Seoul Searcher

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Friday, August 13, 2010

Something I Couldn't Erase From My Memory

My mother, who had been suffering from a serious heart disease for several years, tried to kill herself by cutting her own throat with a knife when I was 13.

A few days before the incident, my father had taken her to a Christian missionary hospital on the outskirts of Seoul, where she was diagnosed with a defective heart valve, but she was told to go home because the doctors there couldn’t do anything for her. It was too late to treat her, they said.

Realizing that it was pointless to keep suffering, she had apparently decided to end her own life. Father found her in the bedroom just in time to wrest the knife from her hand and call a doctor. Even though she was awfully weak and frail already and despite a heavy loss of blood, she somehow survived thanks to quick emergency treatment.

I was at school all morning that day without knowing what had happened; when I came home in the afternoon, she was sleeping under sedation. I saw a trace of blood that had seeped out and stained the white gauze that was wrapped around her neck.

Watching her pale, emaciated face, I was too stunned to feel—much less, think of—anything. I just sat on the floor where Mother lay on a thin mattress. Mother was so still I thought she was either asleep or dead.

After a while, I realized that though she was extremely weak, she was conscious of her surroundings. I even detected a trace of what looked like a faint smile on her face.

“What is it, Mother?” I asked her. “Is there anything you want?”
“I have messed thing up, haven’t I?” she said. “But don’t be frightened; you are a big boy now.”

Her voice was barely audible; I had to lean forward to listen to what she was saying. “After I die,” she went on, “you will have a new and healthy mother who will take a good care of you.”

“What are you saying,” I mumbled but I couldn’t go on and tell her to stop talking nonsense.

It was then that I realized I resented Mother for what she had done not only to herself, but, more importantly, to me.

The train of thought that ran through my young mind went something like this: there I was, her only son, whom she said she loved despite her long illness and suffering, and yet, she was ready to go away and “abandon” me. It was very selfish of her, I thought, to leave her loved one behind and “try to go away alone.”

The realization of that fact was pretty unsettling as I felt that her attempt to kill herself was a kind of betrayal. But it soon dawned on me that I was the selfish one for thinking only of myself while I’d cared very little about how much Mother must have suffered to have wanted to end it all with her own hand.

She died a week later. Father, who always insisted that I should never miss a day at school, told me to stay home that day. He must have had some kind of premonition.

I stayed at Mother’s bedside all morning but in the afternoon, a friend dropped in to find out why I had skipped school. While the friend and I were in another room, talking about a book we had both read recently, Mother was left alone and death must have come then.

It was Father who discovered her and called me and other members of the family into the room. By then, it was too late.

The funeral rite was held at a Buddhist temple on the western outskirts of Seoul. Mother was neither a Buddhist nor a Christian. But she had believed in the supernatural. In other words, she was superstitious.

I do not know who decided to hold her funeral at the Buddhist temple three days after her death. It must have been customary at that time for most Koreans to cremate the dead after holding the funeral at a temple. And we must have just followed the custom, although no member of our family was Buddhist.

The temple was about 500 meters up a hill behind the crematorium.
Before we left for the temple, they placed the wooden casket on a trolley in front of one of the four furnaces. A crematory worker told us we could stay there a while and watch the casket going into the furnace. I wanted to stay. I felt I had to see Mother for the last time before she would be reduced to ashes.

Even at that age, I could see that it would be one of the most painful moments in the funeral processes: while mourners stood around, the crematory worker would open the thick glassy door for us to see the fire roaring inside the cylindrical chamber into which mother in the casket would be pushed by the worker. If you are the “chief mourner” of the deceased you are supposed to watch the process, he said.

But as it was too painful, especially for such a young chief mourner, like myself, the worker explained we could leave the job for them. And my father said we had better go to the temple right away to attend the funeral rite.
The rite at the temple was a drawn-out affair.

A faded black-and-white photo of Mother, which must have been taken years before when she was relatively healthy, was placed on the altar. She looked like a stranger to me perhaps because I had not known such a healthy looking mother in all my life.

A monk recited a long, unintelligible scripture while we kneeled on the floor and bowed to a huge, gleaming bronze statue of Buddha, and stood up just to repeat the process again and again. At the end of the prayer service, the monk explained to me: “Now, the soul of your mother can leave this world because of the infinite mercy of Buddha.”

After the rite, we were led to a dinning hall where rows of dishes of steamed rice and vegetarian foods were laid out. My sisters, uncles and aunts and other members of our family ate hungrily. When I thought about it, we had not had a substantial meal for three straight days and they must have been starving. Watching them wolfing the food down, I, too, felt ravenous, and yet, my mouth was extremely dry, and I felt I could not swallow anything even if I tried.

I sneaked out of the dining room and crossed the front yard of the temple to the edge of the cliff from where I could watch the crematorium. A wisp of smoke was coming out of its chimney and disappeared into the air even though there was hardly any wind in the dull, early spring weather.

The chimney was extremely tall. Then, I remembered hearing that it wasn’t tall at first, but the crematorium was forced to raise its height after the people in nearby villages complained of the smell of burning flesh almost every day.

Vaguely, I wondered how many dead bodies were cremated there. Hundreds? Thousands?

Then suddenly I realized that I was trying to force myself to think of something that had nothing to do with my mother, who, at that very moment, was being reduced to a handful of ashes and smoke that was emitting from the chimney and disappearing into the thin air.

I wondered whether my mother felt the heat in there—the suffocating and insufferable heat—had she been able, perchance, to feel as we, the living, do. Of course, there was no way of knowing whether the soul of dead persons could feel anything. And yet I could not help wondering about it.

Until then, I have never thought of what might be “the best way to go” after death. Which would be better? Burned to ashes or buried deep in the cold, dark, damp ground? Actually, when they told me that Mother was going to be cremated, I thought it wasn’t such a bad idea. But then, when I thought of the heat, that awful heat she had to suffer, I felt a cold shiver running down my spine.

When we returned to the crematorium, they had already pulled the trolley out of the furnace and a heap of ashes with some fragmentary white bones scattered among them were ready for us to pick up. I was given a pair of big wooden sticks to pick the bones and deposit them into a ceramic urn along with some ashes.

I could still feel the heat that emanated from the remains. In addition, perhaps because of the awfully hot atmosphere of the hall, I felt beads of sweat running down my face.

“Let’s hurry up,” my father, standing behind me, said to no one in particular. “We have to catch the last bus from the station in the village and we haven’t got much time.”

After depositing most of the ashes into the urn, we left the crematorium for the village. As mother’s only son, I was asked to carry the urn in a cloth contraption that hung from my neck while I held it with both my hands. As we walked down a narrow, winding road in a single file, I was surprised to find how light the entire remains of my mother were. I also felt the warmth of Mother’s ashes through the ceramic urn that I was holding against my chest.

Then suddenly and for the first time since Mother had died, tears started welling up in my eyes, blurring my vision, in spite of myself. Right after Mother died, I had told myself not to show tears in front of others if I could help it.

To this day, I do not know why I made such a resolution. Anyway, all of a sudden, tears started flowing, and I couldn’t do anything about it. I handed the urn to my father, told everybody to go ahead and leave me alone for a while. I then sat down on the side of the road and, after making sure nobody was watching me, I wept with abandon.


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