Those of us who sat at the foot of my grandmother’s bed in the final moments of her life said all the things that could be said. But for family who were far away, messages of love, farewells, and pleas for absolution were relayed through mobile phones pressed against her ear, or text messages read aloud.
My cousin texted me her final message to halmuhnee. She wanted to let her know that she was sorry that she never learned Korean well enough to speak with her.
This is a poignant sorrow that many of us sons and daughters of immigrants know all too well—a longing sort of regret. Thoughts and expressions are formulated in the brain in perfect English sentences; they make their way through a labyrinth of busted synaptic connections, finally arriving at the mouth as a garbled mess, and then aborted in favor of the few Korean phrases we do know well:
Sarang-haeyo (I love you).
Jal-jahyo (Sleep well).
Suul-puhyo (I’m sad).
Gohma-wuhyo (Thank you).
Meahn-haeyo (I’m sorry).
Sarang-haeyo (I love you).
Again and again, in the futile search for some other Korean word or phrase that might rise to meet the moment.
Sarang-haeyo! Sarang-haeyo! Meahn-haeyo! Jal-jahyo! Halmuhnee, Sarang-haeyo!
The few words at my disposal, as they have all my life, failed to say all the things I wanted to say.
My grandmother, Kim In Tae, died on December 25, 2017 after suffering an unexpected and devastating stroke two days earlier. She was 90 years old.
We told everyone who needed to know. The word spread across California, to family on the East Coast in New York and Virginia, then across the Pacific Ocean to our relatives in Seoul and Seosan. But the reaction I’ll remember most is when we broke the news to our longtime housecleaner, Maria. When she came into the house, I told her that halmuhnee had passed. “Sick?” she asked, hoping that she had somehow misunderstood. “No, Maria. Muerto.”
Her eyes immediately welled up with tears. It’s as if she had been holding her breath for the past 15 years, dreading the inevitable moment when she would be invited into a house without halmuhnee there to welcome her with a hug and a cup of tea.
There is an indescribable magic in this. My grandmother spoke Korean and no English. Maria spoke Spanish and no English. She came twice a month for 15 years to clean the house and in all that time, halmuhnee spoke to her only in Korean—No need to clean the living room today. Can we cancel the next cleaning? You did a nice job today. Your son is very handsome.
Maria understood none of this language, and yet understood its meaning. And over time, all those cups of tea, pats on the back, shared smiles, and cleaned mirrors became a language of care. Somehow, they saw into each other. Halmuhnee loved Maria, and Maria loved halmuhnee, an impossible relationship.
“Tu abuela era una señora especial,” said Maria, as she wiped away her tears.
Love is a language. I know this because I loved my grandmother and she loved me. And we both knew it deep in our bones, despite the fact that we rarely made use of words to express it. Instead, it was the unspoken ways of speaking that bound us.
Halmuhnee changed my diapers. She made me American food when I was embarrassed by Korean food, and made me Korean food when I finally came to my senses. She did my laundry and folded my clothes. She hugged me and held my hands. Rain or shine, she would stand outside to wave goodbye as I drove away. A week before her stroke, she gave me $50 to buy me a pair of jeans.
I bought her In n’ Out cheeseburgers. I drove her to church and walked her over to where all her friends were sitting. This way, they could see me and heap praises on her for her treasured grandson. I hugged her and held her hands. I kept my vow to not touch alcohol until I was 21 because she had two alcoholic sons, one of whom had succumbed to the disease. She told me often that I was the son she had always prayed for, embodied proof that God’s faithfulness was unfailing and true. I bought her flowers for every birthday and Mother’s Day.
Words are luxuries in a loving relationship, not essentials. In the absence of words, the small and big gestures of care take on a deeper hue, not so different from the heightened senses experienced by the blind and deaf. Every fruit peeled, every hug, all the laundry folded and car rides given—these everyday gestures were what we relied upon to say the sentiments contained in the language of ‘I love you.’
And they were enough.
Words do have their uses, of course. I started this blog in the hopes that by learning more about my family history, I could locate myself within a broader context that has shaped my identity and my voice. Over the course of the past two months, I approached this by conducting a series of hour-long interviews with my grandmother. Thankfully—and miraculously—we completed the interviews only four days before she had her stroke.
Six interviews are wholly inadequate to capture the fullness of a person’s life. But the interviews and the timing of her death were enough to make me feel as if I had been gifted her story. Now that her body is gone I find it somewhat ironic that words, which failed to mediate our relationship in life, are all I have left to recompose her in death.
In light of this sad turn of events, my young blog has already arrived at a crossroads. The original goal of discovering my voice by tracing family history now feels somewhat self-serving. But when I think more carefully about the nature of stories, perhaps I wasn’t so far off the mark after all.
My grandmother lived a rich and purpose-filled life that spanned nine decades and two continents. She gave life to five children who had children of their own. She lived to be a great-grandmother. The arc of her story served as an irrigation pipe allowing other stories to sprout and to flourish in its wake. When I think about it this way, the stories I had planned to tell here were her final gifts to me. By receiving her story these past two months, I learned that so much of her voice is in my own.
The choice, then, between finding my voice and honoring her story is a false one.
They are one in the same.
Halmuhnee, just before you closed your eyes for good, you opened them. I know it was because you wanted to see us all one last time. We said our goodbyes, final messages we wanted to leave you with. I couldn’t get the right words out through the tears, so I’ll whisper them to you here.
I have your story now and I’ll take care of it. I have your story now and I’ll tell it well. So rest well.