grumpy about death… again (not ready for orphanhood)

Last night I lay awake in one of my morbid moods. I watched Nick sleep peacefully and pondered at large, as I’m wont to do, about the inevitability of all of our demises. Will we live long? Will my children lose me or Anthony before they’re grown? What if, heaven forbid, I were to lose one of them? My thoughts ranged through disease, pestilence, war, famine, bus hits, freak accidents. Nick dreamed as I stroked the hairs on his temple, praying to anything listening that he and Jesse be allowed to live long, peaceful, happy lives.

Last month while I was in California, my mom and I spoke about some estate planning issues. Her ducks aren’t quite in a row.  Now that she’s in her 80’s, it’s probably time to arrange them properly. It felt wrong, somehow, to bring it up. My family has never been open about death, about how to help life go on smoothly here on earth after one of us is gone. But as the only lawyer in the family and a daughter among sons, it makes practical and emotional sense for me to guide Mom through this.

But I don’t want to help Mom plan ahead for her death. I pointed this out to her. I don’t want you to die. I’m counting on you sticking around for a long, long time to come. She held up her hands, fingers out in a counting or quieting gesture. “Ten years,” she promised me, in a matter-of-fact tone as she nodded knowingly.

Ten years. I only get to see her about once a year these days. She seems unwilling to travel since her stroke, so she hasn’t made it out here to Wisconsin in some years. For my part, it’s difficult to get out to California with the kids because of time commitments and the hassle of traveling so far. I could go alone, but Mom wants to see her grandkids. So does that mean I’ll only see her ten more times before she’s gone? My chest and stomach clench in pain when I try to wrap my head around that.

When my grandma died, Mom was of course broken-hearted. It was a different kind of sadness than when Dad died. With him, she waded through the bitter suffering of a lost mate, a companion who was present day after day like the rising sun. But with grandma, her loss was a quiet and soft thing, something deep and young. In the months after grandma’s death, Mom spoke to me almost in whispers about her grief. One day she murmured slowly, “Oh Carla, my mommy is gone. I’m an orphan now.” It felt like a little poem, an elegy.

I heard in her voice, even over the telephone, all the longing and desperate need of a child hunting for her lost mother. Mom was 70-something, and she still wanted and needed her mother on this earth as much my little Nick wants and needs me. I wish I had been with Mom in the body just then, so that I could have held her. We could have cried together; and though I’m her daughter, perhaps I could have stood in the shoes of her mother for a moment and filled her cup with the gifts that loving parents bequeath to us.

But I know a day will come when I’ll never be able to hold her again. And what then?

I’m not ready for orphanhood. I won’t be ready in ten years. I need to remind Mom next time I talk with her. Don’t leave me, Mom. I still need you. I’ll always need you.

Grandma tales, part 4 (grumpy about the storm)

The words “monsoon season” terrified me when I was little. Windswept storms would rage up in the Seoul summer, knocking out the electricity and filling the air with thunderclaps and rolling roars and the hammering of rain and hail. I would cower under tables and behind chairs in the darkness, my heart racing and my body shaking in raw fear. No one paid much attention to me, other than to mock me. “It’s just monsoon season, Carla,” my mom would reassure me, shaking her head and laughing. Which didn’t help me at all. At least that’s how I remember it, except for once.

It was a special day. Any day when I got to sleep over at Grandma’s house was special. We left the end of Skunk Hollow and marched down the road happily, side by side, my little hand in hers. We hadn’t gotten far when the wind picked up and a few drops of rain started to fall. Grandma was ready with her blue bamboo umbrella.

(That’s what I remember people using in Korea back in the early 1970’s. You’d see them everywhere, these flimsy bamboo umbrella frames covered with blue plastic.)

Just as Grandma opened the umbrella to hold over our heads, a strong gust of wind turned it inside-out and broke it. At the same time, there was a bright lightning strike right overhead and a deafening thunderclap, followed by a massive rolling peal of thunder, and then the storm dumped its load of water on us.

I crouched on the ground in a fetal position, sobbing in terror and unable to move.

I don’t remember Grandma being irritated or angry with me. She asked me to get up. I couldn’t. Then she spoke gently as she squatted down beside me. “Here. Climb on.” I climbed onto her back and hooked my arms around her neck, wrapped my legs around her waist. She clasped her hands under my butt and off we went, the way little kids are carried traditionally in Korea. “Oh-boh-bah,” in America we call it piggy back. Grandma carried me all the way to her home, through the soaking rain.

I was a little thing; I imagine I would have weighed somewhere between 30 and 40 pounds. But Grandma was very small too. I don’t think she ever weighed more than a hundred pounds. Standing as straight as she could, what with the damage caused by polio, back then she would have been about 4-foot-9 — a diminutive woman with bird bones. And if I reckon this correctly, she would have been about 60 years old.

But her granddaughter had need of her, so she carried me on her limping legs, slightly bent over to bear my weight better on her back. It never occurred to me that any of this was a physical challenge for her, as it must have been. She never made anything of it.

Instead, she told me cheerful stories and encouraged me not to be afraid as she trudged along. I felt her strength and courage come into me as my chest pressed against her strong back and my dripping wet head rested on her neck.

I don’t remember being much afraid of storms after that.

Grandma tales part 3 (grumpy about demanding eaters)

“Picky eater” suggests a limited palate, and that’s not what I have. I am rather a “demanding eater,” which is a whole different thing, thank you very much. Jesse, light of my life, daughter of my loins, follows delicately in my footsteps on this front.

She will eat all sorts of foods and appreciates an array of spices and ethnic cuisines. Many kids with food allergies have a lot of food fear and thus a very limited range of willing eating, but I flatter myself that we’ve avoided this syndrome with Jesse. Anthony and I are competent cooks in a lot of different ethnic styles, in our own fusion way, and Jesse’s egg allergy is no barrier to continuing to explore all these flavors. She’ll choke down almost anything we offer her with a courageous heart. But she must have everything fresh. She doesn’t like leftovers. She doesn’t like packaged bread — it must be from an artisanal bakery or home-made — unless it’s a hotdog bun. Hamburger buns? She’s tasted the fountain of fresh, so she demands homemade buns unless we’re at a restaurant. Tortillas are great, as long as I make them from scratch. Meat should come in its original form — a chunk off an animal, cooked in a piece and then cut to bite size (except for fish sticks, which Jesse eats for breakfast because Ian’s makes an egg-free version, a novelty she enjoys). Ice cream? It’s Talenti or nothin’ these days. Avocado? No. Guacamole? Yes (one ingredient: well-smashed avocado). Onions? Yes, if freshly sautéed and caramelized in balsamic vinegar, with some garlic and pepper, a pinch of brown sugar. No other way will do. Cucumbers? Only if served thin-sliced as a spicy Korean quick-pickled salad, which she can rinse off in a bowl of cold water before she eats them, and then she drinks the spicy water afterwards. Tomato-based soup? Sure, but only if it’s Whole Foods’ gumbo made with okra, only she won’t eat the okra and she needs the artisanal French round cut in thick slices to dip in it (her babysitter learned last weekend: cut that slice too thin and all hell breaks loose). Pizza? Awesome. Cheese pizza, only she takes off the cheese. But it has to be baked with the cheese.

An aside here: I’m not talking about Nick because he’s a PICKY eater. All he wants is box-mac-and-cheese, chips, and Pirate Booty. He thinks almost everything I make is totally disgusting. He took one tiny bite of mashed potatoes tonight — yes, I made mashed potatoes! — and promptly vomited. I have no respect for that.

But I do have a great respect for Jesse’s preferences, and as much as I can, I honor them. I may be 48 years old and much more pliable than I used to be, but I remember the days when I was just as demanding as her. I don’t believe she’s being unreasonable. She just has a sense of what she likes best, and she’s willing to forego food unless she gets it. I could be a hard-ass about it, but here’s why I’m not. It’s a little Grandma tale.

One of my favorite meals as a kid was rice-eggs-and-soy-sauce. The original iteration involved a raw egg. You take a bowl of steaming hot rice. You crack a raw egg on it and stir it up. Then you add some soy sauce. Devour. Done in the right kind of bowl, you’re not eating a raw egg. If you use a hot stone bowl and the rice is just-cooked, the egg cooks in all that heat. When I was a wee lass, I didn’t care either way. The raw egg just made the rice a bit more gooey.

I loved this until one day someone made me rice-eggs-and-soy-sauce with a hard-boiled egg. You take the same bowl of fresh rice, unpeel a couple hard-boiled eggs and chop them up into pieces, and stir it all up with some soy sauce. Devour. Oh my god. Even as I type this I’m salivating. I can taste the simple yumminess. It’s one of the few things I really, really miss in our egg-free house. Damn you, egg allergy, damn you!

One fine weekend, I walked on over to Grandma’s house with her and slept there. My mom says that the first night I ever did this (I would have been 3 or 4), I wept and wept and had to be taken back home. I have no memory of that event. I only remember sleep-overs with Grandma as the most magical, wonderful events of my childhood. In hindsight, I guess she was my best friend.

Anyway, a drowsy morning came in Grandma’s house. I lazed in bed. In Grandma’s house, that meant I was snuggled under blankets on a thick cotton bedroll laid down on the heated concrete floor, which was finished with some sort of glazed paper surface. My pillow was a traditional Korean style cylinder-shaped thing. The bed would have been soooo toasty and warm because by the time I awoke Grandma would have already gone outside to add a new charcoal block to the ondol oven, which heated the floors. On cold days, Grandma would put our clothing between the bed and the floor before she cleared the beddings away, so that getting dressed was deliciously warm.

This particular morning, Grandma asked me what I wanted for breakfast. She wanted to treat me to whatever I wanted. “Bhap he-goo geh-lhan,” I answered. Rice and eggs (the soy sauce, or ganjang, would have been assumed). Off she went to the kitchen. I continued to laze. Some time later, Grandma came back and placed a tray of food beside me, so I could eat in the warmth of the bedroom. I looked in the bowl. GAH. The egg was FRIED, not boiled. Ugh. Ew. Yuck. Inedible! I had a whining hissy fit. I announced my feelings passionately. This is all wrong! This is not how you make rice and eggs! This is not how Song-Ja [our housemaid] makes it for me! I can’t eat this! (“Ee-goh moht-moh-go!!”)

Grandma listened silently to me without moving. She stood there and stared down at me as I sat under the covers in a warm bed. She waited until I was done complaining. She never said a word. When I finally shut up, she still stared at me without moving, for another long moment. She looked at the bowl, she looked at me. She didn’t smile, she didn’t scowl. She just looked patient and blank, like she was tolerating a dong-pah-li she couldn’t get rid of. Then she barely nodded. “Gu-leh.” Okay. She picked up the tray and left.

(“Dong-pah-li” literally means shit fly, aka a fly that likes to sit on shit and eat it. It’s an apt image, because that’s what I felt like afterwards.)

I stayed in bed, only I wasn’t lazing anymore. I knew how irritated Grandma was. I was so ashamed of myself for making such disrespectful demands of Grandma, my friend and my elder. I sat in numb silence, wondering what she was doing. I assumed I wasn’t going to get breakfast at all. I still cringe when I remember that day. Right now, at this very moment, I had to stop typing because I literally had to hang my head in shame and fight the tears back. I was such a little piece of shit.

But some while later, Grandma came back and placed a tray of food beside me, so I could eat in the warmth of the bedroom. There was rice and boiled eggs. I don’t remember whether the eggs were fully hard-boiled. By that point, I would have eaten anything Grandma put in front of me. I thanked her sheepishly, shamefully, and ate every bite.

Grandma never remonstrated, never corrected or disciplined me. She never tattled on me to my parents. We never spoke of it again. She forgave me and moved on. Her extraordinary kindness and patience was the worst punishment of all. I’ve never really forgiven myself for that morning.

But now that I’m a mom, I can finally make amends to Grandma. So I meet Jesse’s demands. I make it fresh. I put the food in separate bowls when she needs it that way; I mix it together when I must. And well, let’s be honest, I meet Nick’s picky demands too. I try to work with his preferences. I give him the crap he wants to eat and try to get him to down at least a few bites of something healthier, with the hope that someday he’ll come around. I won’t be a hard ass about food. Grandma is looking over my shoulder, reminding me of the shit she put up with. I can’t let her down. I have to pass on her legacy.

Grandma tales part 2 (grumpy about muggings)

I’ve had Hal-moh-nee on the mind this week. It’s amazing how much I long to see her sometimes. Maybe I would miss her less if I had committed some energy as an adult to seeing her more regularly while she was still alive, but I lived in DC and Grandma was in Seattle and I was a strung-out lawyer. Which is no real excuse. My failure to make time for Grandma in her last years is among the more significant emotional reasons why I’m glad to be out of the profession for good (I hope).

But also I think it’s parenthood that constantly brings her to mind, as I struggle with questions of how to be a functional parent to young children in different situations. Grandma taught me so many little lessons by just being with me when I was small. She was so good to me, a sweet anchor for my grumpy heart. I think I’ll spend the next week or two telling some Grandma tales.

Picture Seoul, Korea in the early 1970’s, a third world metropolis of millions, streets full of stray dogs and crazy drivers and three-wheeled trucks, and here comes the guy pushing a food cart selling beans and steamed rice cakes. I’m too lazy right now to find any photos. Maybe another day. And I guess I should say South Korea, though I wasn’t taught to say it that way. Korea was Korea to my Korean family members, who still remembered a time before the white peeps came and broke it into two nations.

Dad worked as a civilian DOD employee on the Eighth Army base in Seoul. Most Americans associated with the base lived on the base, but many of us with Korean moms lived in the city proper instead. In my child’s memory, the city neighborhoods where nice homes stood were bunkers. Concrete walls surrounded each house. At the tops of the walls were rolls of barbed wire to keep out slickee boys — burglars and thieves. Locked metal gates, topped with vicious spikes and big enough to admit a car, granted entry to a home’s yard.

We lived in a walled-in house at the dead end of one of these bunkered roads, in an area my dad affectionately dubbed Skunk Hollow, probably because of the smell. Grandma frequently walked to our house in the morning, spent the day with us, and then walked home to her own smaller and more traditional Korean home. I have no idea how far it was, but I’m guessing it had to be less than a mile. I used to make the walk with her sometimes, when I got to sleep over at her house. I held her hand tight as we trudged through a claustrophobic maze of narrow alleys, grey walls rising high and tight on either side of me, until we emerged mysteriously at her house on one end or my own home on the other.

One fine day my mom treated Grandma to a new purse and some cash. Grandma headed out in the afternoon with her new purse on her arm, and presently I heard voices of adults sounding very, very unhappy. Grandma had been attacked by two men who beat her up and stole her purse as she walked home. They even broke her false teeth (a full set of clackers, mind you). I imagined my poor Grandma lying broken in one of those bunkered alleys, her body smashed to the ground and broken into pieces by very bad men. I was terrified.

Not long after, Grandma came on over and sat with me in my room. I had questions for her. She was a storyteller and always answered my inquiries. She told me about how two thugs grabbed her purse and threw her against a wall, so that her face hit and her false teeth broke. She rued the loss of that pretty new purse and all that money. The mix of fear and curiosity I felt about the attack must have been apparent. Grandma offered to show me her injuries. She opened her shirt and bared her chest. I had seen it many times before — she wasn’t even remotely body-shy with me — but now the left side of her chest, from her shoulder and down her breast and rib cage, was black as calligraphy ink. I wanted to cry, it looked so awful. I was so upset about how badly she was hurt. But Grandma just laughed gently and told me I could touch it, it didn’t hurt anymore. She explained that it was a healing bruise, and then she assured me she was fine.  And she was. It all healed up just right eventually. She was tough as nails.

Grandma had a way of laughing and shaking her head that sucked fear out of me, but I don’t think of her as a person who lied to me about the risks of life. She took them seriously. She kept me close when we walked around town. She warned me about kidnappers who would want to steal the pretty little blond girl and try to sell me into slavery or, even worse, kill me if my family didn’t pay a ransom. She told me about diseases and shared stories of war. She told me about how my grand-uncle, her brother, was brain-damaged as a child by a Japanese soldier who boxed his head so hard that his ear bled, and then he was never the same again. We affectionately called him “heh-leh-leh sam-chun,” which loosely translates to “crazy uncle.”

For all the scary tales, Grandma always added a touch of humor and made me feel safe about the adventure of life –- and especially about her. Don’t you think kids fear harm to their nurturers more than almost anything else?  A year or so ago, when I had a breast biopsy to see if I had cancer, I remembered Grandma’s way of reassuring me. I tried to emulate her. I played it straight with the kids about what was going on, and I let them see the site of the biopsy, bloody bandages and all. I watched them react, the mix of curiosity and anxiety, and it was like looking down a tunnel into my own past as I stared at my grandma’s blackened breast. I’m glad she taught me not to keep secrets of things like that. Better to share some scary realities with your little ones than to hide it from them. Better to laugh down fear together than to shiver alone in the dark.

Grandma tales (grumpy about vaccines and polio)

Everybody’s doing it, so why not me? Talking about vaccines, that is.

I have a good friend who doesn’t vaccinate her kids. She claims it’s because she has auto-immune issues herself so she wonders what vaccines will do to her kids, but in moments of honesty and clarity she’s admitted the real reason to me:  her oldest child gave her hell at some vaccination visit and the pediatrician was a jerk about it, so she won’t do them anymore. Since she knows everyone else is vaccinated, it’s okay for her kids to skip the shots. Her attitude slays me, because she’s a pretty hard-core Republican and she likes to mouth off about freeloaders. It is so hard for any of us to avoid hypocrisy. All I can do is shake my head and let her be as human and imperfect as me. But also, she’s not opposed to vaccines. She’s just freeloading. She knows it.

I chatted some time ago with another mom who actually opposes vaccinations. She’s holistic and homeopathic and Eastern medicine and all that, and her reasoning was that her kids don’t need the vaccines because she uses natural methods to boost their immunities. Thus, she reasons, her kids are unlikely to be infected even if a vaccine-avoidable disease comes around, and also if her kids are infected they’ll survive just fine because she knows how to treat these things. As far as I could tell, the idea of her kids infecting other, more immuno-compromised individuals wasn’t a relevant consideration. I was recently reminded of how much that bothered me when I came across an Onion op-ed, “I don’t vaccinate my child because it’s my right to decide what eliminated diseases come roaring back.” (On the off chance you don’t know, the Onion is 100% bullshit and 100% brilliant satire and social commentary.)

Then this person had to go and use polio as an example, arguing that many people contract polio but survive anyway because they have strong immunities, so it’s not a disease she’s afraid of even if her kids catch it, and also we shouldn’t be giving any kids a polio vaccine because it’s not necessary, the disease isn’t so bad. I remember seething secretly and ending the conversation as quickly as possible.

You don’t have to dig much at all to learn that polio is an extremely contagious disease that has no cure and also it suuuuucks. In fact, almost all of the vaccinations we’re giving our kids are for diseases that are highly contagious and have no cure. And that are capable of maiming and killing. In the case of polio, it’s certainly true that many lucky people who are infected never even show symptoms. But I wonder how they would feel if they could calculate how many unlucky ones they infect in turn, especially if they could avoid catching polio at all by being vaccinated.

My Korean grandma was both lucky and unlucky. She contracted polio as an adult (before a vaccine was available) but survived. A paralyzed foot was polio’s life-long gift to her. She walked with a pronounced limp as a result, and as a little girl I was fascinated by it. As far as I could tell, her foot was frozen in a flexed position. When I asked why she walked funny, Grandma told me of a terrible sickness that caused the paralysis, and I later learned the pesky disease was called polio.

Grandma was an extraordinary person, a bottomless pit of kindness. When I was very little, she would encourage me to work over her foot and try to make it move. As hard as I tried, I never could. So she always won the game, and we’d laugh together and then I wasn’t afraid anymore of whatever had almost killed her. Now I wonder from the vantage of 48 years, did she also secretly hope that her magical little granddaughter could make the foot come alive again?

Over the years, my mom shared bits and pieces of her memories about Grandma and polio. Mom was a child, too little to understand the danger, when the disease came. Grandma was hit bad. She almost died and had to go live in some sort of institutional setting to recover. This was a time of Japanese occupation, before there were two Koreas, when Korea was still a beaten-down, occupied third-world place. It would have taken a lot of money and resources (which my family had back then) to send Grandma to a place where she could survive and recuperate. She was lucky to receive any medical attention at all.

Grandma had a baby at the time (my mother’s oldest little brother) who was still nursing, so she took him with her to the hospital. But Mom, who was also still a very small child, stayed home with the aunties and servants. Grandma was gone for about two years. Mom felt abandoned, lost without her mother, treated unfairly because her baby brother got to go. I remember her talking about it long into my adulthood. I could hear in the rhythms of her stories the deep, unhealed cuts in her heart, the bitterness she couldn’t let go. It mystified me. The child who survived her mother’s polio, who still lived in my mother’s soul, couldn’t grasp that Grandma didn’t have a real choice. The disease owned all the decisions. So it didn’t just paralyze Grandma. It paralyzed a piece of my mother too for much of her life, just not in the flesh.

Some years after Grandma died, my mom finally told me a story of retrieval, not of abandonment. I don’t remember it perfectly (which doesn’t really bother me – I’m okay with reality becoming mythology, especially when it’s the mythology of connection and love). Mom came home from school and a strange woman was standing outside of the house. Mom got closer and realized with a start, it was her mother! She ran over to the woman. Her mother embraced her hard. Her mother looked at her face, touched her, looked in her eyes. Her mother told her, I’ve come back for you. I don’t want to live in the country anymore, I’m moving to Inchon. I’ve come to take you with me; I’ll never be apart from you again. Her mother had survived polio. Her mother came back for her.

As Mom told me this story, I realized that I was finally hearing the last chapter of her family’s polio tale, which had now spanned something like 70 years. I felt a sense of relief, of thankfulness that my mom could finally forgive Grandma for a parental betrayal that had been beyond anyone’s control — so many years after the disease crippled not just Grandma’s foot, but also her relationship with her daughter.

I always think of Grandma and Mom when people talk about vaccine-preventable diseases like polio. The damage they do isn’t just to a body, but to a family, a community. It’s why we owe it to each other to avoid the diseases together, each of us bearing a little bit of risk via vaccination, for ourselves and for each other.

It’s easy for people in first-world countries, living in the lap of hygienic luxury, to argue in smug ignorance that diseases like polio aren’t that dangerous and don’t need to be vaccinated against. Goody for you. As for me, my kids are fully vaccinated. Jesse gets the shots even though they’re grown in egg whites and she’s allergic to eggs. I give her antihistamines prophylactically and she seems fine. It probably isn’t helping her outgrow her allergy. But if vaccination means she can’t eat eggs for the rest of her life, I’m actually okay with that. I guess I’d rather have her get stuck with an epi-pen now and again than crippled by polio, or killed by small pox, or scarred by measles. For the anti-vacc’ers, know this: if my grandma was still alive and had the means, she might just sneak up behind you and stick you in the ass with a polio vaccine, just so you don’t catch polio and go give it to someone else. She’d probably giggle and say a happy prayer for your wellness as she did it. I guess I’d be laughing with her.

Grumpy about diplomacy

I’m on day 4 of a pretty long visit to my mom’s house with the kids. I haven’t posted anything since I got here. Today my brother Ted mentioned that he was surprised not to be reading some stuff about my visit.

I’m surprised too. After all, I’m home. I’ve descended into the maelstrom of grumpy. Grumpy winds whine through this house when we all get together, a perfect storm of grumpy waiting to happen if we all vibrate the right way at the wrong time, like a choir of Tibetan monks droning on just the right frequencies.

Is that enough inane metaphors and analogies for now? (I sometimes have to think to assure myself of the difference, and right now I don’t have time to do that, so I’ll assume I have both just to be sure.)

Anyway, I’m hypothetically right where the best material resides when it comes to my inner grumpy. But grumpy isn’t the same as mean, and I’m not sure I could muse about my family in close quarters without just being mean or hurting feelings, however unintentionally. We’re all ridiculous — I mean all human beings, not just my family — but most of us don’t want our noses rubbed in this fact.

My family has had some doozies of collective grumpy meltdowns over the years, and we’ve also had individual hissy-fits. As a result there have been long periods of absence for various reasons, for one or another of us. Traditionally, we have at it with each other – a gift of battle-ready gab bequeathed to us by our parents. But we don’t do that so much anymore, and I really don’t want anyone to bug out ever again. There aren’t enough years in a life for it. Some years ago my mom and I talked a lot about how we could all get along better. Love is pretty constant. Mom liked to tell me that breaking a family is like cutting blood with a knife. But sometimes, we concluded together, love asks more of us than just love. It requires diplomacy, and of course respect. Love is the easy part.

So here goes: I’ve really enjoyed seeing my brothers and sisters-in-law and nieces and my mom and her husband and all the blessed shedding dogs. Awesome visit. I dearly love my mildly insane, mildly grumpy family. My kids are a good fit here. Diplomacy demands that I leave it at that.

grumpy about aging

My grandma, Lee Nak Soon

My grandma, Lee Nak Soon

A few weeks ago after a couple extra trips to the swimming pool with the kids, I developed a painful itchy rash over much of my body, including my face. A gift of Wisconsin’s arid winters, I suspect. First I looked like I’d spent too much time in a tanning booth. Then the skin became extremely dessicated and wrinkled for about a week as it healed, especially around my eyes. One night as I stared at the strangeness in the mirror, it occurred to me that I was seeing myself in about 20 years. Since I live in please-don’t-let-me-grow-old America, I’m sure I was supposed to say EEEEK and start googling local providers of face lifts and acid baths. Americans think aging is ugly, and we’re obsessed in the ugliest ways with not growing old.

But looking in the mirror, that’s not how I felt. I pictured myself 20 years in the future, and I thought I looked pretty good for 67. I even thought I looked beautiful as I laughed at my image. I’ve always thought old women look beautiful.

When I was very small, I believe I spent most of my waking hours with my grandma. I have photos of her, but they’re nothing to my memories. She was beautiful beyond the dreams of little girls who’ve seen too many Disney fairies. She was my binkie. I have simple and happy memories of her. I remember learning to read in Korean with her. She took me to my piano and dance lessons. She sang children’s rhymes and hymns to me. We’d walk through the streets of Seoul — in my child’s memory they were either scary alleys surrounded by massive concrete walls or scary multi-lane roads filled with insane drivers — and stop for treats from street vendors and small shops. She took me with her to the rice miller, where we watched the rice flour come out the end of the mill. I loved sleeping over at her home, an old-fashioned little two-bedroom place with floors heated by coal, Korean-style. We’d walk there from my parents’ house. She made me rice and eggs with soy sauce, and we drank barley water. We cuddled up together and watched Korean variety shows on her tiny TV. We played funny little kids games, and she told me stories and myths on demand, mesmerizing me like a Royal Shakespeare thespian. She kept a coffee can in the bedroom for a chamber pot in case I had to pee during the night. For real. I remember using it.

By around the time we moved to the United States in 1976, when I was 10, Grandma was living with my uncles in Seattle. I don’t remember whether she came here before or after us. I just know that it meant I didn’t see her as much. She would fly to California once in a while to stay with us. She slept on a futon on the floor in my room, and I felt like we were reliving some very good times. I remember her sitting one night at bedtime, putting on lotion and looking at the skin on her arms. She said to me, “I’m getting old, aren’t I. Look at my wrinkles.” She must have been somewhere in her 60’s at the time. At 11, this idea startled me, but my reply came easily and honestly. Not to me, grandma. I think you look young and beautiful. She chuckled and nodded. Now I think back and it seems that she was rueful, or maybe (I can hope) she was grateful to have me with her in that moment.

Shortly after that conversation, maybe even on the same trip, Grandma had a massive brain aneurysm that sent her to the hospital. She had two life-saving surgeries that took many hours, she was hospitalized for days, and she was severely incapacitated as a result. My memories of what followed aren’t clear, except I know my mom was emotionally incapable of handling the situation, filled with grief and rage and guilt. Grandma regained speech and bodily control eventually, and she went on to live another 20-plus years. Her thinking and behavior were obviously altered by the aneurysm and surgeries, and there was a sort of sunken spot on her forehead where they must have had to do something to her skull to get to the clot quickly, but she never stopped being utterly beautiful to me. I always thought she aged wonderfully. She wasn’t mean or bitter, and it seemed to me she had a simple faith that made her not worry too much about things; and so there was a clarity to her face and eyes, and her mouth didn’t turn down in a way that spoke to a lifetime of unhappiness or misery.

In the last years of her life, I barely saw Grandma. I was a busy lawyer in Washington, D.C., and I had lost most of my Korean so I couldn’t communicate well with her. I sent her flowers now and then, I showed up for her 90th birthday party. It wasn’t much, but I hope she knew how much I loved her anyway. One spring, I flew to California with Anthony. He had a conference in the Monterey area, so we doubled up a short vacation with a visit to my family. It so happened that just then Grandma fell very ill with pneumonia and was hospitalized. Since I was already in California, it was a small thing for me to grab a couple plane tickets and fly up to Seattle with my mom to visit. So, a week or so before she would die, I was able to spend a few hours with my grandma in the hospital.  She was well under 5 feet tall. I remember the nurse coming in to check her feet for something.  She lifted the covers gently and found nothing. Look higher, I told her dryly. We giggled a little, but the situation wasn’t funny. Grandma was suffering. She was about 91 years old, ground down with age and illness, skinny, her breasts shrunken to nothing. But she was still so beautiful, and not even the cloudiness in her eyes could hide it from me. I felt like a little child again. She patted my hands, petted my head. She sighed occasionally, backed by 90 years of experience and feelings I couldn’t possibly fathom, murmuring “ooh-lee eh-gee” and “ah-gah-shee”, my baby, my little darling. In a lucid moment, when she wasn’t hurting too much, she held my hand and, in mild exasperation over my uwillingness to conceive yet, blessed me. It’s okay, Carla, she told me.  You can just have two kids, a boy and a girl. That’s enough. Have a good life.

And indeed, Grandma’s blessing is my reality today. In my opinion, anyone who thinks growing old or being old is ugly, anyone who thinks wrinkles are ugly, has lost touch with a lot that matters. When I looked into my grandmother’s beautiful, wrinkled face, I never saw age. I saw who she was, my sweet grandma who would pretend my stuffed animals were peeing on her and give me airplane rides on her feet. I saw love, right to the end. I hope someday I can also be a wrinkly, grizzled old lady laughing with my grandkids. If you think I’m ugly when you see me then, I really won’t care.

A joyful Carla and her loving grandma

A joyful Carla and her doting grandma

Christmas is my miss-my-dad holiday

This year we delayed the onslaught of Christmas in my home, in an effort to shorten the time of heightened anxiety for Jesse. It turns out it also thankfully shortened the amount of time I spend around this time of year missing my dad.

Dad was the King of Grumpy, but when it came to Christmas, I really have only fond and cheerful memories from my childhood. Dad loved Christmas kitsch, and in hindsight I see that he lifted my mom’s spirits with it. The house used to vibrate with the cacophony of noise-making Christmas gadgets–trains, snoring santas, musical clocks, a weird Mickey Mouse singing thing, music boxes, stuffed animals that sing when you punch them. As a child, my Christmas mornings were the stuff of Hollywood movies, full of plenty and laughter. Dad had serious Santa mojo.

As I got older, Christmas got even better because I didn’t get grumbled out of the kitchen anymore. Instead, Dad and I did a lot of cooking together. I have early memories of him giving me some pie crust scraps and, with a twinkle in his eye, wasting precious time to make cinnamon sugar so I could sprinkle it on the crust and bake “cookies.” We didn’t share them with anyone else. I helped with the stuffing the night before, I peeled potatoes, I washed dishes (mostly so that I didn’t have to listen to Mom complain about the mess) — little things. He shared his tricks with me. Over the years he entrusted me with more, including stuffing and pies, and then at some point in his waning, on the rare years I was home for Christmas, I just did the whole meal for him. And really, in my heart it was for him and not for the rest of the family.

These days I think Dad and I spent Christmas time together in the kitchen because we were both loners and lonely. We were each lonely because we needed some more human connection; but we were loners even more. Faced with the messy reality of what human connection entailed, I think we each prefered to avoid it most of the time. With each other, we didn’t need to try very hard, and the kitchen got us away from the scrum of humanity in the living room. We could potter about quietly, chatter about memories and music and family stories, and not worry. Somehow, we could laugh together most of the time even when things went wrong in the meal. I even liked his pineapple cottage cheese lime jello mold. This is no small thing, because it also contained horseradish.

Dad loved to watch White Christmas around the holidays. He adored Bing Crosby and he loved the story in the movie. It’s only recently that I begin to understand how much the story resonated with him — about an elderly, forgotten man wasting away in a pretty corner of the world, too proud to ask for help and largely unaware that anyone cared about him. And of course the music is delightful. Many years after Dad died, I finally got Anthony to sit down to the movie, and it turns out he loves it too. We try to watch it every year. I don’t know why that’s so dear and painful to me. I suppose I wish Anthony and I could have sat down with Dad to watch it together.

In fact, I just wish I could share another Christmas with my Dad, one where my kids are there. I missed so many Christmases with him through the years, for all sorts of lame reasons, mostly involving my self-absorption and pride. Every Christmas season, for each of the 12 years since he died, I’ve spent hours and hours grieving and weeping for those lost chances, those lost days I should have spent with him. I can barely type this for the wretchedness that’s pouring out of me on this Christmas Eve. It’s pathetic.

All I can do is make it up to him in this living world. So I’ve spent the better part of my free time for the last month getting ready for Christmas morning to happen for my kids, who weren’t born until after my father died. As I go through this process every year, I imagine that Dad’s Christmas spirit watches over my shoulder and guides my hand. He would have valued my kids’ insanity. He would have forgiven Jesse her challenging personality and behaviors, without reservation. He would have chuckled away at Nick’s loud silliness on Christmas mornings. He would have been proud of me for giving my kids a splendid, magical Christmas, even if they act like jackasses. But I wish he was really here, so that I wouldn’t have to just imagine it.

And now to bed. I have to wake up in about 5 hours, find my happy place, and deal with two kids experiencing maximum sensory overload. I can’t wait. If they’re crazy enough, I won’t miss my Dad as much.