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My Grandmother’s Last Words
I wasn’t there to hear them
David Shin
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I woke up abruptly from a nightmare. I was 5 years old and I ran into my grandmother’s frail arms. She was resting in the living room rocking chair, our oldest antique.

“What’s wrong?” she asked me gently.

“I was inside car...and the car crashed...”

“Oh, it was just a dream! You must’ve grown taller if you had a dream about crashing.”

“Really?” I asked in delight, my fear fading.

“Yes, it means you’re a big boy now.”

My grandmother was a wise woman who took care of me when I was growing up in Seoul, Korea. My father was a television executive, and my mother owned a beauty salon with a lot of celebrity clients. Both of them often came back late at night after I was asleep, but my grandmother was always there.

Every afternoon, we went to the market. I walked by my grandmother’s side, holding her hand. It was often an educational journey.

“Hyeonjong,” she’d say, calling me by my Korean name, “I gave her $10 and this spinach costs $3. How much change should I get back?”

I used my fingers to deduct the answer.

“Is it 7?”

She kissed me and said, “You’re such a smart boy.”

With the remaining change, she bought me chicken kebabs from the old man across the street. On the way home, she would point out letters on signs to teach me how to read. I carefully recited them one by one.

She was old, but she had a keen mind and spirit. She was like her Korean zodiac sign, the tiger, strong and fierce. I remember one day when she took me to the playground and I ran for the one free swing, like going after the last chocolate chip cookie on the plate. I started swinging, reached the height of the tree peaks. A girl my age wanted the swing I was on and tried to stop it with her foot, even though other swings were free. When I ignored her, she threw sand in my face. My grandmother bolted up from the bench.

“Little girl, where is your mother?” she said in a commanding voice.

It was the first time I saw my grandmother’s not-so-nice side. She made the girl cry. Although she hadn’t raised her voice, it was still intimidating. I felt like her little cub, hiding behind her legs. The little girl’s mom picked her up and left without saying a word.

Role Reversal

My family moved to Texas when I was 8 years old. I had to adapt to American culture hastily. My parents still worked a lot of hours. My grandmother’s health had declined rapidly when we moved here, and suddenly I was responsible for taking care of her rather than the other way around.
Every morning, it was my job to wake up early, make myself a bowl of cereal and catch the school bus. If I had time, I also prepared my grandmother’s breakfast, a bowl of broccoli soup with a slice of whole-grain toast.

When I got home, I had to make sure she walked for 30 minutes and I had to play Go-Stop with her, a card game to enhance her memory. I didn’t mind, because my grandmother liked betting on these games. If I lost, my parents reimbursed me and if I won, my grandmother paid me so it was a win-win for me. However, it also made me feel good knowing I was helping my sick grandmother.

I also had to measure her blood sugar level to test because she had diabetes. At first, I was afraid I was hurting her because she’d flinch when I pricked her finger but she told me she was fine.

“Grandma, your blood sugar is normal!” I was happy to see those beautiful low numbers. But sometimes it came out super high and I freaked out in fear that she could suddenly die.

Distracted by My New Life

Over the next year, her health started to decline and I couldn’t take care of her myself. She could no longer walk. I overheard my dad speaking to my mom before making a decision to send her to a nursing home back in Korea where she could communicate in her own language. “She could suddenly collapse,” I heard my dad say. I knew I couldn’t have handled that. I didn’t even speak English and I would have freaked out.

image by YC-Art Dept

The next day I came home to find my parents’ car in the garage. I also realized my grandmother’s white sneakers were missing.

“Hey you’re home,” my mom greeted me.

“Um, did something happen to grandma?” I asked.

“We just drove her to the airport. She is going to live in a nursing home now.”

“Oh,” I replied. Even though I hadn’t gotten to say goodbye to her, I didn’t think about it.

I went to the backyard and got my bike. I rode around the park, enjoying the rural scenes of the neighborhood that I hadn’t noticed while escorting my grandmother to the park every day. At the same time, I felt lonely. I missed her but I also felt free, racing through the greenery of the park.
A few months after she left, we started preparing for another move, from Texas to New York. As I was packing my collection of dog books into a box—I was obsessed with dogs as a kid—I came across my old phone. I turned it on; it still worked. I began scrolling through the videos and images thinking about how immature I was just few months ago. I stopped at one picture. It was my beautiful grandmother in the rocking chair, her gentle smile warm enough to cause global warming. I realized then how much I missed her.

Still, when I got to New York, all of that was forgotten. I got distracted by my new life here and I also think I felt some relief. Now that my grandmother was in a nursing home, I was free to make friends and have fun. I didn’t realize it at the time but during the years that she was living with us, I was lonely not being able to hang out after school.

I assumed everything was going well for her since she was under professional care. I didn’t make an effort to stay in touch with her, which I regret now.

Didn’t Get to Say Goodbye

Two years later, my dad’s close friend called from Korea. Afterward, my dad rushed to his room to pack his suitcase.

“Get to school safe, I’m driving your father to the airport,” my mom said. She hurriedly walked out before I could ask what was going on.

When I got home from school, the same man called. My mom picked it up. She put her hands over her mouth and started sobbing.

“Mom, what’s going on?” I asked her carefully.

She sucked up her tears and told me that my grandmother had passed away.

“It must be a dream, it must be,” I thought. All sorts of thoughts ran through my head. I visualized an ambulance rushing to the emergency room with my grandmother lying dead inside.

I couldn’t remember anything about her. I forgot what her last hairstyle was and what she sounded like. I went crazy trying to reclaim memories of her but I couldn’t. I ran into the woods across from my house and lay down on the bench as the cold, winter wind blew over my hair.

I recalled when she took me to the marketplace every afternoon and the scent of fish fresh and the loud clamor of merchants’ voices offering deals. Most importantly, my hand that held tightly to my grandmother’s right arm.

Sad and Sorry

What also hit me was the regret I felt for not making more of an effort to stay in touch with her during the last two years. I could have called or written her a short, touching letter. But I didn’t. I was too busy having fun.

I returned home after a few hours. The next evening, we went to church for her funeral service. Afterward I felt like being alone. It was the first time I’d lost someone I really loved and it was a sore feeling.

I felt so guilty. She had treated me like a royal heir, and I felt like I had treated her poorly. I remembered the times I spoke to her in a disrespectful tone when we played cards. I blamed her for cheating whenever I lost. I was sorry I didn’t think to ask my parents to send me over there to see her one last time. Then I could have granted her last wish.

My grandmother spent her last days in a hospital. She was surrounded by nurses and my dad’s friend. Before her last breath, they told me she whispered, “I want to see him... For the last time... Please tell Hyeonjong that I love him more than anything.”

Reflecting back to that time, I still feel guilty for not staying in touch with her and expressing my gratitude for her love. I learned you have to make an effort to express your love and appreciation for people when they’re around. Because it’s never certain when you’ll ever meet them again.

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(NYC-2015-09-08)

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