I wrote the first post for this blog just four months ago on June second, and on October fifth, my mother passed away. Her illness and rapid decline sent us all into a kind of tailspin. She’s always been strong, both in constitution and in spirit; she worked ceaselessly and never seemed to tire or burn out. She was a force to be reckoned with, a formidable foe. But she was also a champion to and for so many. To watch her mind and body slowly deteriorate over these past few months was heartbreaking and disorienting. When I think of her now, it’s still hard for me to reconcile the woman that she was toward the end with the woman I’ve known all of my life; they remain, in some ways, two separate people. I keep waiting to see my mother—the real one—walk around the corner. And I have to keep reminding myself that the unfathomable present is our new reality. For you, as much as for myself, I’ve tried to keep track of this process, which has proven to be the most exhausting, the most difficult and the strangest thing I’ve experienced yet.
Monday, October 7
We arrived around 7:30 tonight and were picked up by two people from my parents’ church. We understood that my dad, as the widower, had certain funerary obligations to perform. As we drove from Seoul to Suwon, I was struck, as I always am, by the city. Like most big Asian cities, it’s a sleek and shiny thing to behold. Something always rises up in me to meet this place, but this time I felt, acutely, that my link to this place, to a part of myself, had been fractured. Straddling two cultures has never been a simple or easy thing; it means never fully belonging in one place or the other. Now, it seems, I belong even less to this place where my mother was born and where she died.
I assumed that we would go straight to my parents’ house, but one of the men informed me that we were headed to the mourning center* instead; everyone was waiting for us there. I kind of knew what to expect, but unless you’ve experienced it, there’s no way to really be prepared. We were already exhausted from the trip and way underdressed, but since it’s not our “dominant” culture, they made a lot of exceptions for us throughout this process. We arrived, and two of our friends—my parents always joke that they are their adopted daughters—came out to greet us and bring us to our father. Because we arrived late on Monday night, most of the people had gone home and we weren’t expected to stay long. We said our hellos to the people who remained (some of whom I knew, most of whom I didn’t) and we left shortly thereafter to spend some time alone.
*The mourning centers vary in size. This one was big enough for two different families. They are large buildings, often attached to hospitals and hospices. Each family’s space consists of a receiving area, a large-ish dining area and another room—I’m not sure what it’s called, but my sister named it the "sad room"—where people pay their respects to the person who has passed away and the family. The body is never put on display. Instead, there’s a picture of the loved one and large flower arrangements. As people enter the room, they take off their shoes, select a flower out of the bucket and place it on the table in front of the photograph. The rituals, I assume, vary according to family preference, religion, etc. The family who occupied the front space was Buddhist, while, of course, my parents are Christian. People who visited us mostly prayed, though some sang as well and others stood quietly. And then, of course, the bowing commenced. I’ve never bowed so much in my life. Once we’d bowed, accepted condolences and offered our words of gratitude, we would invite them stay awhile and eat. In Korea, there are two things that people do at every major life event—they eat and they bring envelopes full of money, partially to ease the burden of feeding so many people. This mourning process begins immediately after the person passes away and it lasts for three days. Traditionally, the family remains in the building for the entirety of the three days so as not to miss receiving someone coming to pay their respects.
Tuesday, October 8
I woke up with a feeling of dread. Because today was the third and final day that we would spend at the mourning center, I knew that it was also the day that we would view my mother’s body. Our appointment (you have appointments for EVERYTHING in Korea and they are promptly kept—none of that waiting around business that we do in the U.S.) was at 3pm. We arrived at the mourning center around 9:30 shortly before the 10am service (they held services in the “sad room" twice a day at 10 am and 7pm) and began receiving people—bowing, accepting condolences, offering gratitude, inviting people to eat.* Over the course of those three days, I think upwards of 700 people passed through those doors, some came every day, some stayed throughout the day to help as needed or to simply be present.
*There were people who arrived before us every day and left after us each evening. They prepared food, cleaned up, kept the guest books, counted the money and did anything and everything else that needed to be done. These people were my parents’ friends and church members who took time off from their jobs and worked tirelessly so that we would have little to do or worry about. If you’ve never seen such love and generosity in action, it’s an amazing thing to bear witness to.
As the day wore on, we began to joke that we needed new phrases to say. The old ones already felt chewed up and stale on my tongue. “What else can I say?” I asked my sister and our friend. My comprehension is pretty good, but my speaking ability, not so much. They began throwing out random phrases that sounded good but meant ridiculous things: “They don’t expect you to know Korean anyway, so it doesn’t matter what you say. How about…juchajang?” (Juchajang is the phrase for “parking garage.”) It was one of those moments that probably felt funnier than it was because of the circumstances, but it became a running joke. There were times when I had to stifle the laughter that started to bubble up as I shook someone’s hand or bowed yet again and offered those old phrases while saying to myself, with all the solemnity of the moment, “juchajang.” It was, indeed, a carnival of grief—and we were the sideshow, somehow always a little too westernized in our enactment of these rituals: we chose not to remain in the “sad room” exclusively for the duration of the three days; we laughed too much; we deviated from the customs in small ways that marked our otherness, that signaled our half-belonging. As one woman who has known my parents for several years gripped my sister and began wailing and pounding my sister’s back, I stood by awkwardly. I felt like a character in an Amy Tan novel and, again, I had to hold back my laughter. It’s not that I found her grief funny, exactly, but she seemed more a caricature to me than a real person. It wasn’t a moment of shared grieving, but a display meant to signal her status as someone who knew my parents well-ish and therefore felt my mother’s death more acutely. It’s not that I doubt her affection for my mother, but it just felt excessive and meant to create a kind of spectacle. Whoa.I’m glad these displays were limited.
When 3pm arrived, I felt completely numb and detached. The director of the hospital escorted us back to the room where they had prepared my mother’s body. He told us that he had taken care of her himself rather than having an attendant perform the job and explained that they had washed her body and wrapped her tightly in a shroud from the neck down. There were others in the building at that time who had been close to my parents and wanted to come back with us. I wanted to say no. I was angry that they couldn’t give us these last moments alone. They’d been there when she passed. They’d had time to see her go and to love her, but I couldn’t say no. My mother’s life stood before me—she’d given her whole self to these people and to others like them. Whatever anger or bitterness I felt, to be ungracious now would be to spit in the face of all of that. So I asked them to give us a few minutes alone before they entered and they complied.
I felt sick and terrified. I wasn’t sure what condition she’d be in, but she looked peaceful, as if she were only asleep. The day’s numbness slipped away, and I felt myself beginning to come undone. I wanted to scream and throw things; I wanted to hurl myself on her body like those Sicilian women I mentioned in my very first post. Instead, I wept silently as I touched her one last time and tried to imagine what my life would look like without her in it. The director began washing her face and finished the shrouding process by wrapping her head with care. I watched as they lifted her body into the box that would carry her body to the crematorium. I wanted to stop them. I wanted more time. But I realized that I would never be ready, not in five minutes or two hours or three days. I wrote her name on the box after they closed it, and then they wrapped it tightly with a long strip of white cloth, creating handholds for the pallbearers to use the following day. Though the rest of this carnival of grief had offered me little comfort, this moment of such careful and elaborate ritual, of such gentle caretaking of her body filled me with such gratitude for this strange and foreign process.
We returned to our duty stations and continued to meet people throughout the day. The transitions were jarring and exhausting. My mother’s family came and spent time with us later in the day and stayed until we left at 10pm. Grand aunts and uncles, cousins and others whose relationships to us were tangled and difficult to decipher. “Isanghe,” they murmured to us, “how strange.” Women in my mother’s family live long lives. How strange that she will be outlived by her own mother who is over 80 (though she is not well now and has some dementia) and nearly all of her maternal aunts. It didn’t take long for them to begin the typical Korean prodding; they wanted to know why I’m not married, whether or not I have a special “man friend,” and they urged me to marry quickly. It went something like this: “We’re so sorry for your mother. We loved her; she was a good woman. Such a shame you’re not married! We’re going to pray for you to find a husband quickly. Eat. Eat more. EAT! You need to eat. Don’t get fat, though, or you won’t be able to find a good husband. Ah, you remind me of your mother; you have her smile. Such a pretty girl…why aren’t you married?” Welcome to the emotional carousel at the carnival of grief.
As we drove home that night, my brother and sister were joking about the various things they’d had to cover over to be respectful and appropriate. My sister wore her hair down to conceal the shaved sides of her head. My brother wore long sleeves despite the heat to cover his tattoos. “Well," I said smugly, "I didn’t have to cover over anything…except my whole life, of course.” We all began laughing. My dad laughed the hardest. I think my mom would have found it funny as well. If she were here, she would have been grateful, I think. She would have felt half-justified and half-guilty, but grateful that we complied to save face. I would have been annoyed by all of the dissembling. Maybe we would have sniped at one another, because that’s what we did in these moments. But for tonight, we did those things out of love. And tonight, we laughed.