This is something I wrote a while back, when my grandfather passed away. It blows my mind that it’s already been 6 years. I sometimes re-read this just to remember how much has happened since then, and whether he’d be proud with where I am today.
I’m told that 할아버지 [grandpa] was a war veteran, that he served in Vietnam. Even before Vietnam he had been exposed to war — at the tender age of 15, he left his siblings and parents on an errand to the South [Korea], never to see his family again. The borders had closed on him. He was cut off, and alone.
Then, some 50 years back, he met and married Grandma, had three beautiful children, and decided to immigrate to America to pursue the American Dream. He has, without a doubt, succeeded. He sent all three of his children to college and concluded his life the grandfather of seven strapping young men and one bright, young granddaughter.
We were a sight to see, lined up next to Grandfather’s coffin, smart in our matching black suits, ties, and dress. I can imagine him standing next to one of his old friends, enormously content, as he points each of us out – that one, that tall, good-looking chap over there? He’s my oldest grandson. The oldest of my oldest son. He’s working in Boston right now. That one, the one in the ACU? My second son’s oldest child. He graduates from West Point in a year. And that one, see how broad his shoulders are? My daughter’s oldest child. He goes to UVA…
And yet, Grandpa never got to see that. He never would have. His death, ironically, was the only thing that could bring the entire family together. The first time the entire family was together in years, but only to see his funeral…
We went to eat 순두부 [tofu soup] after the viewing. I couldn’t help but think that the move was just so 할아버지. It was just like him, after a service or any special occasion, to usher everyone out to eat. 신촌 [Korean restaurant], 꿀돼지 [Honey Pig], Country Club Buffet… To him, eating out was the real occasion. He’d sit in the restaurant and just watch as his eight grandchildren consumed a small village’s entire month’s rations of food. God, he loved feeding us. And so, after his death, we carry on his tradition. We eat, be merry, and think of him…
After his burial, we all sat together at 신촌 and started talking about our memories of him. The one memory we all share (minus the youngest), it seems, is that of his little convenience store. We all loved the place, the location of our fondest childhood memories. The big lunchmeat-slicing machine, the hundreds of ice creams flavors and potato chip varieties and candies and – and the Swedish Fish! After we moved to Korea, Grandpa sent us SO MUCH Swedish Fish that I’ve actually grown to hate its taste.
He really did love to feed us. He’d hover over us as we browsed the aisles, urging us to take this and that and more and more and declaring, “아이스크림 먹어야지! 많이 먹어야지!” [“You should eat some ice cream! Take more!”] in his typical one-liner fashion as Mom stood in the back, warning us with her eyes not to be too greedy. I have no idea how he made a profit, what with seven hungry grandchildren to feed. But profit he did, and he just gave us more and more.
Grandpa visited my family in Korea while I was still in high school. I remember he was very active – every morning he went out for a walk and came back with food in his hands. 뻥튀기 one day, ice cream the next – we ate the food that he had stockpiled in our house for days after he left. He even gained a reputation with our neighborhood 떡볶이아줌마 [street food vendor]. Every single day after school, religiously, he would wait for our buses to arrive and buy us 떡볶이 [spicy rice cakes]… to the point where the 아줌마 [the vendor lady] thought something was wrong when he stopped showing up, after he’d returned to the States. We all laughed, when we heard that. Of course Grandpa would be known for his food-related consistency…
God, he wasn’t supposed to go like that. He was supposed to have died after I got there, after Dad got there, sometime way, way in the future after he saw my brother’s graduation and my marriage and his first great-grandchild’s birth and – he was supposed to be getting better! When I said goodbye to him, two weeks back, that wasn’t supposed to be the last time I saw him. He had been RECOVERING when I left him. My mind had projected that consistent rate of recovery on him for the two weeks that I didn’t see him. Not this sudden spiral to death. It was too sudden.
I got there too late.
And Grandma… I know Grandma and Grandpa bickered a lot, but she was still his partner of more than fifty years. They weathered through all of life – three pregnancies, the uprooting of the family to foreign lands, the years and years of working more hours than the sun, the crippling disease… and now Grandma is left with a huge, empty house, and my brothers and me… we don’t have a grandfather anymore. No stoic, McDonald’s-crazy grandfather figure whose sole delight was watching food enter our mouths. No one to drag us all out to fancy dinners or supermarket runs while insisting on buying food for us with his dwindling bank account money. No one to bicker with Grandma or sit quietly on the sofa at family reunions as the chaos of eight grandchildren ensued around him. He was truly the rock, the foundation of this family.
RIP, 할아버지. Beloved grandfather, proud father of three, fervent believer, and one who’s greatest joy lied in doing things for his grandchildren. He was so, so full of life. Even to his last moments he struggled to live his previous, active lifestyle. He hated the fact that he was so weak that he couldn’t even drive. He tried to act as if nothing was wrong. Stupid nurse… she didn’t understand him at all. “Why do you walk around so much, Grandfather? Why do you keep struggling, when you’re in so much pain?” If anything, Grandpa was a stubborn old man. He refused to be reduced to a bedridden infirm, even when it took him a good ten minutes to descend a flight of stairs, even as he was forced to receive blood transfusions every week to sustain himself. He fought on, just like the soldier he was… and through his progeny, he’s won. I plan to do him proud.