This is not the newsletter I wanted to send next.
I’ve been writing this for almost a week now, returning to it in fits and starts, wondering when the final words, the final date, were to going to be committed to the page.
And now the moment has come.
On December 23, 2020, we found out my Korean grandmother, my 할머니, tested positive for COVID-19.
On February 17, 2021, I said my last farewells to the woman who raised me over video chat.
It was not COVID.
But it was COVID that kept us apart.
We monitored my grandmother’s condition from a distance through Christmas and the new year. She had been living in a nursing home for the past couple of years, but ever since the pandemic, the facility went into a virtual shut down, allowing no one but staff in or out. For 10 months, my mother could only see my grandmother through a window, waving from a distance, talking through their phones.
할머니 was already somewhat mentally vague, and the isolation only exacerbated it. When I think back on this pandemic, this is what breaks my heart the most. This lack of face-to-face human connection between my grandmother and her kin, her blood, due to a deadly virus. More than anything, it’s this loss of connection that’s been killing us, some more slowly than others. But my family thought this sacrifice was worth it for the time being, because it would keep her protected, keep her safe.
Yet despite all the precautions, the virus got into the nursing home anyway.
No one could figure out how, but it seems likely that one of the staff members unknowingly brought it in. Or perhaps one of the residents caught it at the ER, where the staff had taken him after he fell and broke his hip. It doesn’t matter, because COVID got into the nursing home and quickly decimated the elderly inside. A full 15% of the residents, and not a few of the staff and caretakers died. My grandmother’s roommate was one of the virus’s victims, a woman some 10 years younger and more hale than she.
“Keep praying,” my mother told me. “Please.”
“I will,” I promised. The Korean side of my family is Christian, and although I am not, I maintain faith with the numinous in my own way.
What I was supposed to be praying for, my mother never told me, but I knew what she was asking anyway. My grandmother was 96; we’ve known for a while that she might be leaving us some day soon.
Not COVID, I prayed later. Please not COVID. If her time has come, then not like this, alone and in a hospital, out of reach from her loved ones.
When I graduated from college in 2005, my mother took me on a sort of abbreviated Asian Grand Tour to Seoul and Beijing, with 할머니 and my little brother tagging along. We did many of the usual tourist things in Beijing—visiting silk factories, the Forbidden City, the Great Wall of China—but the activity that has always stood out in my mind was our visit to a traditional Chinese medicine clinic.
The doctor who examined us only checked our pulse and looked at our tongues before diagnosing our problems. My brother had an issue with his lungs, my mother with her liver, and me with my endocrinological system. When it came to 할머니, he gave her one look and a shake of his head.
“There is,” he said through our Korean translator, “nothing wrong with you, grandmother. You are the healthiest of them all.”
And so she was. Her constitution had always been robust, rarely succumbing even to the mildest cold, and for as long as was mobile, my grandmother did exercises every morning to get her blood flowing. Her earlobes were large and full, as big as the Buddha’s, we used to joke. In Korean physiognomy, large earlobes usually meant someone was blessed with long life. I was counting on this whenever I prayed.
Not like this, I begged. Please, not like this.
Whether or not it was my prayers or her innate good health, 할머니 never developed any of the worst symptoms of COVID—no fever, no cough, no shortness of breath. The nursing home said she seemed fatigued and with very little appetite, but that was not unusual for someone her age, regardless of the coronavirus.
Throughout January 2021, we monitored her status from afar. Week after week, waiting for word, one way or another. That the disease has progressed, that she has recovered, or that she has taken a turn for the worst.
Waiting. And waiting. And waiting.
You count time by updates, since you last heard any news. All else lived in the liminal spaces, between life and death, and the moments between breaths.
In late January, 할머니 tested negative for COVID a second time, and she was allowed to leave the nursing home.
My parents had been house-hunting all throughout the pandemic, but now their search had suddenly become even more urgent. My mother was adamant that once 할머니 was cleared to go, she wanted to bring her home.
To die. My mother wanted to bring her home to die. She didn’t say it, but she didn’t have to. We all knew. We had 눈치.
In early February, the escrow closed on a house my parents had purchased. 힐머니 seemed, my mother said, really happy to know she would be back with her family.
With everyone except me.
Of course, my grandmother had other family who couldn’t be there. Her son had pre-deceased by some 20 years, a victim of his bipolar disorder, but she had two other grandchildren in Korea, as well as two great-grandchildren. But even if we did not live in pandemic times, my absence would be far more noticeable than that of my cousins.
I am the grandchild she raised by hand.
Both my parents got their first vaccine shots in early February—my father because he’s over 65, and my mother because she’s considered an essential worker. A few days later, my mother moved into their new house with my grandmother and the hospice care nurse, devoting all her time to her mother’s comfort in her final days. My father and little brother would bring the rest of the belongings along later, when everything else had been finalized.
Once they were settled in, I agreed to call 할머니, to chat with her via video because I couldn’t physically be by her side. I fretted over whether or not she would recognize me through the pixelated resolution, if she would understand whatwas going on when my mother held the screen up before her. The thought of my grandmother failing to recognize me before she went home to her God gutted me. This was the woman who walked me back and forth from school every day, who picked me up from the bus stop, who cooked all my meals, packed all my lunches, and quizzed me on my multiplication tables while both my parents worked full-time to make ends meet. My childhood was far less affluent than my teenage years, and I shared a bed with 할머니 until I was 9 years old, when I finally got my own bedroom for the first time. And even then, I crawled out of my own bed and into hers most early mornings for the next year, unable to find peace without her presence at my back.
The first phone call was short. My mother video-called through KakaoTalk and I greeted 할머니 through the screen. It was hard to understand her, not only because of my half-fluent Korean, the unstable connection, and her mental vagueness, but for the lack of teeth in her mouth and the cannula delivering oxygen to her nose.
“She says you’re pretty,” my mother said, translating my grandmother’s mushy words back to me.
My heart clenched.
My mother used to joke that we—my mother, my brother, and I—got our vanity from my grandfather, my 할아버지. There wasn’t a single reflective surface the three of us could pass by without checking to make sure we were just as good-looking as we were two seconds ago, when we had passed by the last reflective surface. She said this to us as we walked back from church, through the streets of Pasadena to the parking deck a few blocks away. As if on cue, the three of us—my mother, my brother, and I—immediately turned our heads in unison as we passed a large, dark storefront window, checking our reflections to make sure that we were all, in fact, as good-looking as we were two seconds ago, and laughed.
할머니 never had such vanity.
In fact, she had never been considered a great beauty. Her marriage to my grandfather had been arranged, and was thought by many to be somewhat mismatched as 할아버지 was handsome and brilliant, while my grandmother was dull and plain.
Your physical appearance is a funny thing, especially amongst Koreans. How you look is communal property, and everyone will comment on it—whether or not you’ve gained weight, whether or not you've gotten plastic surgery, whether or not you’re pretty. I’ve never felt as though there was a value judgement attached to it, but perhaps that because I’ve been called pretty ever since I was a child, by both family and strangers alike. To Koreans, my prettiness simply was, a trait over which no one had control, like having red hair or green eyes. It was like remarking that the sky is blue, or water is wet.
When I was young, I used to catch my grandmother studying my face at the dinner table before commenting out of the blue that I was prettier than my mother. I could see my mother bristle at that a bit, her vanity stung. (“Right in front of my salad?”) My mother is beautiful by every objective measure, her father’s daughter in every respect. She was proud of her beauty, but she was proud of mine too; I was her daughter after all.
But 할머니 never took pride in my beauty. She made no claim on it, save to delight in it. She told me regularly and often that I was pretty, in tones of increasing surprise and awe the older I got.
“Does she recognize me?” I asked my mother through the screen.
“이쁘다,” I heard my grandmother mumble.
The word means pretty or lovely, but as a child, I had apparently absorbed a secondary, more personal meaning without knowing it. 너무 너무 예뻐, 우리 손녀. Beloved. I was her pretty girl, her beloved granddaughter.
My heart unclenched.
“She has trouble staying awake,” my mother said. “We can try again tomorrow. Tell her you love her.”
“사랑해, 할머니,” I said, struggling to keep my voice even, my expression bright. “사랑해요.”
The woman on the other end of the video call with dandelion fluff white hair and papery thin onion skin briefly raised her head.
“이쁘다,” 할머니 said again. Her eyelids, now lashless with age, slid shut.
The next day, she recognized me and called me by name. She was a bit more alert, sucking on a red lollipop that stained her lips pink.
“Sarah,” she said, when my mother asked her who I was. “세라야.”
As it had been yesterday, the conversation was short, but my grandmother was present. She saw me through the screen and knew me. I told her I loved her again, and I thanked her. For what I didn’t say. Maybe I didn’t have to. My 힐머니 raised me. She would know. We have 정.
This was her last gift to me.
On February 15, 2021, my mother told me they had stopped feeding and giving my grandmother an IV drip.
I knew what that meant.
Knowing death is nigh is meant to prepare you, a sort of mithradism against grief. Not an inoculation, not a vaccine. A vaccine prevents you from getting sick. Mithradism feeds you trace amounts of poison until you build up enough tolerance to survive a lethal dose. Nothing can inoculate you from grief, but the fortunate among us can prepare so we don’t succumb to the agony.
In some ways, I’ve been preparing for years. 96 is old by any measure, but I had been marking the decline of her aging body for years now. Delicate, frail, almost ethereal, when she had seemed so solid to me before. 할머니 was fading back into the universe, and every time I had gone to see her before the pandemic, I wondered if that would be my last. Death did more than just approach; they hovered, hand resting lightly upon her shoulder.
As sad as it was to think of her passing, 할머니 would not be the first grandparent of mine to go. I was two when 할아버지 died, twenty-two when my other grandfather passed away. I’ve been blessed to have three grandparents alive during childhood and much of my young adulthood.
But this grief is different, a different, more potent strain of sorrow. I was too young to have any memories of 할아버지, and while I was old enough for the loss of Papa to hit me hard, he had not raised me. He did not pull my hair back to wash my face with his hands every morning and every evening, he did not make me oatmeal for breakfast just the way I liked it (slightly dry and with a pinch of salt, yes I know I’m weird), he did not cook my favorite Korean side dishes, he did not clip my fingernails whenever they got too long. 할머니’s passing would be different, more dreadful for its intimacy. She was not a second mother, but there is no word for what she was to me in the English language. Neither caretaker nor nursemaid nor grandparent nor parent, yet somehow all these things at once.
96. I’ve been preparing myself for this for years. I should be ready.
But I am not ready.
I feel the prickle of tears and take another dose of sorrow.
On February 17, 2021, my mother told us that they had moved my grandmother to morphine and that she was likely not going to wake again.
I was standing, naked in my bathroom, when I got the text.
I had just come home from taekwondo and thrown my sweaty dobok into the laundry when I decided to check my phone again. I had been feeling better because exercise usually helps, the space between workouts an alternative way to measure time.
I stared at the screen and wondered whether or not I should say anything back.
Then I turned on my shower, connected my phone to my mini Bluetooth speaker, blasting the latest episode of whatever podcast I was listening to at an inappropriate volume. I didn’t want my upstairs neighbors to hear. Setting my phone on the counter, I left my mother’s text unanswered and pulled aside the curtain, crawling into my bathtub before sitting down.
I am not afraid of Death; I have met them several times before. Personally even, by choice and by circumstance. Because of that, the end of life doesn’t scare me, or least, the end of my life doesn’t scare me. I’ve made peace with dying, again and again and again.
I am not afraid of Death, but I realize now that I dread their presence.
Because they’re here. They are the liminal space.
I didn’t know until now that Death touches not just those they are meant to take, but everyone around the departing soul. Every time I had seen them hovering over 할머니’s shoulder, a little piece of them followed me home. They became the anxiety in my stomach, the traumatic slash of fear I felt whenever I received a text from my family members back home. As my grandmother’s time drew nearer and nearer, Death’s presence became heavier and heavier, muffling my thoughts, making it hard to breathe. For as long as 할머니 lingered on, Death would stay.
They would not be swift, or merciful. Not to me.
It is not Death who draws the boundary between life and the end; it is us. You choose to go. I’ve always believed that, having stood on the threshold myself several times. You choose to go, or you choose to stay, and my grandmother has always been strong-willed. 고집이 쌔.
할머니 has always been stubborn. This is the woman from Pyongyang who escaped to Seoul during the second World War with nothing but the clothes on her back…along with all the money she had sewn in their seams. Back then, she begged, bartered, and bought her way the 38th Parallel with her husband and infant son in arms, crossing the border by boat at night. Her victory over COVID was as likely due to her indomitable will as it was to her constitution, since she was never given treatment. My grandmother is a prime example of a woman who simply gives no fucks—like the postal service, neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night nor Death themself would ever sway her from her course. It would be just like her to draw this out.
Still, it can’t be long. Yet I can’t help wishing it would be sooner rather than later—for my sake, not hers. And it makes me feel like shit, like a terrible granddaughter. You selfish fuck. How could you be so goddamned callous as to wish she would just hurry up and die already? What about your mother? Your little brother? Your cousins in Korea?
I am a selfish fuck, because there’s a part of me that wants her to stay. To linger on for just a little bit, just a little while longer. To what end? Whenever the fucking pandemic lifts so I can go home and say my farewells in person? Is it fair to ask her to hold on just for that?
I turn to Death, but they provide me no answers.
It doesn’t matter. I’ll feel like shit no matter what they say.
I can’t seem to hold on to grief.
Maybe it’s because I’m an Aries moon, but I’ve always hated feeling emotions in my body. Feelings make me uncomfortable, and I would rather throw a good tantrum or screaming fit to release that tension than hold on it.
I sat curled up on the floor of my bathtub after that text message, scream-sobbing in a way I never have before. I let the shower run around me for minutes uncounted, wasting hot water, wondering if it were possible to drown like this.
Then I got up, washed my face, and reached for the shampoo.
When I was younger I used to worry I was some sort of sociopath for my ability to unfeel something, but it’s not that I don’t feel emotions; it’s that I don’t hold onto them. The waves of feeling crest and crash, and in the ebb I return to normal, the emotion gone.
I rinse out the shampoo and sob.
Then I stop, reach for the conditioner, and repeat.
The crying comes in fits and starts, the tears mingling with the water running down my face. To my surprise, I realize I’ve never cried in the shower before. I’ve sobbed in many places—several of them public—but I have to say, shower-sobbing outsells them all. I can’t tell if it’s tears or water coursing down my cheeks. 10/10 would do it again.
I laugh as I lather, wondering if I’ve lost my mind. The sorrow is gone, and I’m back to normal.
Before I start crying again two seconds later.
Later that evening, I spoke to my grandmother for the last time.
My mother told me I could call. 할머니 was unconscious, but my mother said she could still hear me. I had seen the tears in my mother’s eyes and heard the tremor in her voice every time we had spoken before and wanted to be stoic, to be strong for her sake. She was enduring this alone when I should have been there, caring for my mother in the way she was caring for her mother.
But I broke immediately, too weak to shoulder the weight of her grief in addition to my own.
“It’s okay,” my mother said as I started to cry. “It’s okay.”
She brought the phone to 할머니’s ear.
“사랑해, 할머니,” I said. “너무 너무 사랑해요. 사랑하고 고마워요. 고마워.”
I love you. I love you so much. I love you and I’m grateful. Thank you.
I stumbled over the words, too inadequate to contain the lifetime of emotions I felt. My Korean, ever untutored and artless, was spoken with the tongue of a child, mixing both formal and familiar verb endings together. I was both rude to and overly intimate with the person to whom I should have been the most respectful.
But 할머니 had never minded my imperfect Korean, had never chided me for my mistakes. She had only ever been grateful I spoke it at all, for it was the only language we shared.
The moment had come now, the time to say goodbye.
I didn’t know what to say. There are many ways to say farewell in Korean, from 네일 보자 (see you tomorrow) to 안녕 (bye), but they seemed too glib. There are other ways to say goodbye, especially more polite and formal ones, but none seemed to fit. Should I tell her 안녕히 계세요, to be—stay—exist well, as I normally would when I were leaving her place? Or should I say 안녕히 가세요, go well, as though I were seeing her off to the great beyond myself?
“안녕히 주무세요,” I said at last. Sleep well.
Good night, 할머니. Good night, and goodbye.
Afterwards I went for a walk amongst the dead.
Bear came home after I hung up the phone. He saw me cry and held me tight, saying nothing, offering only the steadiness of his presence. One of the things I love best about him is that he does not press, does not ask, does not talk, and his silence is more comforting than even his touch. I am bad at sharing feelings with anyone else, because to give someone my grief is to endure the added burden of their attention. According to astrology, I am a creature of fire and air, and being embodied and weighed down feels like being buried when all I want to do is breathe free. I can’t bear it. I can’t bear to be seen or perceived by anyone except Bear, because he bears witness and says nothing. He says nothing and holds me. He doesn’t bury me; he grounds me.
Despite all this, I still need to be alone. I need to be alone, and I need to move. We live only half a mile away from Allegheny Cemetery, so I went for a walk.
The gates to the cemetery close at sundown, and night had fallen several hours previous, but there were open doors along the gothic towers and romanesque colonnades and with no one wandering the streets at that hour, I slipped in unnoticed.
It had been a rather snowy winter in Pittsburgh, or at least snowier than the previous winter. Snow blanketed the grounds and graves, and last night’s freezing rain had coated the bare branches in a thin, crystalline glaze of ice. I love cemeteries; I find them peaceful, not haunted. The night was dark, obscured by clouds, and the only sound was the crunch and squeak of snow beneath my feet. I was completely and utterly alone, save for the dead, but they had nothing to say.
For the first time in a long while, my head was empty. I thought of nothing, I felt nothing. I listened to crunch and crackle of cold and death beneath my feet and felt space open up inside me. Here, amongst the dead, I could breathe. I walked amongst the graves, mindless as a zombie, until I had sufficiently outpaced my grief.
When I got back home, Bear had White-Harp in his hands and she gave me a hug in the only way a stuffed seal can—with her fins and her whole plush body.
I spent all of February 18, 2021 waiting. And waiting, and waiting, and waiting.
I could not work. I could not think. Every train of thought seemed to end at Death’s station and tears would wrack my body. Sometimes I would let myself cry, sometimes I would flee from my feelings by writing, but not what I’m supposed to be working on. I can’t seem to write through my pain or past it; I can only write of my pain. Journaling. Bits of poetry. This essay about my grandmother. I’m supposed to be revising the first Guardians of Dawn book right now, but I’m not here, I’m gone. The part of me that needs to work is preoccupied, checking my phone constantly for The News.
Around 4PM, I decide to exercise. My parents gifted me an indoor bike for Christmas and I’ve made good use of it ever since, riding it almost every day, save for the days I go to train in taekwondo at the dojang. I’m an Aries moon; I find comfort in working my emotions out of my body along with sweat.
It wasn’t until I got onto the saddle that I noticed just how sore I was. I was sore everywhere, from my neck and shoulders down my back to my abs and glutes and hamstrings. I had been to the dojang yesterday, but hadn’t worked out any harder than usual. I’m in the last stages of preparing for my first black belt degree, so much of what I’ve been working on with my master lately has been reviewing my patterns, making sure I’m executing the forms with speed, power, precision, rhythm, timing, and—most difficult of all—grace. Nothing out of the ordinary, no reason for me to feel sore.
I realized then that I was holding my love for 할머니 in my body.
What I didn’t understand when I was younger was how much love fucking hurts. Physically. The pain that radiates from your chest and up your throat, pressing against your eyes, your temples, your cheeks. It travels down the length of my arms, my hands, my fingertips, down through my stomach to my legs, my feet. I hurt. And I bore the brunt of that pain bodily.
Gritting my teeth, I put my feet in the pedals and began to ride. I create a lot of playlists to work out to, but music wasn’t enough of a distraction for me. I rode through several songs, pushing hard against the pedals as though I could punch down my grief, but the sorrow would bubble back up to burst through in a wretched sob. My ragged breaths came short as I cycled faster and faster, my throat burning with unshed tears. I sounded like someone who was drowning, gasping for air, rough and raw and desperate.
I switched to an audiobook. That helped some; instead of my feelings, I could wallow in someone else’s. The ride smoothed out and instead of tears, I dehydrated myself on sweat. After an hour I stepped off and got into the shower, feeling much more calm, the soreness gone. I poked at my own thoughts as I lathered up. The emotions were spent, wrung out—still damp, but no longer flooding the ceilings of my mind.
The emotions were gone, but unfortunately, so was I.
It was well into the evening before I realized I hadn’t eaten. I knew I should feed myself, so I ordered German dishes to be delivered to me, since I couldn’t bring myself to cook. Comfort food: fried cabbage, Spätzle, schnitzel. Physically fulfilling, even if they couldn’t fill the emptiness inside. I had no appetite for Korean food. 입맛이 없어. My taste is gone.
Just like the rest of me is gone.
I’m not here.
How is it that my grandmother is the one that is fading from life, but I’m the one who feels like she’s dying?
“How are you doing?” Bear asks when he gets home. We share the German food, watch the latest season of Archer available on Hulu.
“Okay,” I say. “I’m okay.”
It’s not a lie. I’m functional. I eat, I exercise, I sleep. I work, I write, I play, I even laugh. I feel happy at times. Sad at others. The sorrow comes and goes. 왔다가, 갔다가. Back and forth.
I am not okay.
I am okay.
Back and forth, 왔다가, 갔다가.
할머니 passed away on February 18, 2021 at 9:33PM PST in Fullerton, CA.
I was awake, having stayed beside my phone all night, both anticipating and dreading the screen lighting up with a notification. It was past midnight on the East Coast, but I didn’t want the news of my grandmother’s death to be lost in the liminal space of the Do Not Disturb until morning. I wanted to be present the moment 할머니’s soul departed this earth, even if I could not be there by her side.
The text arrived.
The pain arrived.
And I cried.
Not for long. The burst of tears last no more than a few seconds, a summer storm, just enough to break the humidity and relieve the pressure building up within me. Perhaps the mithradism against grief had worked, or perhaps I was simply too exhausted to feel the sorrow afresh. It was long past my bedtime. Of course 할머니 passed during the liminal hours, on both February 18th and 19th at once. The previous day, week, month had not ended, one not interminable, unbroken stretch of grief. And now it was over.
Yet despite that, I found I could not sleep. My heart and my feet were restless, itching to move, to run, to shed the feelings in my body. It was too late for me to venture to the cemetery as I had the day before, so I opened the door to my back deck to stand outside.
The deck was covered in about 8 inches of snow, accumulated and melted then accumulated again over the past few days. I could see the tracks I had made across its pristine surface the previous week, half covered with fresh powder. I crossed the deck to stand at the railing when another bolt of grief shot through me. Another rainstorm, another thundershower, brief but fierce. I noticed that a light snow was falling, the flakes visible only against the light of the streetlamp below. I laughed in delight. Summer within me, winter around me. Then I cried again.
Truly I was losing my mind.
I paced and I paced and I paced. The deck is fairly large—large enough for me to practice my taekwondo patterns when the weather is fine—and I circled back and forth, diagonally and down, crossways and up, making sure to stomp out every bit of smooth, untrammeled snow I could find. I obliterated the tracks I made last week with new ones, over and over and over again, until at last my brain stopped working and I came back inside, frozen stiff but calm.
I crawled into bed and read a book until the uncounted hours of the early morning. When I was finally too tired to cry, I buried my face in the pillow 할머니 had made for me, held White-Harp to my chest, and fell asleep.
I woke up late after daybreak, having slept more peacefully than I had in the past couple of weeks. Before I even got out of bed, I probed at the emptiness in my heart, tonguing the cavity of pain, and felt nothing.
할머니 was gone.
And I was numb.
The floors were cold when I finally crawled out from beneath my covers, but I didn’t feel them. I didn’t feel anything. The numbness, it seemed, was not only in my soul.
Bear had fallen asleep early and he had left for work early, so I was alone with my grief. I did not know how to tell him, or when. How does one share the news of a personal death? Should I call him? Text him? Wait 8 hours until he got home? What is right? Appropriate?
He called me a few minutes after I got out of bed, asking me to scan something he had left behind in his office.
“My grandmother died last night,” I said hoarsely as the whir of the scanner came to life.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” he said gently.
His gentleness hurt, and my throat closed up.
“I know,” I whispered. “I know.”
How does one begin to share grief? How do I tell people? Who do I tell?
The first thing I did after making coffee was step back onto my deck. I paced and paced and paced some more, stomping down any hillock of snow I hadn’t demolished the night before. I answered some funny texts and memes from my closest friends and laughed. When do I tell them? How do I tell them?
Around 11AM I got ready for my noon class at the dojang, forward to an hour of punching and kicking things, when I wondered if I should tell my master. He knew me well; so well, in fact, that he could always tell whenever something was off (which is apparently most often when I’m in the middle of drafting). My movements get off-kilter, out-of-sync, and I drop or miss steps when I’m normally very quick to pick them up.
But I didn’t want to make any excuses for poor performance, even if he weren’t the sort to coddle me anyway. I appreciated that about him—no matter what, I could always do more, try harder, be better. Less than that was not enough. I wanted to be 100% in my body today, to choke out my thoughts and starve them of oxygen.
I didn’t tell him, and he didn’t notice. I smiled and laughed and teased as I usually do, running through sparring drills and self defense techniques (masked and socially distanced) with Master K, a 4th degree black belt and the only other student with whom I regularly trained. When my instructor wanted sharper, I went sharper, when he wanted stronger and I went harder, emptying my mind of everything but the twitch of my hips delivering power with a twist, the thud of my hands and feet striking the pads, the satisfying snap of my uniform as I executed my moves.
After class, the others discussed the recent death of their colleague’s father at 91, a long slow death, the way 할머니’s had been. I said nothing, wondering if I should say something lest I break down sobbing in the middle of the dojang.
But the moment passed and we moved on, talking lightly of weekend plans, the ongoing pandemic, before bowing to each other and taking our respective leaves.
I didn’t cry.
Not until the car ride home.
I’ve only cried twice today.
When I feel mulish, masochistic, I will poke at my memories, curious which one will burst and flood me with tears. The truth is, I don’t know. There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to my crying. Maybe I’m just too hollowed out to feel anything at all. Which seems ridiculous; 할머니 is not even a whole day gone.
But there is a sort of peace knowing we have crossed a threshold. No more waiting beside my phone, no more anxious sleep interrupted by the sudden cold-drenched terror that I had somehow missed the moment. Her spirit is gone, and all that remains for me to neaten the ragged edges of the hole she left behind. To seal the scars of grief with gold like kintsugi. Japanese and Korean artisans used to mend broken pottery and lacquer the cracks with silver, gold, or platinum, showing that there is still beauty in that which is broken. There is history.
I’m sure the pain will resurface, and at moments at which I least expect it. But for now, I will take this respite.
I leave for California in the next week or so for the funeral, the first time I will have seen them in person since Christmas 2019.
The pandemic has been hard on all of us, and I won’t pretend that my hardship is any worse than anyone else. But it galls me that just because our fucking country and several hundred thousand numbskulls in it couldn’t be bothered to do anything about it is the reason the next time I see my family will be for sorrow and not for joy. I stayed home for Thanksgiving, for Christmas, and for the New Year, the most important time for us, all because I was too afraid of getting on a plane.
And I still am. Thankfully, both my parents will be fully vaccinated with both shots, but my brother and I will have to be apart, the two of us too young and healthy to be protected. The irony.
I could stay in Pittsburgh. I could be selfish and stay home, stay safe. But how could I? I dared not risk my life to be by 할머니’s side while she lay dying; how could I be so thoughtless as to stay behind while the rest of my family mourned? I dared not risk my life for the end of life, so I must now risk it for death.
Every New Year, my family visits the grave of 할아버지, a form of ancestor veneration that my very Christian mother would scoff at and deny.
But the new year is why I come home every holiday season, not Christmas. The new year is a time for family in many Asian cultures, whether Gregorian or lunar. The last time I saw my grandfather was New Year 2020.
The next time I will see 할머니 will be at her husband’s side, on this new year, and every new year thereafter.