I'd seen my mother sad many times. When I was young, she would quietly rock herself, whispering "aigoo, chukkta"--I want to die--in a way that always made me feel that she would disappear if I only blinked my eyes, and so I would stare at her, fixing her with my gaze as if I could chain her to me. I never knew why she said this, though I sensed it had something to do with the fact that I had no father, and like all small children who don't understand their parents' pain, I thought I was at fault, and so I learned not to speak in those moments, only to watch her, ready at a moment's notice to grasp her and haul her back should she try to leave.
But this grief was different. She spoke. She spoke to keep silence from fertilizing her suffering. She had lost her mother, the person she had known longest in her lifetime, and the absence left a void she filled with words. It was her way of showing that my grandmother's dying wouldn't pull her across what she perceived as the fragile membrane between life and death. It was as if she were dancing delicately on the border wobbling beneath her feet.
"I wonder if Auntie Grace knows that the caterers are coming a halfhour earlier tomorrow morning." She wasn't asking me the question, but I answered her anyway.
"We can find out when we get to the funeral parlor."
My mother signaled to change lanes, turning her head to check her blind spot, as she taught me to do when I was learning to drive. Her light blue dress contrasted with the pale cream of her skin. She had her tongue out, folded over her top lip.
"Sharon's supposed to bring the box for the envelopes, too. She'd better not wrap it in something bright. White is better."
"I can do it, if you want." My cousin Sharon, from my dad's side, had just had her second child, and I figured wrapping paper colors was low on her priority.
"This light is so long."
The back of my blouse began to feel damp. I didn't know what to wear, and as usual, when I felt unsure, I overdressed. The weight of my lined skirt pressed on my thighs like a blanket, the cuffs of my sleeves brushing my wrists. I knew that white was reserved for the day of the funeral, but I didn't know if there was a traditional color for a viewing. I rolled up the windows and switched on the air conditioning. The cool air surprised my mother, and she turned to look at me.
"Who told you to wear grey?" I didn't bother to answer her.
When we pulled into the parking lot, I could see from the cars that my auntie and uncle and cousins were already there. My mother was never late; she always arrived fifteen to twenty minutes early for everything, so I didn't understand why we seemed to be last.
"The parking lot needs to be repaved. There's Auntie Grace's car."
She stepped out and moved quickly towards the double doors of the funeral parlor, barely giving me enough time to close the door before I heard the locks shut heavily, metal pulling into itself.
The parlor was next to the canal, which smelled like sulfur and was littered with trash. A few egrets picked through decaying milk cartons jutting out from the dull mud left behind by the evaporating water. I wondered if there really were any fish or bugs left in those milky pools, or if the poking motion of those birds' beaks was the habit of survival.
By the time I'd walked around the car, my mother was already through the double doors of the building, a thinly disguised warehouse that had been converted into a funeral home. The beige paint reminded me of the old gymnasium at my elementary school, and for a moment, I imagined that inside, I would find small children playing dodge ball with the red rubber balls we used in P.E. As I walked in, a blast of cold air greeted me, making me glad I'd dressed heavily. I heard voices down the hall and to the right and hurried toward them.
I saw her before I could stop. As I rounded the corner, I glimpsed, through the open door of one of the rooms, my grandmother's body on a platform, half-covered with a blanket. My right foot planted hard, refusing to move forward. She was only a blur of dull flesh to me before I spun around and ran down the hallway, back towards the doors.
I fled outside, out of the cold, away from the pale blue carpets and vanilla walls, away from the color of dead flesh. I tried to shove the sight of my grandmother out of my head, but I could only recall the flat grey of her skin, the cream-colored blanket, then the black hair of heads bowing down, someone's purple blouse, the shiny tan metal of the chair backs. A brown jacket. I tried to swirl the colors in my head so that they would blend and become an indistinguishable mess, but they stayed in their positions, painting the memory I knew would never leave me.
I ran out to the canal because there was nowhere else to go. The egrets were still picking at the cartons, oblivious. I couldn't sit in the car because I didn't have the keys. Nothing else but a tire factory and a television studio was nearby. I sank to the ground and closed my eyes, feeling the warm, rocky pavement below me.
No one came to get me.
I knew my mother wouldn't ask me about what happened because she had her own pain to swallow. But mine needed somewhere to go. Unlike her, I couldn't chatter mine away. Mine didn't want to come out as small staccato phrases about trivial things. Mine needed to burst outward like an anchored rope thrown towards the magical groove in a rock that would secure me, help me crawl forward. But I knew if I threw it towards my mother, she would let it drop at her feet and I would fall.
She said nothing to me when she found me sitting on the trunk of the car, my legs dangling over the edge, kicking the bumper with the backs of my heels. She unlocked the doors, got inside, and started the car. I said nothing as I slid off the back, adjusted my shoes, and got in. We were the last ones to arrive and the first to leave. In the passenger side mirror, I saw my cousins walk out of the building and stop, watching our car pull out of the parking lot.
"Tomorrow morning, you better take your own car in case you have to do some errands after the funeral."
I glanced at her. Her lips were still as if she had said nothing at all. Her eyes were fixed straight ahead, but I knew she could see me watching her.
"Did you hear me, Sona? I said you better take your own car."
I turned to watch the man in the car next to us. He hunched forward over the wheel, his back the curve of a turtle's shell.
I kept my head turned.
"Did you hear me?"
I had been indulging her with inconsequential responses since the day after she came home from the hospital and told me my grandmother had died. It had been a way to accommodate her, to give her a script to help her fill the silences. But I didn't feel like running lines.
She exhaled tightly, the way she did when she was trying to control her anger. I wasn't looking at her, but I knew she was gripping the wheel. For a moment I thought maybe I'd gone too far. I didn't know what her response would be. I learned early never to challenge my mother beyond the point of acceptable childhood rebelliousness. I never thought of her striking me as abuse. I knew her lesson even then, that she was teaching me to gauge when I was in danger--not only with her, but with anyone.
But this was different. My grandmother had just died. The rules had to change. She had never once asked me if I was okay, never once tried to comfort me.
I waited, feeling the silence thicken, pushing against our bodies and the windows of the car. My heart began beating hard. I wanted the explosion. I held my breath.
Her voice was soft and sharp.
"You better do it."
When we got home, she got out of the car so quickly that she locked me in.
My mother had brought home-cooked meals to my grandmother at the care home four times per week. It seemed that she was constantly preparing, shopping, cleaning, placing juk or sashimi or ginger chicken or jhun into the small Tupperware containers that had "SUYEON KIM" written on them with thick black Sharpies. As if any other daughter in that ward would have done the same and taken her containers by mistake.
I hated going to the ward. The cheery pictures drawn in crayon by visiting kindergarteners and the large block-letter signs littering the walls with childish pictures and captions that said things like "Everyone Loves A Smile" were a flimsy cover-up for the abandonment and hopelessness that permeated the halls.
That day, a woman's low moan droned on like a weak siren. The nurses and aides chatted energetically among themselves, filling small white cups with medications and writing on charts. No one paid attention to the moaning, but then I realized that there really was nothing to do. The moan couldn't be fixed; it was the sound of a woman whose pain wasn't conditional but terminal. Everyone is dying, but the old people there were so much closer and knew it.
My mother, who had a fast stride anyway, didn't break the rhythm of her steps as she scooted around a Japanese man in a wheelchair languidly propelling himself forward with one leg that swept the ground the way skateboarders do to keep their boards rolling. He looked up at her expectantly, then watched her as she turned into my grandmother's room.
"Hi," I said, as I passed him.
His face looked at me surprised. His face was mottled with age spots, but his eyes were kind. He seemed so thin. I'd never known my grandfathers, and my father died when I was an infant, so I had a soft spot for old men. In confusion, he moved his mouth a little, but no words came out. I didn't know if it was because I had said something to him or if he thought he should have known who I was and couldn't remember.
In the room, my mother removed the large black headphones my grandmother wore to listen to the news, tucking them near the pillow, then pressed the switch near the railing to prop the bed and my grandmother up. She did everything without moving her feet more than a few inches from where she had been standing. As in a well-choreographed dance, the guard rail lowered, the rolling table slid in place, and the Tupperware containers were arranged before my grandmother just as they would be in a Korean restaurant: the soup in front of her, the rice to the left, the main dish behind the soup, and the small dishes of seasoned vegetables and kimchee in a tiny semicircle arcing away from her.
"Sungnim-ssi, komowa." She still used my mother's name, the name my mother hated because it translated to something like "do your duty." "Sona-ssi, wasseo?" She said this even though my mother gently nudged her mouth with a spoonful of rice that had been dipped in the seaweed soup.
"Ye," my mother responded, pushing the spoon a little harder.
I stood awkwardly to the side, not wanting to crowd either of them. I moved towards the small sink outside of the bathroom and leaned against it. They seemed so complete in their routine. My mother fed, my grandmother ate. I listened to the hollow sound of the metal spoon tapping the plastic containers as my mother dug into them.
"Sona-ssi, mogoseo?" I took a step toward the bed. My mother said nothing. I knew that the question had something to do with eating, but I wasn't completely sure.
"She wants to know if you ate."
"Tell her yeah."
"Tell her yourself."
My grandmother was blind, and I knew she heard better out of her left ear than her right, so I moved around my mother towards the head of the bed.
"Yeah, Halmoni. I ate." She was focused on her meal. "You eat."
The room returned to the quiet sounds of my grandmother's lunch.
The clanking, slurping, chewing sounds continued. Eventually, my grandmother finished her meal and let out a loud belch. I laughed, but my mother shot me a look. Then she began reaching, wiping, stacking, rolling, and within minutes, my grandmother lay back on her bed, wearing headphones as if we had never been there.
"Does she ever go outside?" I looked out the window at a small patch of sunlight on the ground below.
"Sometimes she likes to sit in the sun." She turned to my grandmother, moving part of the headphones, and said something to her in Korean.
My grandmother shook her head and repositioned the headphones. "She doesn't want to go out today."
"She must get bored."
"Are you kidding? She has the news. Always news, news, news." She went to the sink and began washing her hands.
On top of the dresser, a construction-paper drawing of a cat rested against a plastic cup. The cat had been outlined with yellow yarn, its tail a thick tassel, but its face was drawn in with red crayon. Signed on the bottom corner in purple crayon was the name "Kimberly." In the upper left-hand corner, Kimberly had written "I luv you Sueyen."
My mother glanced at the large clock on the wall. She leaned over and yelled something at my grandmother, who nodded.
"Tell Halmoni goodbye."
I touched my grandmother's hand lightly. "Halmoni, bye."
She removed one side of her headphones and then gripped my hand. "Bye bye."
Pulling away didn't feel right, but my mother had already left, probably halfway to the elevators by now.
"Halmoni. Okay?" I didn't know what I was asking her, so when she tilted her head a little, I said, "You okay? Okay?"
"Okay," she said. Then she patted my hand and waved me out.
As I left, I said goodbye to the old man, now propelling himself in the other direction down the hall. He looked at me briefly, then continued his motion forward.
While I broke into a trot to catch up with my mother, it took me a few seconds to realize the moaning woman had become quiet. For a second, I thought in horror that maybe she had died, but then it began again, an achy groan winding up slowly into a sad, weak alarm signaling an emergency whose seriousness no one knew save those who got the call.
It was the night after that that my grandmother died. I had been reading Dubliners for English class when the phone rang. In retrospect, I remember that my mother's voice seemed more clipped than usual, that she walked out the door without her keys and had to come back for them, that she was gone for a few hours. When she came home, I was watching a documentary about wolves.
The door opened and I heard her toss her keys into the drawer in the kitchen where she always kept them. She walked in between me and the television, then into her bedroom, closing the door. I got up and went to her room, knocking softly on the door.
There was no answer.
"Mom, are you okay? Is everything okay?" I gripped the doorknob, knowing that none of the bedroom doors had locks on them, but I didn't go in even though I wanted to see her, know that she was just changing for bed or maybe making a phone call to the childhood friends from Korea she still kept in touch with. But there was no sound, no noise. I put my ear to the door, listening, but all I heard was the crunch of my hair as I pressed harder to listen.
Finally she answered.
"Go to sleep, Sona. Halmoni died."
Her voice was as ordinary as if she had told me to wash the dishes.
"What--what do you mean she died?"
"Halmoni died, Sona."
"But we just saw her yesterday." My grandmother's body had been breaking down for years, but her mind, sharp as ever, made me believe she was farther from death than she really was. "She ate so much."
"She threw it up after we left. She always throws it up."
"How long has she been doing that?"
"Go to sleep, Sona."
I began to twist the knob in my hand, mostly because I had questions, but also because I wanted to see what my mother was doing, if she was sprawled on the bed and crying silently, or slunk down on the floor against the wall, or sitting in the chair next to her bed, numb and confused. The latch made a soft shunting sound.
"I said go to bed." There was something in her voice that was cold, hard.
I backed away a few steps, fixed on the wood grains before me and the silence that thickened the door between us.
At the funeral, people honored my grandmother's remains, kept in a small brass vase placed on an altar next to the picture of her when she was young, maybe in her twenties. My mother and I had brought separate cars, but I had no errands to do, no emergencies thrown my way. We didn't interact the entire time. My mother floated from one guest to the next, talking and talking, even laughing here and there. Almost everyone wore white. My mother, in her white linen tunic, was easy to lose in the crowd of bodies milling in the hall.
Except for a few phrases, the minister from my grandmother's church spoke entirely in Korean. I bowed my head with the others, stood when everyone else did, and sang "Amazing Grace" softly in English while operatic tones belted forward from random members of the church choir. I had been assigned no duties--my cousin Sharon continued to watch over the envelopes and signatures in the guest book while her husband John kept an eye on their kids. My other cousin James and my Uncle Gilbert directed people to the room next door for Korean food. Auntie Grace was setting up the tables and plastic ware. I didn't know what to do with myself. I didn't feel like helping anyone. I didn't want to be there, but I couldn't leave, either.
The room emptied quickly as everyone shuffled into the next room for lunch. Eventually, only my grandmother and I were left in the hall. I sat in one of the chairs near the back, staring at the black-and-white photo of my grandmother. I could make out the round shape of her face and the printed scarf around her neck. People used to tell me that when I was a baby, I looked just like my grandmother with her full cheeks and squinting smile.
I felt a hand on my shoulder.
"Sona." It was Auntie Grace. "You not going eat?"
I glanced away from her and out the door towards the voices coming from the hall.
"I'm not hungry."
"There's a lot of food," she said, coaxing.
The smell of sesame oil, shoyu, and beef floated in from the catering trays.
"I don't feel like it."
She stood over me, the hem of her white holoku brushing my feet.
She patted my shoulder softly.
"You wanna just stay here then?"
I wanted her to sit with me, but I knew they needed her in the other room.
"Yeah. I'm okay."
Sometimes, being with her seemed like being with my dad, even though I had never known him. She was his sister, and she felt like my connection to him.
Auntie Grace tucked my hair behind my ear.
"You know, kiddo, it's not easy, yeah? For your mom."
That's what everyone had been saying to me.
"Your mom, she was the only one who took care of your grandma."
"And now she doesn't have a mother. So it's hard. Not easy losing your mother, you know?"
I didn't answer her right away.
She smoothed my hair then turned to go.
"If you get hungry, come in, okay? After everyone leaves, we're taking Uncle Gilbert's car and your mom's car to Kuilima. The kids going stay with Auntie Barbara." She never got used to saying "Turtle Bay."
She pulled away, her white figure moving slowly farther and farther away from me, disappearing into the sounds and talk from the other room.
I turned to look at my grandmother's photo again. I wouldn't have recognized the woman looking out from behind the glass. By the time I knew her, the face in the picture had long been gone.
I had only seen ashes being scattered in the movies. I thought we would take the brass urn from the funeral, open its lid, and shake it up and down over the water, where the wind would sweep up my grandmother's remains and float them off into the distance. Instead, Auntie Grace took a thick plastic bag from a small paper one in her purse. The ashes were dark grey and looked wet. My mother stepped forward first, dipping her hand into the bag, then holding her fist out over the water as she stood perched on the edge of the rocks. She didn't linger, just turned her closed palm downward, opening her fingers and releasing what was there. After she stepped back, one by one my cousins, then my uncle, took their turns. Only Auntie Grace and I were left.
I couldn't figure out why the ashes seemed so dense. There were a few bone fragments, which I didn't expect, and my hand jerked back as my fingers grazed the shards, knocking the bag a little. Some of the ash fell on the rocks.
Auntie Grace adjusted her grip on the bag and I reached in again. The ashes were cold, like damp sand, and gritty. I took a large pinch and dropped them into the waves below. I waited to feel some kind of goodbye, a sense of something momentous, but there was nothing. I just wanted to go home.
Without thinking, I dusted my hand on my dress, leaving a dark grey smudge near my thigh. Horrified, I started to brush at it frantically. My frenzied movements caught the others' attention.
"Sona, stop it!" My mother walked awkwardly toward me, stepping over crags in the rocks.
The harder I brushed, the more it seemed the ashes were ground into the fabric.
My mother gripped my hand. "Sona. Stop!"
"Let me go!" I wrenched away from her and started shaking out my skirt.
"I said, stop it!" She reached for my wrists. We began to struggle, teetering on the rocks. Auntie Grace and Uncle Gilbert made their way toward us. Someone grabbed me around my waist. It seemed like hands were all over me. I began feeling suffocated. And then, I began screaming.
"How could you? How could you not tell me?"
"What's the matter, Sona?" It was Auntie Grace's voice. "What's wrong?"
"How could you not tell me?" I began to cry so hard that I didn't care if my mother answered.
"How could you not tell me?" I asked over and over again, sick of holding the question in. It burst out of me, like an echo of each time I had thought it.
"Why didn't you tell me she was going to be like that? Why didn't you tell me she was going to be out like that before they burned her? Why didn't you tell me?" The hands around my waist tightened their grip. "You never told me she was going to be lying there! You could've told me! You could have told me! You don't care! You don't care about me! I didn't want to see her dead, Mom! I didn't want to see her like that!"
All I could hear was the sound of my voice, the sound of my own crying. Then suddenly, I realized my arms were free. I wiped my eyes with my forearm. I didn't have my balance on the rocks and stumbled to find my footing. I hated the feel of the sharp points under my soles. I wanted to run back to the car and leave everyone there. I was tired of the pressure to act as if I were fine. I was sick of it, sick of her, sick of everything. And that's when I heard her voice.
"I didn't either, Sona."
My sobs froze in my throat. I lifted my gaze, and for a moment, my eyes met my mother's. It felt like it had been a long time since we looked each other in the eye.
And then she began to cry. Water ran down her cheeks and over her neck, trailing onto her dress. I didn't hear her right away because I was mesmerized by her tears.
She didn't stop. I watched Auntie Grace and Sharon run up to her, hold her as she sank down, her body weighted. I watched her face contort so hard that I couldn't recognize her. I wanted to go to her, but I could only watch, see how she was already somewhere else deep inside her grief.
My grandmother's ashes were resting near the edge of the rocks. Auntie Grace had put them down. As my mother continued to cry, I made my way toward the plastic bag, my feet searching for bits of semi-smooth surface to step on. The bag was almost full.
I looked down at the water, the white foam bubbling on the rocks below. With both hands, I turned the bag upside down and shook it, watching ashes and bone fall into the water in one heavy mass. When they hit the surface, they pulled downward and scattered, where they submerged and disappeared like every word we never said.