I see death in three flavors, like an inevitable Neapolitan ice cream: someone close and loved, someone estranged or complicated, and someone distant. This is a story about someone distant.
I met him once, almost exactly eight years ago. I had taken a leave of absence from my sophomore spring in college, spending that time traveling in South Korea and then Egypt. While in Korea, I met much of my extended family for the first time: they mostly stayed on that side of Pacific while I stayed on mine.
Unfortunately, my parents did not teach me the mother tongue, or perhaps I found it disagreeable and refused to practice. Either way, I enjoyed the company of English-speaking familial chaperones throughout my month-long visit. Sometimes a cousin, a close family friend, or my own father for a stretch of time.
On Valentine’s Day, 2009, I enjoyed a lunch with much of my mother’s side of the family. According to my journal from that day, “Grandmothers in Korea are a different breed of woman.” That’s all I wrote about the encounter, the only time I ever met my maternal grandfather.
I don’t remember much about the day. I know that my mother’s sister served as my chaperone for this section of the visit, her limited English approximating a translator. I recall that meeting my grandmother focused the meal: she had another stroke a few years prior with all of the associated mobility and speech impairments. My parents thought this would represent my first and final meeting with her. That might still be true.
I cannot describe his face to you. I can describe my only memory of him.
After the meal, we sat around the low table with all the small plates and dishes characteristic of Korean cuisine. Cousins, aunts, uncles, grandmother, and grandfather, all of whom I had just met for the first time. My grandparents sat close to me, across the table and a bit diagonal to the left. I don’t think they spoke much. I remember she smiled warmly at me, and often.
The aunts and uncles began to stir, conscious of their young children at the table. We called the meal adjourned and roused ourselves from the floor. I remember this distinctly: my grandfather quietly standing up and squaring himself behind my grandmother, with her small round face and big poofy purple down jacket. He squatted down, placed the crook of his elbows under her armpits, and gently pulled her to standing. No verbal countdown, no groans, just a man helping his partner off the ground.
Outside, the extended family packed themselves into compact sedans while we said goodbyes. I focused my attention on her, my grandmother, taking a few photos for my parents’ sake. I don’t think I have one of him, my grandfather.
He died last Sunday, eight years and two weeks after that meal. In some ways, I’m quite glad for him. My grandmother received the diagnosis of metastatic pancreatic cancer a handful of years ago and his own health had been declining. Of course, I don’t know much beyond what my mother tells me and that brief encounter a lifetime ago, but I like to think that she will handle his passing much better than he would have handled hers.
Old single men don’t last very long. Old single women persist. And there is, after all, something different about those Korean grandmothers.
Reading of the above:
Long Form Sundays
- On social weekends (or the start of Step Countdown)
- On a minor concussion
- On relaxing for long-term gains (or the perspective of competition)