I don't how to react to death. Specifically, my grandfather’s.
Since I received the news 13 days ago, there’s been that expected tidal wave of emotion that I’m still trying to wade through. This is my outlet. I'm trying to process this.
The timing and circumstances around my grandfather’s death have shaken me, no doubt. I believe in everything happening for a reason, especially occasions of this magnitude. Just one week before my 30th birthday, and in the middle of an emotionally charged reevaluation of my life & some of my closest relationships, this was certainly the last thing I'd expected to occur.
I had taken that night off. I’d needed to step away from the LA hustle & just breathe for a moment before an onslaught of meetings, events, flights, gigs, & emails awaited to take their toll on me for the next 7 weeks straight. It was in this retreat & the first moments of unencumbered bliss that I received the heartbreaking call from my mother that her father had suddenly died in a car accident.
I immediately went numb.
Everyone says there’s no right way to deal with death. Some people laugh. Some people get violent. Some people start talking about other things like the weather. Some just get downright confused. There’s really no right way. I know & support this, but emotionally I honestly felt like an asshole for not being more immediately devastated.
The truth? A million thoughts immediately raced through my head like my upcoming stressful travel schedule & all the 2304923048 things I was attempting to escape from for that one night as my mother cried to me and asked me to come up to the Bay asap to help my dad with our family’s store while she goes to Korea.
There was no question about it. Of course I would go. My parents were both grateful that I had the flexibility to come up to work physically at the store & work remotely on Kollaboration via phone & web. That helped curb my guilt, but hardly at all. I did not mention any of the things I was stressing over or the things I’d have to cancel/delay (some of which was very costly), because I empirically knew that everything going through my stupid brain was so petty and selfish and small in comparison to what my mother was going through & the ripple effect it’d have on all of us.
It still upsets me to say that it took awhile for my emotions to catch up with my rational thinking. I knew what I “ought” to feel, but it wasn’t there yet. Before the sadness ever sank in, I felt waves of shame and guilt for what my initial reaction was. Maybe it’s a Korean thing, but I’ll never know since this is what I am & what I know. I felt a ton of guilt that I was stressed over my impending schedule being disrupted. I felt guilt that I was even remotely thinking of my cancelled 30th birthday festivities, which I’d been anticipating as a shining & joyful milestone in the midst of a lot of recent turmoil. I felt regret that I hadn’t gone out to Korea for the last 10 years to see my grandfather like I kept saying I would once I had time/money. I knew he had faced & beaten prostate cancer, I knew he now had early signs of Alzheimers, I knew he adored my mom & adored me as a granddaughter. And yet I never quite had the time or the money. “Never.”
Another thing. For a really long time, I prided myself in my ability to empathize. It wasn’t something I was particularly good at in the past, but the last 15 years or so really changed as I went through my own struggles & dove more into my creative side. So why now, when my mother was suffering so deeply, and my family heartbroken in our loss, could I not get my shit together to grieve with them? How heartless was I?
The answer is, I don’t know. Maybe I never will. I don’t know if the reason was pure selfishness. I don’t know if it was a survival mechanism to delay my emotions because I felt the need to be strong & on point for my parents. I don’t know if it was disconnected indifference since it had been so long since I’d seen my grandfather & felt his strong hug or heard his beautifully hearty laugh. I hadn’t seen him in a decade, and I had made such weak attempts to keep in contact. That was the life that I led in light of the ocean that separated us. I sit here thinking of the million ways it’s so easy to connect these days, how often I’m on my wretched phone 24/7/365, how I could have so easily used Facebook video chat, Google hangout, Skype, Kakao, etc. etc. etc. right at the tips of my fingers to have said hello just one more time. How much I know he and I would have loved it.
It all came to a head after I had made a few calls & the information sank in that my grandfather had been hit by a car as he took a morning walk. I tried to digest it & I magined the scenario in my head & it all started to overwhelm me. I’d gone a ways out of LA to actually enjoy the quiet & the stars, & a couple hours after that phone call, I finally went outside to look up to take it all in. It was in that first intense moment, I literally felt like I couldn’t catch my breath & I finally broke down to cry. In looking up at the gorgeously clear night sky, I realized two things – one, how long it had been (several years) since I’d seen a sky so crystal clear & full of stars, and two, how my grandfather was now one of them, resting peacefully in that perfect sky.
I felt a wave of momentary relief that I was crying. In that moment, I was broken & regretful & grateful all at the same time. Broken for my mother, who hadn’t had a chance to say goodbye to her appah who loved & raised her. Broken for my grandmother, who’d suddenly lost her husband & companion of almost 70 years. Broken for my relatives, my aunts, uncles, cousins, who were blessed & so lovingly tight with my grandparents out in Seoul. Regretful for not having had made the right choices or prioritized communication with my relatives, who are so dear to my heart despite the distance & infrequent visits. The last time I'd seen most of them I was 19 years old & going through an extremely painful time in my own life. They cared for me so lovingly when I'd needed it most. Grateful that I could feel such love for another. Grateful that I could cry & feel the anguish that comes from losing someone you love. Grateful that I was alive to feel it all & appreciate it.
The details around his death were made clear to me this past Sunday when my mom returned from Korea after one short week with her mom & siblings.
My grandfather went for a walk in the pouring rain at 5am on Sunday morning to his usual bathhouse near the apartment he lived in with my grandma & that my mother grew up since she was a young child. He must have walked that route a million times in the last 87 years. He left his wallet at home & took a little cash on his way out.
A young Korean American man in his 40’s was just leaving an outing with his colleagues, not long living in Seoul and unfamiliar with its streets, especially in the rain. He had recently moved to Korea to start a new business & had been out drinking with his colleagues to alleviate some recent stress over work. In the confusion of his poor navigation, perhaps some influence of alcohol, & the chaos from the pouring rain, he didn’t see my grandfather & that was it. We don’t know if my grandfather died instantly, but he was taken to the hospital by the man who hit him & the doctors attempted resuscitation unsuccessfully for several hours afterward. With no identification on him, my family searched for my grandfather, with no sign of him for hours.
A mix of emotions still churn inside while I still digest this. I can’t comprehend how my family is dealing with everything. Before my mom left, she said she met the man who hit her father as they began legal proceedings to determine prosecution. She spoke of it simply with tears in her eyes, and said that he looked like he was a good person. I was driving her over the San Mateo Bridge at this moment & I kind of blanked for a moment before I could regain myself. I was baffled (but also not really) by her calmness & most of all, by her compassionate viewpoint. My relatives are understandably devastated and infuriated at this man, at his careless actions that took away their family member. But my mom lost her dad, her appah, to this man & she reiterated more than once that she was grateful that he actually stayed & took him to the hospital. Are you f-ing kidding me? It was emphasized to me more than once that if it had been a person from Korea & not America, they would have fled the scene immediately. That fact made me sad & furious at the same time.
I was sickened with my lifelong hatred for Korea’s alcoholism, it’s culture of getting wasted & this almost sheepish or obnoxiously jubilant pride that they got hammered as fuck on the regular. FUCK YOUR DRINKING. YOUR DRINKING KILLED MY GRANDFATHER. And how many other fathers, mothers, babies who didn’t deserve it? Still want another shot? And now my family has to rewatch every security camera’s footage of this horrific event to determine fault in all this. I felt rage for this Korean obsession with working insane hours & trying to reach unobtainable measures of success that drove this guy & drives our society to depression, suicide or just plain dangerous behaviors that endanger others.
I felt & feel sorry for this guy. It was pouring rain. It was 5am. They were unfamiliar roads. I doubt he ever thought an elderly person would be out walking at that hour in those weather conditions. And now the rest of his still young life is in the balance. He didn’t flee. He called his friend to find out what he should do. He made sure my grandfather got to the hospital, a move that apparently most others wouldn’t have considered in their distress & panic. Is it right that he go to jail for years on end, become a hardened & emotionally traumatized person? I don’t know. My heart goes out to him too.
What’s done is done & we can’t go back. Only thing is, what now? Where do we go from here? HOW?
Being back at home unexpectedly was a huge blessing for me. I was forced shut up & just be there for my family, especially my mom & dad. Anyone who really knows me knows that a week alone with my dad is anxiety inducing for both me & those who love us. We love each other deeply, but we are definitely two of a kind who can & do create a pretty combustive situation very quickly, & pretty predictably. For the record, we lasted 2.5 days til our one & only fight that almost had me dropping everything & driving straight back to LA. By the will of God, Allah, Buddha, the Universe, I stayed put & we talked it out. Well, one more fight that same day before we made up with sad & exhausted hearts. I’m glad to say the rest of the week went swimmingly.
I watched how hard my dad works. He'd wake up at the crack of dawn to head to the store while I got a couple more hours of sleep before addressing Kollaboration emails & then heading to the store to help him for a few hours each day. I remembered, like riding a bike, how to sort/tag/detag/bag/load clothes like from my high school days, using my still young & strong limbs. I thought of my aging mother doing this day in & day out, with my dad running back & forth between machines, pressing & ironing, & checking on the sweltering hot boiler room. And in between all this, how they'd jaunt out with a smile to interact with all their customers to give them their orders & take more in. I was ashamed & amazed at how ridiculously exhausted I was from just a few days of this, how weak I'd gotten & how 10000% determined I now am to let my parents get out of that physically exhausting line of work they've been doing for 11 years, with little to no vacation ever.
I ran around my neighborhood that week, I discovered new parks & roads I hadn’t known of in the 17 years my family living there. I played tennis with my dad whenever he asked, even though I'm terrible at it, & laughed extra hard because I really was happy to be there with him. I laughed with a tightness around my heart with yet another reminder that these moments were precious & limited. I ended up at UC Berkeley for lunch, getting spoiled by my second cousin at his new restaurant & conversing serendipitously with strangers going through similar heartaches as me. I walked the campus that I’d been a wide-eyed child/pretend adult for 5 amazing & ridiculous years. I ran along my favorite beach in San Francisco on a foggy & blustery day, breathing in the air that always invigorated me & reminded me I was put on earth for a reason & meant to do great things if I could power through moments I wanted to quit.
I spent time with some of my favorite women in my life – the ones who had been there for me through thick & thin since we were children & were now going through their own intense transformations in life. My best friend since 4th grade invited me to her brand new home & lovingly planned a last minute birthday celebration, with some truly wonderful souls I’m blessed to call friends who came out & celebrated this very meaningful milestone with me in a city that I love. I danced my heart out to music that made me scream out "that's my jam!!" & hugged more people than I can count. And when I drove up to the airport on my 2nd day of my 30 year old life, I welcomed my mother home with a stronger, more grateful heart & a still childlike hug & kiss to remind us she’s always my uhmma & I’m always her baby. Only now I could & would take better care of her.
In the days since, I’ve been in multiple states & back on my usual, insane grind. My life, as many of my friends & social media connections can regularly see, is a completely chaotic & beautiful mess. I love it so much. I think that part of my grandfather’s passing was meant to remind me just that. Everything has heightened meaning & much more value when I didn't think that it was possible.
I am still processing my grandfather’s death. In the days since that call, I’ve laughed, cried, contemplated life & death, been monumentally distracted, been joyous, been guilty, been devastated, been determined to make him, my parents, my brothers & myself proud.
So much happens in our day to days, so much speeds along, & I rarely ever slow down, but now it’s imperative that I must. Ironically, or perhaps even poetically, my lack of sleep & intense work life has left me sick for the 6th time this year. It’s absolutely ridiculous. I’m sitting here wiping my runny nose every 3 minutes while waiting to head to the airport at 4:15am so I can get back to Los Angeles, sleep for a few precious hours, and then host an event for a community organization run by my incredible friends.
In losing my grandfather & in closing the tumultuous chapter that was my 20’s, I now have this profound appreciation for life that I would trade for nothing. Call me dramatic, call me cliché, I really could care less. And I mean it. That’s the absolute best part. My brain is learning how to shut up & shut out the incessant worrying, the now needless insecurity, all the pondering & fruitless over analysis. Opportunities are everywhere, love is abundant, energy is limited, time is scarce & I now feel marginally wiser in using it. And I will use it for as long as I'm here, for better or for worse, with purpose & with unending gratitude for every single second of it.
Thank you & rest in peace,할아버지. 사랑해요.