A Death in the Family
Around 6:00 in the morning yesterday, my wife's father died in the South Korean city of Daegu, his adopted hometown.
We had been expecting this, so it came as no shock. In fact, Sun-Ae and I both happened to wake up at about 3:30 yesterday morning and took that opportunity to talk about the possibility that her father might die this week, for the doctors had told her youngest brother, who had been seeing to his hospital treatment, that we should all be prepared.
The recent weekend that I spent alone in our Seoul apartment (scaring myself with a short horror film on You Tube) was the last weekend that my wife together with our children saw him alive. Sun-Ae went again early last week to see him one final time on her own.
This afternoon, I will take the children to Daegu, and tomorrow, we will attend the burial.
Such is the sadness that we accept when we submit to love and marry into a family.
Over 16 years ago on a train traveling through Germany, I met Sun-Ae in a moment that seemed fated to bring us both together. We fell in love. A year and one half later, on a Christmas Eve in Rome, I proposed . . . and she accepted.
But Sun-Ae being Korean, we still had to ask her father's permission, and I wondered how he would respond. At that time, Korean fathers often said "No."
Sun-Ae therefore, not without some misgivings, called him from Germany to ask his approval. Perhaps because he himself was a sojourner, a North Korean man who had come south to make his way, without connections, here in South Korea, he understood that one sometimes has to break with the predictable, the comfortable, the expected . . . and he said "Yes."
I met him in August 1995, along with the rest of Sun-Ae's family, and they have always been completely accepting of me . . . despite my eccentricities. I still cannot speak Korean, much to my chagrin, but they put up with me anyway.
When I first got to know Sun-Ae's father, I had come to Korea to teach English while waiting on approval concerning a postdoctoral grant for study in Australia, and he would meet us, periodically, in downtown Daegu, and treat us to lunch in our poverty. I learned to love kimchi at those lunches. Well, I suppose that I loved it the first time that I ate it.
During the Korean festival of Chuseok that fall of 1995, we went to the countryside gravesite where lay buried Sun-Ae's mother, who had died tragically in an automobile accident a couple of years before I met Sun-Ae. On the way back to Daegu, the streets were so thick with traffic that Sun-Ae's father got out of the car and walked downhill toward Daegu. I joined him, and I recall that he smiled. We couldn't communicate with words, but that smile meant a lot, for it seemed to me to say that he accepted me. Along the walk down, he stopped and bought for himself and me a couple of packets of juice, and we drank them as we descended. Then, the traffic thinned out, Sun-Ae's brother honked, and we climbed back into the car, which had finally caught up with us.
Some months later, in May 1996, Sun-Ae and I -- along with a 'conception' of Sa-Rah -- left for Australia, where I did my postdoc on Manichaeism. Sa-Rah was born there, in Armidale. Two and a half years later, we left for Jerusalem -- accompanied by an 'idea' of En-Uk, who was born in a Palestinian hospital in East Jerusalem . . . because it was less expensive, and we were still poor.
In late 1999, with En-Uk only seven months old, we returned to Korea as economic refugees, my career having failed to take off. When we arrived at the Daegu Airport, Sun-Ae's family was waiting, accepting us once again. And there stood her father, smiling and bending down to pick up Sa-Rah.
Except that she didn't know this 'stranger' and was about to detour around his outstretched arms and walk on by when I called out, "Sa-Rah! He's your grandfather!"
Sa-Rah stopped on a dime, looked up, saw the family resemblance -- her mother takes after her grandfather -- and allowed herself to be picked up by a grandfather who already loved her without even ever having seen her before.
En-Uk, of course -- being only seven months old -- had no hesitations at all.
The irony -- though life grows filled with such ironies if one lives long enough -- is that Sun-Ae's father died yesterday on December 7th, Sa-Rah's birthday. We woke Sa-Rah and En-Uk around 7:00 but didn't immediately tell them the sad news, for we wanted Sa-Rah to first enjoy her birthday cake, which Sun-Ae had started making at around 5:00 in the morning, about an hour before her brother's phone call.
After the candles, the cake, and the birthday wishes, we said that we had something serious to tell them. Sa-Rah caught on fairly quickly . . . but not En-Uk.
Sun-Ae said to them, "You won't be able to see your grandfather again."
En-Uk, only 9 years old, asked, "Why?"
"Because," explained Sun-Ae, "he died."
En-Uk accepted that. He's still a bit young to mourn, but he understood. Sa-Rah seemed saddened by the news, and she accepted that we'd have to put off any real birthday celebration.
At 8:30, we left the apartment, with Sun-Ae heading for Daegu but the kids and I heading for church. We stayed only for the early services -- Sunday school for the children, Bible study for me -- then left after explaining to the minister our reason for leaving early.
We are, as I mentioned above, heading for Daegu this afternoon, when school lets out, and I won't be blogging again until the day after tomorrow.
Remember Mr. Hwang's family in your thoughts or prayers.