My father was the minister of a Korean congregation in Northern Virginia for many years. The church had members who had lived in the U.S. for a long time, but also a fair number of newly-arrived immigrants as well. An important and necessary part of my father’s ministry was to help people with very limited English skills navigate the labyrinth of perplexing institutions they faced as newcomers to America. My mother with her street smarts and sparkling charisma and my father with his legal training and gravitas made a crack ministerial team. Never was the need for this kind of mediation and assistance made more painfully clear than when an older woman showed up at church one Sunday morning wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with: “Thank God, I’m stoned.”
The phone rang at all hours of the night and day. People would call my parents for help when they had to go to court or to the hospital, or when they needed help communicating with their children’s teachers or with their landlords…Many a time, my parents would be roused out of bed by a late night phone call. They would get dressed and disappear for hours on their mysterious missions of mercy. One night they left to try to negotiate with a landlord, who was tossing out all of a congregant’s belongings onto the sidewalk. They managed to work out some sort of solution, but my mother returned with a broken rib – an injury she sustained when she tripped and fell over in the dark. Another late night mission took them to the Emergency Room, where my mother saved a woman’s life by tapping into her inner drama queen.
One day a frantic young woman called our house. She had been involved in a car accident earlier that week that had killed a Chinese diplomat, and she was understandably distraught. Her boyfriend was so worried about her, that he had taken her to what he thought was the local hospital. He had, in fact, mistakenly taken her to the now-defunct St. Elizabeths: the psychiatric hospital in Washington D.C. that once housed would-be presidential assassin, John Hinckley Jr. The staff at St. Elizabeths took one look at the weeping, disheveled woman and concluded that she should be admitted and committed. When the poor woman discovered that she was unable to leave of her own volition, she became even more hysterical. The more hysterical she grew, the more convinced the doctors were that she should not be released.
My parents drove to the hospital together. I imagine that my beloved father, a.k.a.: The Easter Island Head, sat impassive and immobile in the woman’s room. My mother, on the other hand, would have leaped into action. Are you imagining that she gathered the poor sobbing woman to her breast? Are you seeing in your mind’s eye how she soothed her with gentle shushing and rhythmic pats to her back?
Ummm, no. This is my mother we’re talking about.
“Pull yourself together!” she scolded as she strode into the woman’s room.
She dragged the woman over to the sink and ordered her to wash her face. She pulled a comb out of her big, shabby purse and made her fix her hair. She dug out her ancient tube of orangey-red lipstick and made the woman put it on.
“Stop crying!” she snapped. If there’s one thing my mother can’t stand, it’s the sound of crying. Nobody likes the sound of crying, but for my mother, the sound is like nails on a chalkboard. It unhinges her a little.
My mother continued with her businesslike ministrations, while my father conferred with the doctors. When my parents left St. Elizabeths, they started calling everyone who had ever darkened the door of the church. They rallied half the Korean population of Northern Virginia to go visit the woman.
“Be cheerful!” my mother coached them sternly over the phone. “Smile! Make her laugh!” she commanded.
Maybe the staff of St. Elizabeths was tired of the never-ending stream of visitors. Maybe they no longer wanted to deal with the formidable, whip-cracking, smiling woman, who seemed to be orchestrating the parade. It didn’t take long. The woman was released soon after.