. She is still in remission. About six years ago, my parents finally returned to their house in Virginia. The first months were terrible. My parents happened to arrive in the middle of a particularly harsh winter. The long flight had exhausted my mother, and it was taking much longer than usual for her to recover from jet lag. She knew she would never be able to make the arduous journey across the ocean again, and she was profoundly sad to have left behind her life in Korea forever.

“But mom,” I said to her, “Remember you once told me you felt more like yourself here in America?”

“That was before…I’ve been away from here for too long,” she replied sadly, “It’s not the same.”

That spring my mother desperately waited for the cherry blossoms to bloom on the tree in her yard. Cherry trees were blooming all around DC and in my parents’ neighborhood, but the tight buds on the tree in their own yard stubbornly refused to open. My sister and I anxiously conferred with each other about the status of those blooms every day. My mother’s very survival seemed to depend on that tree finally coming back to life again. As I wrote in my Cherry Blossoms post a few years ago, if my sister and I could have opened each blossom by hand, I swear we would have. Of course the tree eventually did break into bloom. It was the most riotously joyful display I’d ever seen on any tree anywhere. With their appearance, my mother’s spirits began to recover.

The cherry trees are blooming again now…I’ve always loved cherry blossoms, but they mean so much more to me now. Even after the bitterest of winters, they faithfully return every year, blessing us with their impossible, miraculous, ravishing blossoms.

My dad is turning 80 this year. For his birthday, my sister told him she would take him anywhere in the world he wanted to go. He’s a history buff, and has never been to Europe. We assumed he would want to go to a place like Rome or London. He wants to go back to Korea. In a few weeks I will go with my sister and parents back to a place they never thought they would see again. I think we will go back to visit the graves of our grandparents. We will leave Seoul to go to the country to visit my father’s surviving brothers. I imagine it will be for the last time, but who knows?

Life can be so precarious, so unpredictable, and sometimes…so wonderful.

The Tidal Basin…or: L’enfer c’est les autres

The cherry blossoms hadn’t quite popped yet, but the Cherry Blossom Festival was in full swing this weekend.

After lunch, we decided to go paddle-boating in the Tidal Basin.

Two people had to peddle in our four person boat. My three kids argued over who would get to peddle as if they were vying for seats on the U.S. Olympic rowing team. The man who was helping us into the boat solved the problem by suggesting that we return to the dock halfway through to switch positions.

“Remember! You’re not allowed to switch positions in the middle of the water,” he warned, “When you’re ready to switch, you have to come back here and we’ll help you do it.”

The boys took the first shift:

while my daughter and I relaxed:

Halfway through the hour, we returned to the dock so that my daughter could have a turn. My oldest son graciously gave up his coveted spot to switch positions with her…

…and immediately transformed into a crazed martinet. “FASTER! Peddle faster, you maggots!” he shouted gleefully.

His siblings bore his strident orders with good humor at first, but the relentless nature of his hectoring soon began to pall. Undeterred by my dirty looks and increasingly forceful requests that he put a sock in it, he kept goading his younger siblings. We were like the characters in Sartre’s Huis Clos, who eventually come to realize that they are in hell, and that their punishment is being trapped for eternity with each other.

To distract the kids, I suggested that we go investigate some white rocks I could see in the distance. I didn’t recognize them and wanted to get a closer look.

The two kids got the boat fairly close to the rocks, but not close enough for me to make out what they were.

“I still can’t see what they are. Can you get a little closer?” I asked.

My conscientious eleven year old, our family’s own Jiminy Cricket, advised me against this unwise course of action. “It will take us too long to get back to the dock if we get any closer to the rock.”

“But I really want to see what they are. How about you get us just a little closer?”

Meanwhile, my eldest took this as a signal to renew his taunts.

“CLOSER! Get CLOSER! Peddle harder, you maggots! I want to see bubbles in our wake!!!”

Against his own better judgment, Jiminy Cricket steered us close enough to the rocks so that I could see at last that it was the new(ish) Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial:

“OK, let’s head back now!” I said, sneaking a peek at the time.

“How much time do we have left to get back to the dock? NO! Don’t tell me, it will just stress me out. OK, go ahead and tell me.”

“Ummm, well, we have about ten minutes.”

Now Jiminy Cricket was pissed. He started scolding both of us.

“You HAD to see the rock! And NOW we’re going to be late getting back to the dock. Don’t blame me if they make us pay more for the boat! I TOLD you it would take too long, but NO, you HAD to get closer.”

“Don’t stress out about it! If we have to pay extra, we’ll just pay extra. It’s not a big deal,” I tried to reassure him.

All the while, his brother provided a steady dose of maddening counterpoint: “Is that the best you can do? We’re not even moving! Come ON! Peddle for all your worth, Maggots!”

Jiminy Cricket lost it: “YOU peddle then. I’m not going to peddle anymore!”

“I’d be glad to peddle, but we’re not allowed to switch.” (For some reason, now my eldest son switched to a velvety, smarmy English accent dripping with evil).

For dramatic effect my second son stopped peddling, even though I know it was killing him not to be making any progress back toward the dock.

“Well somebody has to peddle…,” I ventured, as the boat came to a standstill.

At that point we realized the youngest was not feeling well.

“I think I might throw up,” she moaned.

“Just stop peddling. STOP PEDDLING! Take your feet OFF the pedals. I can manage myself!” shrieked my poor little Jiminy Cricket as he resumed peddling as fast as he could, “UGH! My back is KILLING me! My legs are killing me!”

“QUIT your whining, you maggot and peddle!” (I whacked the boy to shut him up – to no avail). “Don’t tell me that’s the best you can do. Peddle harder!!!”

The ridiculousness of it got to me and I started shaking with silent laughter.

“You think this is FUNNY?!” asked Jiminy Cricket, apoplectic with rage.

“NO! I’m sorry! It’s not funny at ALL!” I said trying to get a hold of myself, “I’m sorry, I wish I could help you peddle, but….”

Finally, we made it back to the dock, about fifteen minutes past the time we were due. Fortunately, they took pity on us, and let us stagger off into the sunset without any additional payment.

As we walked on, my sweet Jiminy Cricket said, “Thanks so much for taking us on the awesome boat ride, Mommy.” I looked at him suspiciously to see if he was mocking me, but he continued with earnest sincerity, “It was so much fun!” (That one’s a keeper, I’m telling you)!

The three siblings reconciled…

and we headed back to meet up with my sister for our ride back to Arlington.