Say it was a night, any night in the early ‘60s, and I was falling asleep in our brick rambler on Layton Drive in the sleepy DC suburbs. Corner lot, the two-trunked tree. A basement that, like every basement here, flooded after a hard rain. The collective moan meant everyone on Layton Drive was in the same boat, headed downstairs with our pails. Still, we, the Parks, were different from our neighbors; the only family that ate kimchi, for one thing. Kimchi with tuna boats, kimchi with spaghetti ‘n’ meatballs. I even liked it old and soggy but soon enough my mom would be fitting herself with those yellow Playtex gloves over an impressive mound of chopped cabbage and sliced red radishes topped with cayenne pepper. Translation: new kimchi! Fresh and crunchy, just the way I loved it.
By the time I came to understand why only we had kimchi on the kitchen table, I began to love it less. Once, when a friend caught sight of a kimchi jar in the refrigerator, I panicked and told her it was fruit salad. Well, that was a different universe.
And in that universe, whenever my dad came in to say goodnight, I’d stir awake, soaking up every whisper, his gushing heart on display. My mom was another story. If on a night, any night in the early ‘60s, I’d woken up to the sight of her tucking me in, I would’ve assumed it was a ghost or a mirage, my eyes playing tricks on me. Because my mom was far from the queen of affection. And she wore it like a crown.
“I’m no lovey-dovey like daddy.”
And yet she was lovable, a character for the ages; a bit Desi, a bit Lucy, Korean-style—her war-torn history had left her excitable with the cutest kooky bird English. It couldn’t have been easy to give up her native tongue during the Japanese Occupation only to end up here after the Korean War, stammering to get the English words out. A dummy was a “dumb-nutty,” affordable housing was “h-h-h-horrible housing.” And while smothering her kids with hugs and kisses was out of the question, how could we not love our unscripted comedienne who created reels of Park memories? For example, in the summer of ’76 while the family was vacationing in Honolulu, for no apparent reason she turned around and began running up the down escalator in the Ala Moana Mall. The mental footage entertained us for years and she was a pretty good sport about it. I can still hear her trademark howl:
“I laugh butts-head off!”
Way too young, my dad’s heart stopped in his sleep. To this day, I haven’t recovered, but in 1979, my mom, not yet fifty with me half her age, I had work to do. In a way, I took her husband’s place. I handled the doctors, lawyers, taxes, and banking with her. We had fun outings, too: strawberry pie at the S&W Cafeteria and dim sum at The Ruby. Wherever we went, it was a table-for-two.
Neither her eldest nor her favorite, I think a shrink might have a field day with me. But like most tragic stories, hers went deeper than textbook training, so deep it’s a miracle that her kids, on some level, to some degree, like pups with second senses, saw through it: Our mom’s cool heart was linked to her losing her long-ago first family, casualties of two wars. Her philosophy now: Life was h-h-h-horrible. A daughter of missionaries ice-skating across the Yalu River in northern Korea in the midst of a magical childhood never expects to journey across the border alone at night with a stitch of bullets behind her, only to end up in ‘50s America, land of Howard Johnson’s famous hot dog but no kimchi. Now her soul floated between worlds—old Korea and modern American—with her heart more there than here, it seemed, in a stricken state that invaded her DNA and stole her maternal instinct to lovingly comb her daughters’ hair the way I knew other mothers did. But anyone who paced the front porch with a car wreck of a face if you were even five minutes late but hugged your friend Laurie to near suffocation just because she got you home from college in one piece (was I seeing things?) loved her children more than God, and, trust me, she loved a God a lot. Every night of motherhood, she fell into a prayer deep as a trance. If you accidentally walked in on her, she wouldn’t wake up. Uli (our) Grace, uli Frances, uli Sammy, uli Ginger…
That said, if you came down with a cough, all hell broke loose. Later, we’d learn she was reliving memories of seeking a doctor, any doctor, in the tents, for her firstborn’s relentless cough during The Korean War. “She got whooping cough! Cough for hundred day! Almost die, I say! She j-j-j-just baby!” But her overblown nursing skills on Layton Drive drove me to bury my cough in my pillow, and to this day, the smell of Campbell’s Chicken Soup or Lipton Tea or Vicks makes me gag.
“All night I pray you not sick anymore. Stop c-c-c-cough!”
In the forty years following the death of my father, we carved out a little life for ourselves. By nature, I wasn’t quite her cup of tea—too emotional for her taste. Translation: weak. I knew better. I was more like my dad and in that way; my mom and I spoke different languages. But let me tell you there were moments when the whole neighborhood was asleep and we talked into the late hour about the old days, hers there and ours here, when we were one candle, one flame. We entered a soulful universe. Because even though the world would change, and Koreans galore dotted the area, whenever we drove back for a nostalgic peek at Layton Drive—we moved out in ‘66 but stayed in the area—with the same two-trunked tree but different neighbors, we would always feel like outsiders, if for no other reason than once upon a time the Parks were the only family that ate kimchi. My mom and I laughed loud, teased loud, and yelled loud—nothing dainty here—and playfully called each other dumb-nuttys on a daily basis. Yes, I had boyfriends, too many, even a husband at one point, and how she despaired over my love life—“You dumb-nutty, always like wrong man!”—but she was my true partner. If I wasn’t with her, I was missing her. Of course, my siblings, especially Ginger, shared their own golden spaces with her, rich as mine, but only they can tell their stories. Our space, I can tell you, was so sacred, words were a joke. We might be filling our baskets at Napoleon, her favorite Korean bakery, or clocking in at two hours on the phone until I’d hear her say, “Hand hurt, talk too long.”
Over the course of four decades, as if she slowly crossed an ocean, my mom warmed up. Whispering sweet nothings would never be her thing, and if you gave her a hug, she didn’t quite hug back. But she blew kisses from afar and penned lovey-dovey words in birthday cards. “You are my wounderful [sic] daugher [sic].” My guess is that she found peace with her fate, and though her heart still yearned for old Korea, she could, finally, feel the sun.
Last April, while playing a long and winding Korean card game on her sofa in the sitting room, my mom said she moved a funny way which caused a crippling pain in her back. “J-j-j-just I twist!” Doctors—an Urgent Care, her Primary Care and a spine specialist who put her through five unnecessary procedures—failed to diagnose the cause of her pain for three months during which time, in ungodly agony, her beloved outings were limited to the following: a lunch at Han Gang Restaurant, a trip to Safeway, a final lunch at The Thai Café, and one final visit to Layton Drive where we took pictures of the two-trunked tree a month before she could no longer move. An ambulance sped her to Fairfax Hospital where, after her correct diagnosis, she underwent weeklong emergency radiation treatments before landing in hospice-at-home in July.
By the way, if you know nothing of metastasized lung cancer or end-of-life or active dying, run. Run like hell. Stay blissfully ignorant for as long as you can. Otherwise, you’ll wish you were never born in the first place. Or as my mom used to say: “No one ask to be born but here we are, try to sorbibe.”
Ginger and I served as her round-the-clock hospice nurses. Despite the unimaginable moment in our lives, we dove into our roles. This was our mom, lost in a fog of post-hospital delirium, morphine and every-nook-and-cranny cancer. One hour she thought her legs were different countries, the next hour she was wondering when Roger Federer was scheduled to play in the U.S. Open. So, it was her and not her, stating frankly for the record: “I like to lib fibe more year.” A far-fetched dream but I still prayed for a miracle that she’d hang on for a few months and maybe—as her hopeful radiologist indicated—even walk again. Or at least be helped into a wheelchair and wheeled onto the deck just to breathe in her backyard, for God’s sake. Take in the greenery. Was that too much to ask?
One August day, at her bedside in a room far removed from Layton Drive, accepting the truth that our time was clocked and my mom was poised to leave this universe for another, I buried my face in her neck and cried. Even then, I was self-conscious because tears never sat well with her. But she did the unexpected. As if pushing through fog, her right arm moved and began to pat my back slow and steady as she uttered in her most perfect English:
“My heart will always be with you.”
Translation: I love you.
The next week her arm was lifeless, as was she.
In the days and weeks that followed, I did what most of us do when we lose someone: I fell into my own fog. Slept too much and ate too little; had nightmares and waking dreams; smiled like a zombie would if it could; conjured up her hologram next to me. “Dumb-nutty, you all alone now, go find b-b-b-better husband.”
The idea to make Christmas gifts for each of my siblings lifted the fog a little. Sometimes even just the thought got me through the day, walked me from here to there. My plan: to frame vintage photographs of each sibling with our mom as a young mother.
After searching online, I ordered white marble frames—5×5 inch squares with cut-out heart spaces for the pictures—from World Market. When they arrived, I was happy with the museum quality but not the heart spaces; they were carved too deep, a good half-inch, at least. Considering the marble frame was so small to begin with, a photo might get lost in there, look like it was faraway. But I’d already spent hours combing the Park family archives for the perfect photos and my friend Jason had helped me scan and print them to size, so with tape and scissors, I went to work.
Done, each gift stood like a little memorial to our mom. The cut-out heart only added enchantment.
There she is, cradling Ginger as a bonneted baby on Layton Drive next to the two-trunked tree. There she is, picking up Sam as a toddler at Bellevue Apartments. And there she is, a lifetime ago in her native country, holding hands with her firstborn Grace, small as a doll in her tiny Korean hanbok. In a way, the last portrait stood out with its dreamy, ancient cast. But they were all special, and one night in mid-December, before wrapping them up, I took pictures of each one with my cell phone camera. That’s when I noticed something on the screen. Something… odd.
In the old Korea image, the heart appeared raised, not engraved. Plump, like a real heart. Shocked stupid, I snapped more pictures from different angles, different lighting, even upside down. I scrolled through the images I had just taken: same visual. I grabbed my laptop, focused the camera, click-click-click! More scrolling, more plump hearts. I was going nuts. Possibly hallucinating.
After a long hard stare, more mystery: the hearts reverted to their true cut-out state, then began to slowly pulse up and down like… I’ll just say it: a human heart. Double and triple-check my vision, contacts in, contacts out, glasses on, glasses off. Every lens yielded the same result. Eventually I printed out an image, doubtful the effect would transfer to paper.
Days passed before I mentioned a word of this to a soul. In fragile times, you don’t need your sanity questioned. Eventually, I asked Jason:
“Do you see what I see?”
The truth is some might just see an optical illusion. Or nothing. But I see a gift from my mom, from her universe to mine. For forty years, we shared moments as one candle, one flame, one aura, and not even death will stand in our way. “My heart will always be with you,” she said—and I’m holding her to that.
Photo Credit: Frances Park