January, for many folks in the northern part of the globe at least, is a depressing slog, a dreary return to normalcy after the forced cheer of the holidays. The number on the year clock clicks ahead and we’re thrust into full winter, slightly refreshed from our new year’s vows, though made to reckon with the realities of life. Many folks hate this collection of days, but the fact that my birthday lies in the dead center of the month has always brightened it up for me, though, now that I’m getting older, the time will come when a birthday is no longer a source of happiness, but rather a cause for alarm. But January no longer means what is used to for me. That was changed in 2008 and then 2009, when both my parents left us, less than a year apart. This bleak month lived up to its reputation.
Today is the third anniversary of my mom’s death. Three years ago today I was back in America after a mad pan-Asian rush to get to her bedside in time (I was on Thailand’s Koh Chang when I received the news that her hours were numbered). And luck was with me (luckily), for I got there while she still lived, though she was unconscious and diminished not just in limb (she had lost both legs some months before), but also in spirit. She slipped away a literal forty-five minutes after my arrival in her room, which can attributed to chance, but I’d like to think she was holding out for me.
My dad died less than a year before her; I was roused from sleep by a frantically buzzing phone and summoned home at once. It was on that day that I discovered I could be out my door and on the ground in Seattle just a bit over sixteen hours. Not bad. I had gotten to my dad in time, as well. I was afraid that he would die while I was in the air (a fear shared when I came home for mom), but he had narrowly cheated death the night before, and now had a breathing tube doing the work for him. The morning after I arrived we gathered by his bedside while a nurse inched the tube out. He briefly came to and attempted contact with his family – face-to-face, eye-to-eye – who now held hands and encircled his bed. Soon it became apparent that he was getting little or no air; he thrashed like a fish in a boat. Pain. They immediately threw a heap of morphine his way which vanquished his agony and sent him into what looked like a very deep and peaceful slumber. He was gone within the hour.
I knew my parents weren’t well. I knew that they could go at any time, but to lose both in less than a year – just days apart by date – scrambles my thoughts and causes my head to shake, even now, as I type.
So January is different now. It will always be the sad season, the month when we lost both of them. I even buried my mom on my birthday, while gut-punchingly sad, was one of the greatest honors ever bestowed upon me. It was strangely appropriate.
I’ve been in Korea long enough to adopt some of the local customs. My fiance has taught me the basics of the 제사 (“jae-sa” the Korean ancestral rite), which we’ve adapted to our own tastes, sort of a “퓨전 제사” (fusion jae-sa), as it were. We’ve been cooking all day and will present the food on an altar of sorts, along with candles, flowers, and a photo of the folks. After some bowing and talking to my parents’ spirits, we’ll eat and drink and remember them the best we can. It helps to keep the memory alive, for memories, like anything unused, atrophy and eventually break down.
I won’t ever let that happen, mom and dad.
This is a promise.