WHEN OUR FATHER DIED, we didn’t know what to do with his body. Conversations with your estranged dad never include: “What kind of coffin would you like? Steel? Pine? Walnut?” “How about cremation?” “Where would you like to be spread?”
He was 66. He and his best friend had gone hiking. On the drive home, for reasons unknown, my father lost control of his car and went off the side of a mountain. Cause of death: “multiple blunt force injuries.” Makes me think of ninjas (or Vikings) just cinematically whaling on him, pummeling his body. But what actually happened was less glamorous, more frightening and mundane. He and his friend got knocked around and smashed up in a Chrysler Town & Country minivan. No man wants to go out like that — certainly not my father, who loved Charles Bronson and felt a stronger devotion to a carton of cigarettes than to his own children.
The local Korean newspaper ran a photo of a mangled vehicle (the same car I had learned to drive in) and a body on a stretcher in a black bag. The nearly one-page article included a picture of my father and a separate one of his friend. We had no idea how they’d obtained the photos, but there he was. He had made it into the papers.
Suddenly, he was no longer my father, whom I despised; he was the subject of a tragedy, a story that either left the reader grateful to be alive, or plunged into a despair about the uncertainty of life. He was no longer the man whom I, at 23, hadn’t spoken to in months. He was no longer the father who had abandoned my mother, my sister, and me when I was six. He was no longer that tall, thin figure with the downturned mouth, the dentures and the metal-filled teeth, the sad brown eyes, the angry lines around his brow, the sagging jowls.
He was just an older man, a father, who went to church, loved hiking, and died in an accident. Just another sad tale that you read in the paper, and thank god that it wasn’t you or anyone you know. But, in this case, it was us. It was our sad story. It was our father for whom I had over and over again, through the years, imagined many endings, partially as a form of wishful thinking — after all, that’s the way it is, isn’t it? That’s how you deal with those feelings that make you angry and ashamed. You picture the subject of those feelings being bludgeoned by Vikings and crude weaponry — one of those sticks with the spiked ball swinging off the end of it, or the axe handle with those chain thingees.
Because that makes more sense than real life.
My father was one of those men of a certain generation who seemed perpetually broken — an old Maytag dishwasher in a sea of stainless steel; like Willy Loman, except he was Korean-American and this was the ’80s, which may have heightened his alienation and despair — all that hairspray and neon everywhere and all he wanted to do was go home, loosen his tie, smoke a pack of Marlboro Lights, and silently sweat.
He had an accent that encompassed the evolutionary, seven-layer dip of inner-city Los Angeles — part Chinese, part Brooklyn Jewish, part African-American. Yet he was none of those things. When he yelled at us, he sounded like something out of a Scorsese film, but he couldn’t say the letter “L.”
And he would greet black men in a parking lot with “What’s up, brutha,” which often resulted in a confounded look on “brutha’s” face. As a child, I would just silently recoil from my father, as we walked past his brother. How embarrassing! But I remember feeling a bit of pride, too, mixed in with the shame. Here was my dad, attempting to bridge cultural gaps in the most awkward, possibly offensive way (maybe not as bad as braiding his silky hair into cornrows), yet something about his naïveté seemed refreshing. Like, in a perfect world, they would be brothers, except that in this actual world, black brother was usually stereotyped pointing a gun at your face, and yellow brother cowered behind the counter doing math problems.
He owned, I think, three golf clubs.
He never wore T-shirts, only collared button-downs.
Hence, he had many undershirts.
I hadn’t spoken to him since spring, probably to tell him that I had been accepted to grad school in Seattle. And my mother hadn’t seen him in years. But being his only family in the States, we had to pick up his belongings from the Los Angeles coroner’s office — a fanny pack filled with snacks and maps, a wallet with about $40, and an LG cell phone that still worked.
At first, we didn’t know what to do with these objects. But being a practical, immigrant, single-parent family, we went to a Chinese restaurant in Koreatown for lunch and spent the cash.
We were hungry. The hours since discovering my dad’s death had gone by at a frantic pace, saturated with decisions and indecisions, alternating between extremes of feeling and absolute numbness. It had begun when my mother and I, sitting in our living room, heard shouting, yelling outside the gate of our front yard. We looked into the darkness and saw the wife of one of my father’s friends, not the friend who had died, but another, a friend who had planned to go hiking with my father that day, but changed his mind.
With her elderly mother in tow, she’d arrived to tell us, screaming, that our father had died. I’m not sure why she didn’t call — perhaps she just didn’t remember our number, but she knew where we lived: in the same house as before my father had left us.
They came inside. The agony in our living room was at a fever pitch. Korean women sure know how to crank up the misery, wailing, as if their insides were being pecked at and pulled. Here were these strangers of the present, once friends of the past. We hadn’t seen them in over 15 years. Here they were in our living room, of which we were ashamed — the old, stained furniture; the cracked ceilings and walls; the dirty paint. Here they were, amid the evidence of our ruin after my father left us. Here they were crying and sitting on our floor.
As we sat there together, I remember the shock that took hold of me as I thought of my father going off the side of the mountain. Over and over I tried to imagine what that must’ve been like, what he must’ve seen, felt, or thought.
It was perhaps one of the very few instances in my life when I allowed myself to see the world through his eyes. Mostly, I had hated him for as long as I could remember, for how he treated and spoke to my mother, to us. Yet, as a human being, as his daughter, how could I not feel something for his story, the seemingly endless litany of hardships and failures in his life? From the hours he’d worked standing behind counters in some of the most dangerous parts of town to the final mediocrity of selling cleaning supplies at a small, increasingly irrelevant store in the Valley. His experiences with racism. His foreignness (that accent). His inability to create a family. To love a family. To even feel a part of the family he was born into, with his father in South Korea and his mother and siblings somewhere in North Korea, separated from him forever when he was only a child, and escaping the war.
And finally his death — the pain, the suffering, the violence, the loss of control.
Everything — the living room, the world — zoomed out for me at that moment: it was as if I were staring at a distance at my mother, my father’s friend’s wife, her old mother with her crown of gray hair, all of them crying, sitting on the floor in a very Korean way, heads hanging, napkins for wiping their eyes and noses crinkled in their hands. I realized that, from an artist’s or writer’s perspective, this was a touching, even beautiful scene. I wanted to be the one to write it — and at that moment, I thought what a monster I was, thinking of writing, thinking of beauty as these people suffered before me. Ugly and self-serving, I know, but it’s the truth. All I could think about was art.
My father immigrated to Los Angeles in the 1960s on a student visa for a PhD program. He already had his bachelor’s and master’s in economics. He came from a well-educated family: my grandfather, his father, was a lawyer, and later a judge.
Growing up, I never understood why my father moved to the United States. He seemed to have more opportunities in Korea than here, with his lack of language skills and the fact that his degrees from Korean schools meant nothing in this country. Eventually he dropped out of his PhD program, and then spent some time working in factories, before owning small businesses, from a gas station to an army surplus store to a women’s clothing shop. Like most immigrants, he had a tough life with the primary challenge of supporting this family, and the secondary challenge of having some sort of identity — both within this country and within the self.
As he struggled with the physical realities of our lives, the limitations of what we could have, how much money he could make, how far he could go, as an immigrant, as a person of color, without family or the credibility of an American degree, I believe that secondary challenge, conceiving who he could become in the absence of fulfilling his dream, destroyed him.
He drank a lot. He reeked of tobacco, of whiskey. When drunk, he would sometimes lie nearly comatose on the couch, or slurring and playful. He was almost better that way, because, when sober, he was more likely to fly off the handle, to scream and yell and shame.
In addition to his sadness, his rage, his disappointment with life in the United States, my father also expressed a strong and strange level of disdain for Korea. He thought it antiquated, boring. He didn’t like the formality. He did like American food and movies. The clothes and glamour. The guns. His strongest ideas about this country, and what it should be, came from the movies —the ones starring actors like John Wayne and Charles Bronson — films that were not only a breeding ground for unrealistic expectations, but also for misogynistic and racist beliefs.
My father’s American dream, perhaps similar to that of other immigrants, was basically to become a white man. Not that he literally wanted to look into the mirror and see a white face staring back at him — or maybe he did. Of course all his heroes were white: all the images of power and glamour — all the things he wanted and didn’t have — belonged to white people. White people, as far as he was concerned, were always the protagonists, the stars of meaningful, triumphant lives. Even I, an American child born in Los Angeles in the ’80s, didn’t want to see my own small eyes, my own face. I wanted to see, I don’t know, Christie Brinkley?
So my father’s disdain for his homeland, and his desire to escape and reinvent himself are easy to understand, especially if you have an idea of what it was like for many Koreans from the north, who had been split from their families while fleeing for the south, prior to and during the war that would eventually divide thousands of years of culture and blood and language and love in two.
Along with his father, he had fled the north, leaving behind his mother, who was ill, and his siblings, with the plan of returning for them one day. Hundreds of thousands of Koreans had done the same, traveling through miserable conditions. (Today, seeing images of Syrian and Eritrean refugees flooding the shores of nearby countries, with sometimes nothing more than a backpack, if anything at all, just relieved to have what is left of their family near them dismantles me, not just on a personal, familial level, but on a level that reaches inside the organs, the bones. It is clear that although home, nationality, and culture inform our identity, nothing sustains, nothing keeps us alive more than the desire to keep our loved ones safe, to keep them from pain.)
My mother who had fled the north at age four, would tell me and my sister of the dead people she had seen along the roads, the families who had clung to the tops of packed trains, desperate to get out, only to fall to their deaths in the tunnels. She was “lucky” in the sense that most of her immediate family made it out, but my father, who was maybe 12 or 13 at the time, would never see his mother and his sisters and brother again. It was just him and his father now.
How could any of them have imagined that a border would divide them for the rest of their lives? How could anyone have predicted the horror that is now Korea, the horror of being hacked in two? How could we have seen the state that country is in now: how ludicrous, how insane, how utterly devastating?
North Korea may be a punch line to some — with its comically narcissistic dictator, inept missiles, loud fax machines, and generally high level of cultural tackiness — but to us, people whose families live beyond the barbed wire, that division, between us and them, is a source of deep pain and shame. How did we make it out without them? How could we have left them behind? What happened to them? Do they wonder about us? Or have they died off? And are we already forgotten?
There is no way to comprehend this trauma, except to zoom out from or turn off the screen.
And it’s easy, it must be, to despise the people that reattach us somehow. Maybe that’s what my sister, my mother, and I unknowingly did to my father. We were reminders of the loss that he had worked so hard to bury and run from, and forget forever in a tangle of work, alcohol, and rage. We were reminders of what he could not control, of the arbitrariness of his survival. How could he reconcile day-to-day life with the deaths of those he had left behind, or with the fact that perhaps, somewhere north of the 38th parallel, his family might still be alive?
When my father eventually left my mother and sister and me, perhaps he was reenacting that other escape. He was creating his own borders, his own DMZ.
We decided to do a joint funeral with the family of the friend who had also died in the accident. I don’t remember who suggested this. Odd as it was to collaborate with them — we hadn’t known each other well when the men were alive — a combined ceremony would ease the burden of decision-making and honor a friendship that had lasted decades. It seemed like a good idea from both a symbolic and practical point of view.
Unlike the other family, we opted for cremation. We decided we would throw the ashes into the ocean. We remembered our father taking us to the beach when we were very young, before he left us. It made sense to send him back to that vast body of water, that metaphor for the unknown, plus we couldn’t afford a plot for his grave. We’d never had much money — my father never paid child support — and yet now we were responsible for his remains. My mother couldn’t stop complaining about how, in spite of his cruelty and absence, he’d left us with the burden of his final care. We had to buy him a coffin for the funeral showing and, when we went to the parlor to look at the caskets, which were absurdly displayed in miniature, like little hamster coffins, we had to choose the cheapest one.
It was plain and made out of the dullest wood.
I went to my father’s apartment to pick up clothes for him to wear. It’s an odd thing going into a dead person’s home, especially when you have not seen that person in a very long time. The whole place seems so quiet, and it’s as if you must respect that by keeping your voice low.
But who is there to hear you?
My father left us in 1987, a week before my sister’s 10th birthday.
I remember coming home from school to our three-bedroom house in mid-city Los Angeles and finding that most of our furniture was gone, as if we had been robbed, ransacked for all the heavy things — all that solid wood — of our lives.
But, it was my father, not a stranger, who had somehow felt entitled — who had taken the furniture and run. It’s hard to say what the logic was there. Perhaps, as the primary breadwinner, he felt he’d earned that dining room set, that coffee table, the queen-sized bed that he’d stopped sharing with my mother a long time ago.
Anyway — there was a note taped above the living room thermostat, maybe 15 or so feet away from the front door. I remember my mother reading the note, as she cried and crumpled to the floor. A deep knowing overcame me as I realized our life had changed forever. I don’t have any distinct memory of what my sister was doing at this moment. Maybe she realized, too — or maybe she was wondering if my father would ever return.
Before the funeral, we approached the viewing room and saw the two open caskets and my father and his friend inside, looking like dolls, their faces painted to cover the bruises, the gashes. It was the first time I’d seen a dead body — and there he was, my father, wooden and waxy — his hands folded in front of him, one on top of the other in white gloves. He wore the red tie that I had chosen for him and a crisp black suit.
Someone complained because we had requested closed caskets. The funeral people swiftly apologized and shut the lids.
The other family had spared no expense on the coffin, gleaming and white like a Cadillac, or the large color photo of their father surrounded by flowers. We ourselves only had a humble eight-by-10-inch in a simple black frame with a black ribbon tied around it. I felt incredibly sad for my dad and for us; for the lack of money in our wallets and love in our hearts. He and we were poor in every way possible, it seemed.
During the service I cried more than anyone else in my family. I held the tissue box in my hands, wiped my eyes, blew my nose the entire time, bent over, sobbing. I couldn’t stop and I didn’t know why. My mother and sister cried, too, but for whatever reason, I couldn’t contain myself. Was it the sight of that casket so simple and plain? Was it the grief of the family across the aisle? Was it the surprising number of people who had shown up for us? People whom I had never met, members of his church in the Valley who had made the trek to be there? Was it my father’s sadness that made me cry? Or was it all my own?
I don’t know what my father did after he left us, where and how far he went.
Less than a year later, he came back to visit. By that time he was living in the Valley, about 30 minutes away, and he owned a janitorial supply store. He agreed with my mother to see us on Sundays. He’d pick us up and we’d spend the day eating fast food, which was a real treat, since during the week we mostly ate only Korean. He’d take us to picnic at parks or on the beach. Occasionally, he took us to Disneyland or Magic Mountain.
During the rest of the week, we lived with my mother, who worked the graveyard shift at restaurants, until she eventually owned her own clothing store in a working-class neighborhood southeast of Los Angeles. Every day was hard for her, which, at the time, seemed so incongruous with how my father lived. He never had to cook or clean for us or take us to school. He just got to do the “fun things” with us, and I resented him for that. I couldn’t enjoy myself on our day trips, because I’d find myself thinking about my mother, and how she hadn’t had time off in years, and how she ate the same food every day, and never slept because she worked so hard and then rose early in the mornings to get us ready for the day. Did my father want her to suffer? Was it because he felt so alone in his life, that he left her alone in hers?
A few days after the cremation, my sister and I paid for a boat to take us out to spread his ashes. It was a beautiful sunny day. And this was something we did together, holding the least expensive urn we could find and then tilting the ash and pieces of bone into the water. The wind picked up, blowing him into our faces, and we laughed.
Because my sister had to go back to work in the Bay Area, it was up to me, with the help of my boyfriend at the time, to pack up my father’s belongings before the end of the month.
He’d led a fairly meticulous life in his one-bedroom apartment — there were file folders labeled and filled with brochures from places we had gone during “happier times” (Disneyland, Magic Mountain, SeaWorld). Framed photographs of my sister and me. I even found a few VHS cassettes of porn inside the living room’s coffee table cabinet, which I swiftly, without looking at the titles, chucked into the trash.
We didn’t know what to do with the larger objects — in particular, the furniture our father had dragged out of our mother’s house when he’d run away. In the end, we ran into a man down the hall, who was moving into another unit. He was probably in his 40s. He had tattoos along his arms and neck. We asked him if he wanted any of the furniture and he took it all — the dining room set, the bed, the coffee table. Jackpot. The man looked elated.
In the past, I had imagined my father living for a very long time. I would visit him every once in a while in the hospital. I would look at him, dying, and confront him finally for leaving us, for hurting us, for abandoning my mother. I would break him, turn him into dust with my rage.
I had also imagined the alternative in which I would just sit by his bedside quietly, and he would look at me, and I would have great pity, even love for him, not as my father, but as a man, who had come to this country to reinvent himself, but failed. I had pictured watching him for hours, for days, sad for him, but also finally relieved that I would never have to visit or call him again.
In the end, I never had to make the choice about how I would honor my father or not in his last days. Perhaps his death — though tragic at the time — protected him from his own frailty, from the indignities that would have come with age. He’d managed it: he’d finally run away for good.
But from where and to what? Does hurt have a location? Does it float in the air, surrounding us? Does it circulate in the veins, in the blood? How many generations does it take for trauma to leave the body? And are those entrapments, that which we must endure together, what make us family?
Looking through my father’s shelves, I’d discovered a brochure for a cemetery. I realized then that he had actually considered buying a plot. And I thought of my sister and I dumping him into the ocean, his ashes flying back into our eyes and mouths: What could we do about it now? Where could we visit him?
The boat’s captain had given us a certificate indicating the exact location where we’d scattered his remains: but where else would we find him — his grief, his pain? Not north, not south, not east, not west, but in the center, inescapably, within.
Nancy Jooyoun Kim was born and raised in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared on The Rumpus, Electric Literature, Selected Shorts on NPR/PRI, Asian American Writers’ Workshop’s The Margins, and elsewhere. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she’s writing a novel and personal essays.