Hahn Moo-Sook was born into a progressive yet very traditional old Korean family. She had a strict early education, which emphasized propriety and knowledge of the East-Asian classics. Hahn, whose artistic talent was discovered and nurtured from her early childhood, first pursued the career of a painter. An extended illness in her young adult age and her marriage in 1940 to Kim Jin-Heung, a banker from an extremely conservative family, forced her to switch to writing to satisfy her artistic desires. In 1941, she won first prize in a contest sponsored by a leading monthly magazine, Sinsedae, for a novel titled Tu※ngpul tu※nu※n yoin (A Woman with a Lantern). Soon afterwards, Hahn received first prizes in drama competitions with a one-act play, Mau※m (Heart) in 1943 and a four-act play,"So※ri kkot (Frost Flowers)" in 1944. In 1948, she received first prize with another full-length novel, Yoksanu※n hu※ru※nda (And So Flows History), in a competition sponsored by Kukche Sinbo, a daily newspaper. She won the Asia Foundationis Freedom Literature Award for a short story entitled "Kamjo※ngi innu※n simyo※n (Abyss)?(1957) and the Republic of Korea National Literature Award (Grand Prix) for her novel, Mannam (Encounter) (1986). The total literary work of Hahn Moo-Sook, collected in a ten-volume anthology (1992-1993), demonstrates the wide diversity of her literary activities, from novels and short stories to essays, criticism, public lectures, broadcasting, interviews, and travelogues. Her works in translation appear in five volumes, one of which is the much acclaimed Encounter (University of California Press, 1992).
Hahn Moo-Sook is known for her description of human dilemmas resulting from the conflicting worlds of consciousness and conventional reality. Critics have identified Hahn as a perceptive literary mediator, who sought harmony and balance between the contrasting forces, seeing human existence in terms of "dialectic interactions of seemingly binary opposites."Some others have noted how Hahn "accommodates the Western concept of sin within a dialectic binary opposites provided by Korean tradition," often with an "explicit presentation of the complementary nature and interchangeability of sin and sanctity."
One of the most traumatic experiences in Hahnis life was the tragic accident that killed her third child, a promising young medical doctor as well as a concert cellist whom everyone adored. Through this experience she met death in a most personal and intense way. She injured her back shortly after the funeral. Heart-broken, she lay paralyzed physically and mentally for a while. When she finally "came back to life," her literature seemed to show maturity that only such extreme experiences could bring. "Urisai modu※n ko※si (Everything Between Us)"(1971) is a heart-rending story told in a form of letter addressed to her departed son.
Everything Between Us
To the departed spirit of my beloved son Yonggi,
It is the season of grief and self-imprisonment, and I reflect upon a Buddhist saying, "Delusion is none other than enlightenment." Yet still I wander in ignorance and delusion. For endless days and nights, I am in this prison, entangled in the one-hundred-and-eight threads of delusion. I have lost you; I have lost myself. I have nothing but the memory of you, and my sorrow to hold onto.
It is said that agony is a step to Buddhahood. Not being Buddhist myself, I'm not sure whether I understand this. But of this I am sure: I cannot be free from the knowledge that you are gone and from the feeling that I cannot continue life without you.
When they first told me you'd been killed, I was unable to accept the loss of you. the shock was overwhelming. I fainted and for some time I couldn't see. About the time my sight returned, I fell and broke my back. In recovery, I was fastened to a board for over a year.
Now I know truly that I am without you. I'd never realized before what sorrow it is to watch the moon rise, the sun set, the clouds float, and the wind blow. How can the sun still rise and the stars twinkle when you're not here? Everything is absurd to me.
I'm sure that from where you are, you understand my thoughts even before they're verbalized. I know that writing to you is a futile exercise. But it has become a habit for me to reply to your letters. Now, even though there is no one to receive this, still I write. I remember I would write to you even more impatiently when there was no reply from you. So I will continue to write, expressing my affection and anguish for as long as I have life in this world.
I know by heart that last letter you sent to me:
Dear Mother and Father,
Returning from another tiring day of great tension at this American university hospital, I found your letter waiting for me. You letter, full of gloom, stirs my mind. I must learn to accept everything new with a new perspective, and in this sense it is a time of painful adaptation for me. All these things are from the strong attachment and painful love I had.
I am destined to root myself in a country called America, a country which has developed without a poetic song like the Korean popular song, "As I go over the rocky pass by myself, I weep over the memory of my beloved one..." I try to calm myself and see things with a clearer mind, but it only pains me.
Memory lives on the waves,
It does not have home in time...
Paul Valery would have called Rainer Maria Rilke's mind "presence of absence" or "plenteous absence." These words lend me some comfort.
It is now late at night, the moment when I am visited by the scattered thoughts of the past. This kind of confusion haunts me like a growing pain. It seems to me that love is the sweetest when we dream of it, and that it is most painful when we are convinced of it.
Like the moon
The moon grows in this quiet night,
Just as the year rings grow,
Love grows in this lonely heart,
Just as the moon grows.
A similar poem comes to mind:
On a drizzly morning,
I miss the woman
I met in my dream.
Where was it that I saw her?
It was a mystery of the beginning of time
That the cave of skulls, wind and death,
Over a rugged cliff,
which was found beyond,
A country of the unconscious,
A beautiful country,
A narrow country,
made me feel snug and secure.
The woman, full of smiles,
Was just a woman ...
The woman I saw in my dream,
the one who carried my agony and my joy.
I did not know at that time
That this morning
we would have a soft spring rain.
But the woman in my dream-
I will go seeking her
Getting soaked in the rain...
The cry for a new life, death, meeting people, and saying good-bye to them-I agonize over the compelling awareness of the great significance of this profession, one which has been imposed upon me (and which I have chosen for myself) and of the inevitability of our lives. I don't think it is only because I am of a weak and feeble mind. I know that to overcome suffering we only need to rise above it all, to sublimate our humanness. Nothing more is required.
I will grow as much as I can. Regardless of the results, I will be single-minded in my pursuits, and I think that should be my attitude in life. I am becoming used to aloofness. It seems to me that only those who feel and overcome great conflict can be great. My loving Mother and Father, rest easy.
With respect and love from afar. I say this in English, "The deeper and deeper of everything between us.?
Your son Yonggi
Yonggi, my beloved son. I am speechless before this letter of yours. I feel the fountain of love and sorrow in me, like clear water from an inexhaustible spring. As you have said, these things are from strong attachment and painful love. You said that the relationship between us was deeper than ever. Your name, "Yonggi," has filled the heavens and earth since the time I screamed it, fainting away upon hearing the news of your death. Just as the stars center on a certain spot in the heavens, my thoughts center on you, and this season of imprisonment is yours as well as mine.
It was an unimaginable tragedy that you were killed in that accident, but there is the grace that allows my grief and love to be this pure. We use the word "Love" so easily, but how often does love hurt us, not through extraordinary events but by everyday happenings that change things in subtle ways. By the time we are aware of it, there is an unbridgeable abyss between us. It might be true that love is something that grows the fetus of betrayal in it. I deeply appreciate the fact that you sent respect and love to your imperfect parents until the end of your life. I also feel the pain of human love, love that can be at the same time incessantly beautiful and endlessly fearful. The loss of you inflicted me with a never-healing wound, but I am acutely moved by your love for us, so sad but which, free from betrayal, was so spotlessly pure. What a foolish mother I am to realize only now that it is much more painful to love than it is to hate.
We used to say that, "Sunshine and storms are different expressions of one and the same sky. Destiny, be it sweet or bitter, becomes the food of life."
You also used to say that, "No matter how small it may be, you cannot do it without complete commitment." I don't know whether this was your own or something you borrowed from someone else. You also said, "We should give our best in everything. Regardless of how insignificant the task, a person who does it with utmost sincerity is beautiful to me."
Yes, you did your best. This final letter of yours in my hands bears witness to what kind of life you led. It shows vividly a young man who tried his best to overcome many conflicts. I know you wrote this letter over several days; I see different colors of ink on it.
* * * *
At that time, I was waiting to be admitted for a checkup at Holms Hospital, one of the top hospitals in America. The Midwest city, where this hospital is located, is surrounded by forest and its streets are covered with fallen leaves. I was told that the city, built by German immigrants, was modeled after Heidelberg. It was indeed beautiful, embracing a river just like Heidelberg does. But I was to be a complete stranger there, with no sense of direction, since the profession you'd chosen didn't allow you any time to take your mother around -he mother who had only her son on whom to depend. I was waiting for you, my son, standing at the window of a hotel room, looking out at the hospital where you worked. Though I didn't know when you'd come, still I waited for you, as one would wait for a lover.
Perhaps because the houses were built on spacious lots and partially hidden by the colorful leaves of tall trees, the streets looked like a forest; I, the lonely alien, standing at the window was immersed in a traveler's mood. My only source of entertainment was watching fat squirrels, as big as tabby cats scurry busily from branch to branch like circus performers. This leisurely life could not be called anything but boring. But realizing how busy your life was, I even felt guilty for feeling bored.
You were exceedingly busy. You were a resident responsible for the patients of one whole ward at a university hospital. White coats and pants were to be worn only in the hospital, but doctors often went out on the street wearing their uniforms. Yonggi, because you had no time to change, you would come even to the hotel to see your mother in your white gown. The hotel employees, realizing that the young Asian man who came to see a rare Asian-woman guest at the hotel was a doctor at the university hospital, began to be friendly to me. I could see and feel myself how highly the profession you had chosen was regarded in the United States.
One day you came to me in street clothes, and invited me out for dinner. The mother followed her son happily. Once in the car, however, I noticed you got lost in the area. I realized that you were completely unfamiliar with the city.
"I have no time. All I know is the post office, the supermarket, the concert hall and some of the doctors' and musicians' homes. And others drove me to those places, and . . .?
You were very embarrassed for getting lost. After wandering for some time, we stopped in front of a restaurant with a sign board saying Lucky Strike. There were young people with long hair in front of it, looking like beggars, some milling around the windows, some sitting on the sidewalk. Under the dim light, they looked like piles of garbage.
"They must be hippies,"I offered.
"We can look for another place if you don? like it here," you said, unsure of the place.
"I hear hippies are nice and don't hurt others, right? "I asked.
"Who knows if they'll hurt others? People who aren't responsible can do anything. That's why they're unpredictable. And THAT is frightening."
We went in anyway. It was very dark, and we heard a piano being played loudly. The piano player was thin, again had long hair grown way below his ears, and his bare feet loosely carried rubber sandals. I couldn't tell whether it was a man or a woman. The person was rocking back and forth over the keyboard, hammering at it as if trying to destroy it. Somebody else, with glasses that covered most of his face, was shouting and gesturing like a madman. Surrounding them sat other young people, shouting suddenly and then stopping abruptly.
Since it was late, too late for dinner, the place was somewhat empty. But the noise was a bit too much. You frowned. A person so sensitive to sound, it must have been torture for you. But you remained silent.
"Even in a restaurant, they make such noise! "It was I who complained. But you sat without responding.
A waitress who looked more than middle-aged came to our table. You pushed the menu toward me and asked in a husky voice, "What will you have?"
Knowing what you used to be like, I smiled at the thought of you already having become so accustomed to American noise.
You ate your steak quickly, even before I had finished a third of mine, then ate up what I had left.
"You must have been hungry."
"Yes, I had nothing all day."
"Good heavens, health is most important. You should be regular with eating and sleeping." I was shocked.
"Because I was sleepy. Mother, I have no time to sleep. I have to be alert all the time. The Yankees try to give me a hard time. They ask all kinds of difficult questions in front of patients, and even in front of students. One intern is a troublemaker. He tells bad things about me to the director. Well, in a way, it makes me study harder. I'm prepared to defend myself from any attack from any direction. I'm reading as many medical journals as I can."
You raised your voice. "I don't want to be left behind. I am constant in doing my best."
"Why do they hate you?"
"It must be their disposition. Also, that guy is older than me, but I'm the supervisor. He doesn't like it maybe."
Now full, you leaned back in your chair and watched the piano player.
"How about taking it easy?" I suggested.
"You don't understand, Mother. Doctors are here to study. But they?e not students. They're supposed to work as well as study. On top of that, visas for doctors expire in four years. I want to finish everything within that time."
"How come such a hurry?"
"I want to have enough experience as a doctor, and I have to pass the board examinations as soon as possible."
Your eyes suddenly began to shine in the dim light. You had double eyelids, pretty like a young girl's. You then began to speak in a louder and louder voice, as if you were trying to outdo the noise of the hippies. It seemed to you that the American medical system was designed to benefit American doctors only, that foreign doctors didn't have enough time to study and pass the board exams, that the length of stay for foreign doctors was limited to four years, during which period they hardly had any moment for leisure, that if they did not pass their board exams, their experience in America was in danger of being ignored in Korea, and that as their visas neared expiration, most of them found themselves in serious trouble.
"Some doctors go to Canada, then come back to the United States to take the exams, and there are even some who make their American-born child sick, so they can extend their stay here as a guardian ... It's really crazy." You shook your head.
"How about you?"
"Me? My plans are firm." You raised your chin up slightly. "Mother, as far as I'm concerned ..."
Just as you used to as a child, you eagerly explained your situation and your plans to me. The following year, you would be a second-year resident, and the year after that, you would be a fellow, you would pass the state board exams before entering your second year and so on. Parts of what you said with so much conviction were understandable to me; other parts were not. All I had to say was, "Remember the old saying, 'Without sound body, nothing exists.' Take care of your health. Eat well and sleep well . . ."
"Oh, Mother. How can you expect me to accomplish anything if I eat and sleep as much as I want?"
Your everyday life reflected what you said. When you came to see me at the hotel, I noticed how pale you looked. One night you came with your cello.
"Mother, I'll play for you."
In consideration of the guests in the next room, you put the sound damper on before playing. You played Boccherini, Lalo, and your favorite piece, Bach's unaccompanied Cello suites. And you did not forget to play Schumann's Traumerei, a staple of your repertoire. You used to tease me by calling this piece "Mother's Traumerei," because as a person who attended high school in the 1930s, I enjoyed this piece by the German Romantic composer very much.
We spent that autumn together, inseparable. Despite your heavy schedule, you visited me everyday. Sometimes it was at 2:00 in the morning, or at dawn. But each time, you could not stay long enough. Always your pager would call, "Dr. Kim, Dr. Kim."
He told me that some of your American patients had no patience. They complained about their pain constantly, and your pager continued to call, "Dr. Kim, Dr. Kim."
One night when your pager beeped, you said it must be for Uncle Jim. You stood up and silenced your pager.
"Who is Uncle Jim?" I asked.
"He is a black patient suffering from a heart problem. It looks like he won't hang on tonight." To say such a dreadful thing so calmly and professionally... It was another aspect of you I had not known until then.
"Why does he need you?"
"He says that if I give him a shot, it makes him feel better. Mother, should I show you how he acts?"
You waved your arms in the air and flared your nostrils in and out, as if you had a hard time breathing. Your mime was so vivid, I could hear the rough breaths one makes in his last moments.
"Perhaps this is his final night," you said.
The pager started to call again. You moved toward the door. "I'll come back, Mother. I'd better hurry, since it's Uncle Jim's last night. He is a troublesome patient. But I should alleviate his pain as much as I can. That's what the doctor is for- to alleviate the suffering of patients. This is a mission. I want to be a good doctor, truly a good doctor." You looked humbled to acknowledge the limits of medical science.
* * * *
But Uncle Jim didn't die that night. Instead, he sent me a letter of sincere condolence after your death, one where every word seemed to weep for you. You chose to become a cardiologist so that you could help my heart condition. But you are gone leaving me behind.
What is death? Since your departure, I've been pondering this question. Physical death, of course, can be defined as the state in which the heart ceases to function and the cells of the body stop living. Even without the accident, you would have died eventually. Everybody is dying slowly. Living is nothing other than dying. If there is anything among those things God bestowed upon human beings that could be called perfectly fair, it must be death. Even though we may define physical death in this way, what death really means is beyond comprehension. No one can say what it's like to experience death, since no living person has ever died. Even Uncle Jim, who labored at every breath, only suffered "to death," not actually experiencing death itself. Suffering to death is only an aspect of life and not a true experience of dying. Those of us who have faith in life after death must believe in eternal life, consider death as a means to life. But I can't help but think that death is a matter of unpredictable destiny, not a natural step toward the next. As a result of your death, I have become a mother who has lost not only her mind but also herself. Whenever I gaze on the sun setting or whenever I imagine a field in the shadow of the floating clouds above it, I feel sorrow gushing from deep inside. I feel this because I see in these images projections of things that will perish.
In Buddhism it is said, "Life is arising of a piece of floating cloud, Death is perishing of a piece of floating cloud."
It is also said that both life and death are series of accidental events. Seeing that I could not stop grieving over your death, The Reverend Inexhaustible, a Buddhist monk, said to me, "One evening different kinds of birds, finding a big branch on a tree, spent a night together on it. In the morning, they flew away, each in its own direction. That's it. They only came together, then flew away. In Buddhist terms, 'Once met, there must be separation.'"
This means I should forget you. But isn't it human to know the principle of separation and still be unable to forget the one who has gone away? The relationship between you and me was too beautiful, too tenacious, too compelling to let me forget you now. If one can hardly be free from the memory of a beautiful piece of cloud that has just disappeared, how could I let go the memory of my own son who was shaped in my own matrix in my own womb and nourished with my own essence?
When I hear magpies singing in the morning, I expect a letter from you. When I hear the cello being played, I see in my mind's eye your face lost in rapture. When I cook a meal, I want to feed you. A drawn bath, clean underwear, the aroma of brewing coffee, fresh apples - these things I want to offer you. Who can ridicule a grieving one who places the favorite foods of the deceased on his grave?
Whence do we come? What are we? Where are we going? Are these not the ultimate questions in life? Innocent children, not knowing the significance of these questions, pose them to adults, bewildering them to no end.
"Mom, how was I born? Where does a baby come from?"
Mothers get embarrassed by these kinds of questions, but what questions are more important than these presented by children? Whatever the biological truth may be, mothers conceive a baby, or rather fate, at a moment of destiny, and in this way become boundlessly great. An old Korean proverb says, you can bite any one of your ten fingers and you will have the same pain. Likewise, mothers give everything they have to each and every one of their children, yet still have more to give should they have more children.
We have a saying: "Marriage is predestined by heaven," which means that the relationship between man and wife is the result of thousands of previous lives in the circle of birth and rebirth. If this is true, then the relationship between mother and son must be the result of millions and millions of previous lives. If a son rejects this relationship and dies before his mother does, he is most unfilial. But how can a mother blame a son who couldn't help but commit this sin and betray the duties of this relationship?
"Children who bring grief to their parents are said to have been enemies in previous lives. This is their revenge, stabbing their parents in the heart with the sword of unbearable sadness."
A friend of mine told me this in an apparent effort to console me. I can only feel shame at myself for remaining alive, especially thinking that old trees are to decompose so that they may nurture the young. When I hear this kind of consolation, I am taken aback to realize how much we are attached to our sense of self, how much we interpret things in terms of our own position.
I have nobody to blame, but instead lament my fate. I can do nothing now except pray from the bottom of my heart for your eternal rest.
* * * *
Mrs. Chang came to see me. It was raining, and the hem of her white skirt was wet, as were her hair and her shoulders.
"Sorry I'm all wet." She took off her Korean-style socks and dried her feet with a rag brought by Kisun.
"What brings you here in all this rain?"
"Today is my son's birthday, and it reminded me of you," she replied with tears in her eyes.
"You must have been at the military cemetery."
Rather than answering, she brought a hand to her eyes. Then, as if she'd changed her mind, she smiled and said, "I'm sorry. I have no composure at all."
When I saw her red eyes and nose, I felt for her in my heart.
"He used to like cinnamon rice cakes. I know it's useless, but I couldn't help but make some. I left some for him and ate some myself."
I am sure Mrs. Yi who was with us could not make out what was going on, I understood Mrs. Chang fully. Mrs. Chang's son died while serving as a military engineer in the army. Finding a high-voltage electric cable hanging dangerously close to a tent, he tried to cut it down and was electrocuted. He was killed instantly. Upon losing her son, Mrs. Chang became ill for more than a year. Mr. Chang, whose work had kept him outside of Seoul, quit his job to take care of her.
Mrs. Yi did not know Mrs. Chang, but was herself in a similar situation. Her son, an athletic swimmer, was asked by a high school swim club to be its coach during the summer vacation two years ago. He went with them to an island, and drowned on the first day. Like Mrs. Chang's son, he was twenty-four years old. Mrs. Yi did not look fully recovered yet. She wasn't overly thin, but her complexion was coarse and uneven.
I introduced the two women. Absurd as it might sound, I told each of the other's experience, as to spark some sort of comradeship. I don't remember who reached first, but soon, they were grasping hands. "You, too?"
They choked on their tears, but after some time, were able to speak again. Then they began to relate the horrible events they had talked about so many times before.
* * * *
My beloved Yonggi, those grieving the death of child seem to become very talkative. Dr. Yong'won Park, as you know, used to be extremely mindful of his words. But after his eldest son drowned in a river, he talks very much. Is this because the tragedy is so grievous and unforgettable that they can't stop torturing themselves about it?
Our house has become a meeting place for mothers who have gone through like experiences. We spend time together, sometimes simply grumbling, sometimes consoling, sometimes bragging about a deceased child. It's as if once a child is gone, his faults and mistakes are forgotten and only the good and beautiful remain.
* * * *
"I just saw something that was very sad." Mrs. Chang said, having just detailed the merits of her son. She touched the corners of her eyes with the string on her blouse. "It was raining, so I thought I would be alone at the graveyard. To my surprise, I found there to be many people, even in such stormy weather. One was an old woman, maybe in her early sixties, standing in front of a grave and holding an umbrella over it. She didn't seem to mind that she herself was completely wet."
After a brief pause, Mrs. Chang continued, "Someone told me that she comes there whenever it rains and holds an umbrella over her son's grave. He had been her only son, and after he was killed in the Vietnam War, she lost her mind. The caretaker of the cemetery says he is moved to tears whenever he sees her there."
We did not say anything.
Those perfectly arranged white gravestones at the National Military Cemetery in Tongjak-tong, if seen from afar, look like beautiful white flowers. Indeed, they are flowers, blooming from the youth buried there. Mothers, wives, daughters grow these flowers with their tears, and feel pain when the sun is too hot or the wind too strong. But they are in most pain when it rains. It is not just that old woman with the umbrella-We all spend the night sleepless when it rains. It rained last night, like it does today, and it was windy as well. After tossing around, your father said, "Our poor boy."
I replied, having had exactly the same thing in mind, "He must be cold." And I said, "Poor Yonggi, my dearest!" The sky crumbled. I didn't think to bring an umbrella over your grave, but I could not stay in a warm blanket which suddenly felt repulsive.
* * * *
The three of us mothers wiped away our tears, but more continued to run down our faces which had suddenly become old after the loss of our sons.
* * * *
My beloved Yonggi, you remember your great grand-mother who was a good storyteller. The way she used to tell stories about the next world, you could believe she'd been there herself. According to her, the dead are carried on the backs of underworld messengers to the palace of Yama, the god of death. To reach this palace, twelve gates must be passed. Your great-grandmother told us stories about how one soul passed through these twelve gates. Of these stories, the one I remember the most vividly is about the tenth gate.
At the tenth gate was a large plot of flowers, some fully bloomed, some budding, and some still seedlings. Women dressed in white, carrying water buckets and spades, walked among these flowers, tending to them.
The deceased one suggested to the messenger that they rest here for a moment. But the messenger heedlessly moved on. Just as they were about to leave the spot, however, the deceased person noticed a woman weeping beside her water bucket. It made him sad.
"Why is that woman weeping?" he inquired.
"Do you not understand your place as a dead person? Why do you talk so much?" the messenger replied, irritated. But he explained anyway.
"Those women died before they could see their children grow up. The flowers are the children they left behind in the world. The women tend to their children by watering and nursing these flowers. By seeing how these flowers grow, they can know how their children are faring. If a flower thrives, a mother can be assured that her child in the world is growing well; if a flower withers or dies, she knows that some bad has come to him or her. That woman's flower is withering . . ."
Dear Yonggi, I can't be sure if I'm living in this world or in the hither world. These mothers who now shed their tears with me, they seem to me to be those women at the tenth gate. The mother who never fails to miss early morning mass, the mother who prostrates herself a hundred times before Buddha, the mother who maintains her child's room as if the occupant were still alive, the mother who protects her child's grave from the rain with an umbrella . . . Do their children know their anguish? Where are they who bring so much pain to their parents? Your great-grandmother didn't say at which gate these children were.
It is still raining. Kyongnan is playing outside. She is your sister's daughter, the one you wanted so much to see. She is a beautiful girl with eyes clear like a lake.
"Who does she look like?" You showed real interest in your first niece.
"You saw her picture," I reminded you.
"Yes, but she is still young. I can't tell who she looks like with only a picture."
Did you have some premonition of death? Was that why you had such keen interest in this child who shared your roots?
Kyo※ngnan's visit from America has brought some light to our house, which had been enshrouded in a dark cloud since your premature death. She has just started to talk and does many cute things. Sometimes she'll do things that are quite bumbling, and that makes her especially charming.
"How old is Kyo※ngnan?" I ask her.
"How old is Nannan?" she answers. She can't pronounce her own name properly, and can't answer that she is two years old.
"What's your name, Kyo※ngnan?"
"Naaim." She smiles brightly.
Her mistaken reply, made totally out of context with a big smile, makes her even more endearing.
I see you as a child in front of me. You were a healthy and beautiful baby. As long as you were fed, you were content to be by yourself. You were strong, and yes, playful, too. Even before you were a hundred days old, you pushed yourself to the sliding door and proceeded to tear the rice paper to pieces. Oh, Yonggi!
Whenever it was time to visit your grandfather, you were wrapped in a blanket with an attached hood. I can still see your face, your big twinkling eyes peering out from the wrap. I can still feel the warmth of your body in my chest. But where can I see you besides in the painful memories you have left me?
You didn't talk until you were four. But one day, one of your uncles joked, "This boy must be mute. He'd better go to the school for the blind and dumb." During those days, we lived near a school for the sight and hearing impaired, and I think that was what prompted the joke.
You were looking through a picture book at the time, and upon hearing your uncle's suggestion, you abruptly answered back, "I don't want to." Your pronunciation was perfect, which showed me that it hadn't been that you couldn't talk, but that you didn't want to talk. Your uncles were amazed, exclaiming, "Look at this boy. He's talking, isn't he?"
Then you said, "Be quiet. I'm reading a book."
"Look at him. He's something else, isn't he?" they laughed.
You were a funny child, and thus a lovable one. Even when you broke your arm, you didn't so much as complain, let alone cry-Which was why you suffered from that fracture for so much longer.
I have written several short essays about each of my children. The one titled "Yonggi"goes as follows:
Children are playing in an alley.
"What shall we play?" one child asks.
"Let's play the tiger game!" another suggests.
"That's good. Let's play that game," they all agree in clear and healthy voices.
"Tiger! Tiger!" they shout.
There is a problem, however. Nobody wants to be the tiger. The mood deflates, and the planned game is about to be given up.
But then, Yonggi steps up to volunteer as tiger. He is young, but tall and strong for his age. "i'll play the tiger."
"Tiger! Tiger! Yonggi is the tiger now."
The tiger game goes something like this: Yonggi makes big eyes and puts his two hands on his chest and roars like a tiger. "I'm the tiger. Rrrr."
I come across this scene while returning home from shopping. It seems funny, but it worries me also. Just before going to sleep, I tell Daddy about what I saw. "Yonggi tried to please the other children, even though it meant taking the worst role in the game. I appreciate his willingness to sacrifice for others, but I'm afraid he might fall into the wrong place in society when he grows up."
"Leave him be. What a character we have in him," Daddy responds in a sleepy voice.
Parents usually are proud of their child when he acts well; they are sympathetic when he makes a mistake; and they see the lovable and cute when he does something unusual and funny.
It might have been when you were in the eighth grade. You and I were walking, when I noticed that you kept two or three paces behind me, forcing me to look back at you.
"Why are you so slow? Can't you hurry up?" I fretted impatiently. It makes me smile even now when I recall what you said. "My teacher told us not to walk with girls."
Certainly, I was a "girl," but your explanation made me laugh out loud. You were already so much taller than I was, and yet you looked so naive and lovable.
"True talent is often found in late bloomers." You started talking late, but turned out to be a good speaker. Though most of the time you were on the quiet side, every now and then, you said things that were truly extraordinary. In ninth grade, you were one of two Korean representatives to attend the Red Cross Youth Conference in Canada. Although the youngest of all the participants, you were one of three chosen to make a speech at the Rotary Club, representing the Asian region.
* * * *
Kyongnan has fallen asleep, and the house is quiet again. I hear someone playing the cello. It's the girl living in a house behind ours. Whether it's because of the sudden silence or the rain we've been having, the music seems to be coming from so close.
The girl is playing Boccherini's concerto, the last movement of it. This is my favorite part, where the piece changes to a flowing tone, where the lively staccatos give way to the full and long, smooth movements of the bow. You would press down the bow cheerfully as if you were chopping it; then you would extend your arm as far as you could -yes, it was right there-only then would you straighten your back which you had bent slightly.
There is a history connected to this concerto in our family. I was leaving for my first visit to Japan when you boldly demanded that I buy you a microscope and some sheet music. Later, in Japan, I was visiting with Dr.
Blythe, a former teacher of your father's and who was at the time the tutor of Japan's Crown Prince. I'd heard somewhere that he had had an unhappy marriage, and when I met him, I thought him to be slightly eccentric. We talked for about an hour in Zen-like questions and answers.
Finally he asked me, "What have you planned for the rest of the day?"
"I'm buying some sheet music for my son- Boccherini and Lalo." On hearing the names of these composers, he became quite helpful. "Boccherini! I'm willing to dedicate an afternoon for a boy who likes Boccherini. You'd probably have trouble finding the proper places in Tokyo."
It was indeed difficult to find Boccherini's music. We looked through many music shops and bookstores over several hours. After this long and tiring search, we finally came across Boccherini and Lalo in a bookstore. Dr. Blythe was especially pleased and laughed, showing all his old teeth.
Seeing you so happy with the microscope and the sheet music, I quickly forgot all the weary hours I'd spent in Tokyo.
Boccherini became the music of our house. Even the neighborhood children who played outside your window knew the music. When you were in the tenth grade, you entered a music competition, and despite a short preparation period, you received the highest score.
After a respite which saw you studying for your university entrance exams, you were admitted to medical school and the cello was heard again. With your school work and your cello, you were always busy, always lacking sleep. And you couldn't give up anything once you began-poetry, painting, sculpting.
Where are you now?
You are a stream,
That flows through a narrow valley,
That flows with my love.
Hither and thither,
You have traveled,
To wet the earth? warmth.
Yet it was not enough for you . . .
When was it,
When the curse of hope,
That brought ecstasy,
Became entangled in the dim shadow of God
made me roam in the darkness of hell.
When even the lingering shadow disappears,
The light on which my love descends
Has no shadow,
The heap of forgetfulness runs ahead of me,
Just like the laughter of one beautiful maiden.
* * * *
Boccherini was included in the repertoire of that concert you gave at the National Theater with the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra. You found time to prepare for this concert even though you were a busy medical student. It was in early spring, on March 17 to be exact. Your pale, nervous face was captured in a photograph which is now in your album.
You did your best. You did not regret that as a medical student you dared to give a solo concert accompanied by an orchestra. The favorable reviews you received from the music critics pleased you.
This is why listening to Boccherini is painful to me, as are Bach's unaccompanied cello suites and Handel's water music. The Traumerei you once played over the phone for your brother brings more pain. I was told that one day you called your brother and said to him, "I miss Mom badly. Will you listen to her Traumerei with me?"
After your departure, everything became like a dream to me. I wish I could wake up and know that your death was only a dream. Whenever I listen to Traumerei, Dream, I hear only the emptiness in me, not the beautiful dream the music expresses. This reminds me of a poem that my father loved and had on a hanging scroll.
The guest tells of his dream of the host,
The host tells of his dream of the guest,
Now they tell of their dreams of each other,
They dream also of themselves.
My father is gone now; Dr. Blythe, who helped me buy you the Boccherini sheet music, is gone; and you are gone. But I live, live in sorrowful dream.
Your belongings did not arrive all at once. Your clothes came first, next your small everyday items and the equipment you used, then your books, and finally your beloved cello.
Meanwhile, I received numerous correspondences from your professors at Cincinnati Medical School, from your patients, and from your friends. Whenever one of these letters arrived, the zip code on the envelope, "Cincinnati, OH 45229," alone was enough to bring tears to my eyes. What a number! I'd used it so many times with so much affection and longing. Even time does not dry up my tears.
The day your watch arrived, I needed to be sedated with a tranquilizer. The watch had stopped at twelve o'clock. You were dying alone in an overturned car on a frozen highway, no one to watch over you, no one else hurt.
As you lay dying, I was having dinner with one of my friends. I laughed and ate, not knowing that my son was passing from this life. Oh, what a grave sin. Karma. I was committing something unforgivable without being aware of it.
Those mothers who gather at our house often say, "It is because of my sin." They point out that only sinful mothers lose their children. Aren't their children's deaths the unmistakable judgment for their sins? For me, twelve o'clock noon is absolute. It is the passing of judgment. It is at this moment that time stopped and eternity began. I now wish you peaceful eternity, and accept my own sentence of remorse and sorrow.
What is time, anyway? I always thought time started when God created the sun and moon out of dark chaos. Although invisible and untouchable, time leaves behind its impressions. Even if you were to stay in one spot and do nothing, you would reflect the traces of passing time on your face after one year, then ten and twenty years. Time has its substance.
Time can heal, and it can betray. Whatever the sorrow, however passionate the love, time changes them, even while it itself cannot be weighed on one scale. Some flies live for only one day, dying after they've accomplished what they can in that short interval. Their one day is the equivalent of our life span. Though we may live for a hundred years, it would be but a blink from the perspective of eternity. Our lives take place in an instant. One may live for a day, another for a hundred years, but for both, the time spent on this earth is ephemeral and too brief. You lived for twenty-five years and six months, a moment in eternity and eternity in a moment.
This watch I put on your wrist when you left for America, its hands now stay permanently at twelve o'clock. Its metallic, cold feel makes me sad. It has had the same fate as you! Is it because it has stopped that time does not pass for me? Is this why my grief and my pain do not heal?
* * * *
It is sunny today for a change. I open the window and look outside. There is the cherry orchard that you used to love so much as a child still remains in the heart of Seoul. There are also some persimmon trees in the orchard. Rich in color by the autumn light, their fruits are more beautiful than flowers. Warm sunshine bestows its final grace.
I see some children crouched outside the barbed wire fence. The property owner is constantly having to mend the fence, only to have the children loosen yet another opening. One of the boys enters. Another boy follows him, but just as he does, a dog barks fiercely. Frightened, the children scramble to retreat. The hole in the fence is no smaller than when they entered, yet their clothes snag on the sharp wires on their way out. One boy brushes his leg and is cut. He is too occupied with the escape that he does not cry out. My palms sweat. By the time the owner arrives, the children have long since disappeared.
My beloved Yonggi, every boy in the neighborhood remembers some adventure related to the cherry orchard. I don't know what it is about autumn that creates an appetite in children. Every year when the cherries ripen, no child is free from cuts on his body. I still remember one time as I helped you with your bath, I was surprised to discover a large cut on your leg.
* * * *
"What are you looking at, Mother?" Your brother Hoagy has come in and is standing beside me.
"I'm watching the boys."
"Oh, those cherry trees are still tempting the kids. What fun that was." Hoagy laughs as he peers outside. "I have many memories connected with that orchard," he continues. "Yonggi was big and strong, but he was also clumsy. That's why he was so often the one getting caught by the owner."
The sunflowers look away from us. Your brother breaks the silence.
"Mother, Dr. Lee arrived today with photographs of the plaque at the library, the one dedicated to the memory of Yonggi."
"He'd dropped by Cincinnati during his visit to the States. He saw Dr. Vilter there."
My heart starts to race, and I struggle to find words. This is what happens whenever I hear the word "Cincinnati."
"Father has the pictures now. The bronze plaque is 25 cm wide and 18 cm tall and has words on it saying:
In memory of Yonggi Kim, M.D.
Medical Resident, 1968-1970
A dedicated physician
Sensitive always to his patient's need.
* * * *
"Dr. Lee said the library is next to the residents' offices, and is humble in appearance, but houses a valuable collection."
I've heard this is just the second time at the university that such a dedication has been made to the memory of one individual. It is an honor indeed to have this plaque bear remembrance to a young doctor like you. But the size of the honor does not reduce my sadness. Tears stream down my cheeks.
"Don't cry, Mother. It is a great distinction for him. Just praise him and the great life he led." Hoagy's voice is breaking. "Mother, Yonggi died a great death, too. I haven't told you yet, but he died as a true doctor. As you know, he'd mapped out a plan for his life in painstaking detail. According to that plan, he was to write the state board exams in February, and was killed on his way there to take them."
He tells me about the last moments of your life, details which he's kept from me until now. He tells me that although Americans may take their exams anywhere, you as a foreign doctor could take them only in one of three states, of which Michigan was the closest.
You phoned your brother a few days before the exam. "Brother, I will have a pleasant surprise for Mother in a few days," you said.
"I received permission to write the board exams. Even getting permission to take these exams is hard, and I'm lucky to have got it." Your brother said you sounded quite excited.
"You should fly there. The roads are likely slippery with ice patches."
"Don't worry. I'm planning to fly."
But you did not fly. You were conscientious almost to the point of foolishness, and you were on call the night before leaving for the exam. Under such circumstances, virtually anybody else would have asked for someone to take his or her place. But you did not do that. You studied at the office late into the night. Then at around two o'clock in the morning, when you were about to get some sleep, a patient came in emergency. She was sixteen years old, an unwed girl who had had one miscarriage before and was about to have another. She was also a diabetic. When a diabetic suffers a miscarriage, she usually undergoes severe pain in the abdomen. This girl was suffering intensely. She complained loudly and wildly. It was possible she might die, so you did your best to help her. By the time this girl had been taken care of, it was already morning. You had had no sleep.
You had no time for sleep, and must not have had any appetite either. The exam time was approaching quickly. You left without resting or eating.
Highways in America have long and empty stretches, monotonous enough to bring on the demons of fatigue. You drove half asleep. You were even too sleepy to know that you needed rest. You continued driving. The car was traveling at almost 100 miles an hour when it jumped the meridian and crashed down the edge of the oncoming lane.
"On that day there was no one else on the highway. He was alone . . . " Hoagy's voice cracks.
"I couldn't tell you," he continues. "But when I hurried there, he was in the hospital. Other than that his face was swollen, there were no other visible injuries. It was just as if he were sleeping. The damage was in his brain. The doctors had tried their best, but there was nothing left but to hope that he would come out of the coma. They were ready to operate. It seemed that the whole medical center of the University of Cincinnati was agitated. But he didn't wake up. No matter what other people thought, I couldn't believe that he was dead. How could he be dead? I cried, 'Yonggi, I'm here. Your brother's here. Can you move your toes?'He moved his toes. No, it seemed to me that he moved his toes. Yes, his toes.?
Hoagy begins to sob. We hug each other and shed hot tears.
"I'm sorry, Mother, I have refrained from telling you these things until today not to shake you, and now . . . "
He wipes his tears. "But I was always going to tell you someday."
He puts his hand on my shoulder and says, "Yonggi must have been loved my many people. When everything was over, I went to his residence and found his colleagues there, lined up to meet me in their sadness. Two or three cleaning ladies were crying, too."
Hoagy continues in a sobbing voice, "Yonggi's room was clean and tidy. He'd been growing an onion in a glass, and long roots reached down to the bottom of this glass. There was a memo attached to the mirror. It read, 'Dr..., I'm now leaving in a hurry having had no sleep. Please take care of my patients.' To the end, he cared about his patients."
Hoagy wipes his eyes with one fist, and with that same fist suddenly hits the floor. "That wretched girl, unmarried and getting pregnant like that. It's because that damn sixteen-year-old had a miscarriage, our Yonggi . . . "
Hoagy and I continue to weep quietly. It is unfair indeed. Why was she admitted on that particular day? Dear Yonggi, why did you leave without getting rest after that long sleepless night?
I cry and cry, until finally I collapse on the floor.
"Mother, I'm afraid you might get sick. I? sorry to have told you all this. Forgive me, Mother."
My poor Hoagy holds my hands as if he has committed a wrong. His voice begins to sound faint, as if from a distance.
* * * *
The chrysanthemums are in full blossom at your graveside. The yellow flowers contrast brightly with the green grass. Since your grave is on the sunny side of the hill, it is warm there, though the wind is a bit chilly.
Except for the chirping of birds, it is silent, nothing to disturb you in your sleep. I visit you often. I clean the gravestones and pull the weeds. I replace the flowers. I light sticks of incense and pray to God for your eternal light and peace. And I weep, always.
It is said that the body is the prison of the soul. That's why some people even ask that their bodies be cremated after their death. But since I believe that someday that you will be resurrected, even your lifeless body is precious to me.
My dear Yonggi, this cruel paradox that a mother should tend her son's grave brings unbearable pain. There is a girl who visits you when I'm not here, I heard. I don't know who she is. From time to time, I find flowers that I did not put there. I would like to know who she is and to see her. But I will not, because I'm afraid that meeting me would make a certain impression on her life. I have acute affection for this maiden, though I do not know her.
The thought of you there deep in the ground makes me sad, and it makes me shudder. The blanket of soil must be heavy, stifling. I pour coffee for you and drink it myself in tears.
I am here today to prepare your grave for Ch'usok. The sun is setting now. I polish the tombstone with great care. The black stone shines after I'm done. I read the epitaph I?e read so many times before. It was composed by your brother Hoagy, based on the last sentence of that final letter you wrote to me, "The deeper and deeper of everything between us.?The epitaph reads like this in Korean:
So you wrote your own epitaph. I make one more pass over the gravestone, wipe off the stone slabs, and step back to offer a silent prayer. The sun's dying rays reflect off the shiny black surface of the stones. I am not sure if this is because of the particular location of the inscription on the slab, but the sunlight makes the black stone shine deep like a mysterious jewel, while highlighting the inscribed part of the stone.
I close my eyes and open them again. I see the evening sun on the surface of the stone, which now turns into a dark purple and shapes the light into its design. It is strikingly beautiful. But it is only for a moment. The stone soon becomes black again and then there is total silence.
Is this a dream or is it illusion? It seems certain that God makes beautiful only the ephemeral and transient.
In front of your grave, I think of being and non-being. You are gone, but the memory of you is still with me. You are not non-existent, only absent. Valery's famous expression, the "presence of absence" or the "abundant absence," which you so loved, has never been more meaningful than it is to me these days. Even in this season of grief and self-imprisonment, I find solace in this sense of abundant absence. You are the brilliant sunshine on the surface of a gravestone: though its beauty disappears, its loving memory lives on.
"If he had not been born . . . " I have never had such a thought. Existence is valuable. Though I suffer, despite the pain of the memory of you, as well as the sorrow, your life created many happy memories. This is Providence. We have no right to interfere with God's Providence.
In front of the silent gravestone, I remember the moment of striking beauty I experienced just before, and I also remember your short life. This brings tears to my eyes. It is getting dark. I must leave you.
While coming down the slope of the hill, I quietly recite the last sentence of your last letter: "The deeper and deeper of everything between us."