4am. Three missed calls: one from Mom and two from my sister. I knew she had passed.
My poor mom landed one and a half hour too late. She heard the news from her brother before even getting through Customs. She broke down in the sea of strangers waiting to enter Seoul. She had jumped on the earliest flight from San Francisco to head home to see her dying mother. Grandma didn’t wait.
My grandma had always said she was going to die on a “춥지도, 덥지도 않은 보름날”– full-moon day, on a day not too cold, not too hot. Summers and Winters were “safe” seasons for her. I remember growing up with every full moon day of the month being marked on the calendar with Grandma’s big red circle. She was a perfectionist, a planner, a hopeless romantic. May 3rd, the day she passed, was perfect just as she had prophesied – it was a full-moon day (lunar calendar date was March 15th) and the weather was perfect. Not too cold, not too hot. A beautiful spring day. She had orchestrated every detail. How did she do it?
By 7am I was on my way to the airport to join my mom. My sister was also on her way to Seoul from Baltimore. She was devastated.
My sister and I were both raised by our grandparents for over 10 years in Korea until we moved to the States. After the divorce, my mom worked. A lot. Days and nights. The three of us lived with our grandparents and they raised us with love, warmth, and discipline. I was taught to live a life of love, integrity, respect, humility, and courage. The courage to be different (as a child of a divorced single mom in a conservative society, I was already marked as being “different”), speak up, demand respect, and do the right thing.
My grandma had big dreams for me – she wanted me to be like “힐러리” — Hilary Clinton (I always preferred the presidency over being the first lady, but why sweat the details). I can still hear her voice telling me to marry the best man in the world and be happy. She just wanted me to be happy (ignore the marriage part, ahem).
My grandma was one of a kind. She was a charismatic woman with a strong personality. Also a hopeless romantic. Hopelessly in love with my grandpa even through her last days when she suffered from Alzheimer’s. A few weeks before she passed away, my uncle asked her:
Uncle: “엄마, 다시태어나면 누구랑 결혼하고 싶어?” “Mom, in your next life, whom would you want to marry?”
Grandma: “니네 아부지” “Your father.”
Uncle: “아니 진짜?! 왜?” “Really?! Why?” (Grandma complained about her marriage on a daily basis when she wasn’t ill with Alzheimer’s)
Grandma: “사랑하니까” (“Because I love him.”)
When I asked my grandpa about how they met, he said it was like a fairytale. For my grandma, it was a classic love-at-first-sight. A rich South-Korean girl from an elite family meets a North-Korean anti-Imperialist activist living richly only in the pursuit of his passion. A fairytale love story. No wonder she wanted me to marry.
On this trip, I learned so much about my family’s history I had long neglected. I learned that my grandpa was the first person to shout out “대한민국 독립 만세” (“Long live the independent Republic of Korea”) in the streets on August 15th, 1945, the day Korea gained independence from the Japanese colonization. I learned that my grandma had laid her eyes on grandpa long before he even knew, and she made sure, like most things in her life, she had her way. I learned that my great grandfather was the only person who dared to write his name in Korean when asked to sign the registration list at his Japanese school. Looking back at how I’ve learned to understand and face the world, all of this made so much sense.
After I landed in Inchon, I went straight to the hospital where the funeral procedure was taking place. I had no idea what to expect. I had never seen or been a part of a funeral, let alone a Korean one.
When I got to the hospital, it was dark and empty – there was one information desk person, to whom I asked, “where is the funeral building?” It was the weirdest feeling. I stood in front of the funeral wing, staring at the piece of paper posted on the wall that had my grandma’s name written on it, along with her children’s and grand children’s names. I stared at her name for a bit. Everything was happening so quickly. I walked in, and saw rows of white chrysanthemums expressing condolences decorating the entrance way, sent by families and friends. The reality was still setting in but I didn’t have time to process what was happening. I was in this reality that I didn’t control and I was just supposed to play the part I didn’t know how to play. “Fuck” is all I kept muttering as I walked in to find my mom.
And there she was. My mom wearing an all black, traditional Korean dress traditionally worn by the deceased’s daughters. She had told me she wasn’t going to wear that. I could see and feel the pain in every inch of her being. And there she was – my grandma, smiling inside a black wooden picture frame decorated with a black bow and ribbons wrapped around. She hated black. But she valued tradition. I was hurried into a small room to change into the same clothes my mom was wearing. I bowed to my grandma – twice, just like you’re supposed to. A few familiar faces came and hugged me: my uncles, cousins, aunts. They shared their condolences.
Grandma’s children and grand children, including me, stood by the picture frame and welcomed guests who arrived and bowed to Grandma. They bowed to her twice, then bowed to us once. We bowed with them each time to show our gratitude. I lost count on how many times I bowed. People came and went. In Korean culture, when someone dies, the funeral procedure begins immediately. You book a funeral home (often attached to or inside a hospital), move the body to the hospital, let people know the location, and people come. I had no idea things would happen this quickly. And that so many people would show up on a day’s notice. Also, in Korea, people show up to the funeral service for the family, not necessarily for the deceased. I was in awe of this incredible custom, creating a true sense of community and support.
People who had never met my grandma showed up to support my mom, uncles, and cousins. People came, bowed, shared sympathy, ate and drank all night long until the morning, keeping our family company.
We held off the “입관식,” the process during which we put Grandma’s groomed body into the casket, until my sister arrived from Baltimore. My sister had a special place in Grandma’s heart. I would even say she was her favorite grandchild (of 7). My sister had always been so good taking care of her and Grandpa.
Once she arrived, we went downstairs and saw Grandma’s body for the last time. She was so skinny. The last few months was tough for her. She couldn’t eat or drink, and barely spoke. Her eyes were shut closed most of the time. We surrounded her body and prayed, cried, held her, and kissed her goodbye. She was wrapped in clean hemp linens and put in a casket, on top of a bed of fresh flowers. This was a ruthlessly painful event for everyone.
The next day we traveled about an hour to cremate Grandma’s body. We watched on the opposite side of the glass window Grandma’s casket enter the furnace. Again, a fucking ruthless process to witness. We hugged each other tightly and cried as our grandma’s body left us for good. We were escorted to a room to wait. In the room, we shared our memories of Grandma. We laughed, we cried, and we laughed some more. I felt the process of healing beginning.
Once the cremation process was over, we were called back downstairs. Through the same window, we saw the furnace door open. The area where her casket laid revealed only bones and ashes. The remains were then carried over to another station, where we watched the person remove metal pieces that held together Grandma’s broken pelvis. Her remains were then turned to ashes and put inside the urn. The entire process was shockingly transparent and frank. No euphemism of any kind here. Everything felt so matter-of-fact and perfunctory. But in the strangest way, I could see how this gives closure. Forcing all of us to be completely in tune with the reality, the reality of our permanent loss and meaninglessness of the physical remains.
We went home that day with Grandma’s ashes in the urn. We put her on top of our family heirloom chest, along with her photo. I felt comforted by the fact that she was finally home – she never liked the “home” she was at for the past 3 years. She wanted to be with her family, at her real home. She was home now. At least for a couple of days. It was also my first time being back home in 2 years. I was overcome with a feeling of familiarity and memories of Grandma preparing my favorite dishes during my visits from the States.
She left so many marks in that tiny little apartment. I could still smell her, hear her, and see her move around. She was a collector of things, but also a frequent purger. She didn’t have a lot of stuff. But she was everywhere.
On Thursday we carried Grandma to Il-Juk, where her mother’s and younger sister’s urns are located. It was another beautiful day. Flowers were blooming and the sun was shining. Grandma is such a perfectionist. We brought a 생크림 cake, Grandma’s favorite, and a basket of flowers. We placed her urn inside the family pagoda, by her mother’s. We prayed, we bowed, we said our goodbyes. It was peaceful. We all left feeling a little bit more at ease. Now she is in a better place, by her mom, truly resting in peace. I had never really internalized the phrase, “rest in peace,” until that moment – I think I get it now. I understand what it means to wish someone peace and know when they are indeed, resting in peace.
This was by far the shortest trip I’ve taken to the motherland, but the most meaningful one. I am terrified just thinking about the decision I almost made to not attend the funeral. I now realize the criticality of allowing oneself time to grieve, with people you love who understand your pain. Had I not been with my family, I would have never taken the time to grieve nor begun the healing process. Going through the entire process with my family gave me the sense of closure and clarity I needed to start finding peace.
Losing someone I love dearly was, and is, as difficult as I had imagined it would be. And unfortunately, this won’t be my last time. But I am comforted by the fact that I won’t be in it alone.
My grandma was one of a kind. And I intend to live to be a kind of my own, with her spirit always within me.