They say that it often takes a tragedy for people to finally realize – realize what, it doesn’t matter – things that they would not have realized if not for tragedy. We don’t necessarily want our life to unfold that way, but it does. It’s just part of being human. Your life has to flash before your eyes to realize how good it is. You have to escape death by the skin of your teeth to realize how much you want to live. You have to lose someone for eternity to realize what’s truly important in this life.
You have to wait in the Tom Bradley International Terminal eating breakfast to realize...that McDonald’s hash browns are really just an enormous, flat tater tot. Wait...what? Yes, I know. I was stunned by the realization, too.
It was Friday night. After a solid ten, maybe 12, hours sitting in front of a computer at the office working, I forced a 15-minute mind- and eye-break with the commute home before sitting down for what would be yet another long stretch in front of the computer at the home office working. Over the course of a couple of years, Friday nights had transformed from hanging out with friends or spending a quiet dinner with family into a good four to five hours of blogging by myself in my tiny, dark corner apartment. In fact, every night had turned into that.
It wasn’t that I didn’t look forward to those unpaid hours. It was more that in some sick, twisted universe of one, I did look forward to it. Go out? I can’t! Millions and millions of my imaginary fans are waiting with bated breath, on the edge of their sanity for my words, my sentences, my amateur imagery to magically appear in their web browsers! I have to stay home and produce! I must manipulate photos and compose eloquent essays! I can neglect my friends and family because they will understand, but I can’t neglect my Delicious Life’s work!
I was halfway through a thought about roast chicken when a muffled, digitized version of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons interrupted me from somewhere under my desk. My phone was buried in the bottom of my bag. I don’t use it much.
The green light glowed “Mom.”
“Hi, Mom,” I said right when I flipped open my phone.
It wasn’t Mom; it was Dad. I altered my greeting “Oh, hi Dad,” without missing a beat, but I was confused. My Dad was calling me at 9 o’clock on a Friday night. My Dad retires for the evening to his bed at 8:30. And he has his own phone.
“Sarah, your grandmother just passed away.”
Oh. I hit Ctrl+S on my keyboard.
I wasn’t surprised. My Dad’s mother had been sick for years, her mind and body slowly deteriorating with Alzheimer’s. We were expecting, almost waiting, for her to pass on, but no matter how much you mentally prepare for death, the actual moment isn’t easy.
“Your maternal grandmother,” my Dad clarified.
The words hit me as hard and heavy as last week’s fat-free muffins left on the countertop without an air-tight container. My Mom’s mom was the picture of perfect health. Except for a tiny nuisance we call “old age” and this other thing known as “diabetes,” shr walked as much as her wobbly knees would let her, did yoga every morning, and went to the sauna to swim and relax every day.
My Dad’s voice was low and slow as he gave me the 30 second overview. My grandmother had suffered a stroke or heart attack while at the sauna. My uncle had called from Korea only a few hours before Dad called me. They still weren’t sure what happened.
I had been holding my breath. I let out a short sigh.
“Your Mom is crazy right now,” Dad said softly. I couldn’t figure out the emotion in his voice, if there was any at all. “She can’t think straight. She can’t talk straight. I think she’s trying to pack for Korea but she can’t.” He put my Mom on the phone.
Dad was right. Mom was talking in circles. “Sarah…My mom…” Her voice trailed off into a sigh. “You should probably come home," she said switching from English to Korean. "But you don’t have to. But can you come home? Maybe you can just meet us at the airport tomorrow. Oh, I don’t know, Sarah.” I had never heard my mother sound so small and weak and confused before.
“I’ll be there in 45 minutes.”
With the snapshut of my phone, I realized I was already prepared to walk out my front door. Somehow while on the phone between my Dad’s second sentence and hanging up, I had changed out of my usual Friday night blogging uniform of three days unwashed flannel pajamas into street clothes, completely unaware that I was doing it. I had also grabbed a spare set of contact lenses, packed up my laptop, and ransacked my file cabinets in search of my passport. My passport?! I didn't want to think about it. Just before shutting the front door, I mentally walked through my apartment to make sure every light was off. I might not be back for a few days, maybe a week. I'd have to email my boss over the weekend.
My parents live in Orange County, so the drive from my house on the Westside is an honest 45 minutes without traffic. The drive was the longest, shortest, slowest, fastest drive I’ve ever done.
When I got home and walked in the front door of my parents' house, I could hardly believe my eyes. My mother is a small Asian lady, but big with a bright personality. She moves quickly, speaks quickly, gets excited about and laughs at everything. In front of me that night, my Mom’s face was gray, eyes puffy, and the great big personality had shriveled into a tiny, frail daughter who had just lost her mother. Looking at her, I tried to imagine how I would feel if I lost her, my Mom, and I could. But I couldn’t. My heart broke for her.
It was a little scary to see so much vulnerability in someone who, for your entire life, has always been strong and steady. Moms are like that because they’re moms, but my Mom was also like that because that’s just the way she is. There are some people out there who just are rocks. They are the people who, day to day, are strong, steady, consistent, manage well through negative situations, and solve problems. It’s a little different from being laid back and easygoing, allowing bad schitt to just happen and laughing it off. When rocks come across a mess, they just quietly, very maturely, clean it up. They handle it.
I am not a rock. I am, in fact, the exact opposite of my Mom (and my sisters, who are basically smaller, but bigger, versions of Mom). When I come across even the tiniest snag, I react as if my entire life is unraveling faster than an antique crocheted doily on the spin cycle. “Ohmigod! I just accidentally deleted two paragraphs from my blog post! My world is falling apart!” Ask anyone who has hung out with me in any capacity short of living together, and he or she will tell you that yes, I am a walking, talking trainwreck on the verge utter disastrophe. I worry, I fear, I spazz, I throw up my hands, I give up, I “just can’t handle it,” and in the end, I end up huddled under the shield of very strong 800-thread count sheets on my bed with the safety of my laptop and a bag of dried mangoes.
On a day-to-day basis I am about as strong as phyllo dough, crumbling into a flaky mess upon the slightest pressure.
The strange thing is, on those very rare, five-to-ten-times-in-a-lifetime occasions when a situation turns into a crisis – not just a “crappy situation,” but a true code blue catastrophe – I can transform into an engineering textbook example of robotic grace. I don’t know how or why it happens that way, but I move, act, and make decisions like a machine. I may lock into a deathgrip on the armrests, hyperventilate and go into hysterics when a plane experiences turbulence, but if the pilot and his first mate keeled over, I might march into the cockpit and land the plane myself. Okay, not true, but we get the point, right?
Friday night, seeing my Mom flipped a switch in my mind and body. A machine took over. Pack. Prep. Print tickets. Put Mom to bed.
In her slightly insane state of mind, my Mom had packed all pajamas. I pointed out how it was sort of funny and for a very brief moment, Mom smiled before it faded into a sigh. We stepped through what would happen when she got to Korea so I could re-pack her suitcase accordingly – black clothes, lightweight for the weather, shoes that could go from a church service through a day-long hike up a mountainside to the burial site on top.
We went through everything that had to be done in her place while she was away for she-didn’t-know-how-long—water plants, pay bills, find a substitute for her volunteer shift at the hospital, call her friends to reschedules lunches, shopping, golf, and did she mention watering the plants? I was going to handle most of it. When they had called to book a flight, there was only one seat. I wasn’t going to be flying to Korea. I wasn’t relieved at all.
It was just a few hours before we would have to be up again to get to the airport, when we finally sat down in the dark kitchen, ready. My Mom stepped over to the refrigerator. “She never got to see Sophia,” my Mom whispered as she pulled the photos of my then one-month old niece from the refrigerator door. “I didn’t send her the pictures” she said with so much regret, I could feel tears in her voice. She just hadn’t had the opportunity to mail pictures to my Grandmother of her most recent great grand daughter.
Korean grandmothers who live in houses on hilltops don’t have email. I don’t think she even had a computer. My grandmother had actual Kodak photographs of every single child, grandchild, and great grandchild taped around the edge of her giant vanity mirror in her bedroom. She looked at them every single morning as she put on her makeup for the day. I pulled every photo that was on my parents’ fridge of my sisters’ weddings and my two nieces, sealed them in a ziploc bag, and tucked them into the inside pocket of my Mom’s purse. She would show them to everyone when she got to Korea.
The flight the next morning was the first plane out. It was early. It was a Saturday. The drive from my parents’ house in Orange County is long, but the effort from either of my sisters’ houses is much longer. One of my sisters had a toddler and was pregnant with a second, my other sister had a newborn. Mom told them they didn’t have to come all the way out to “The LAX,” so early, so far, not easy with little ones. Of course the didn’t have to.
My parents and I were sitting on the sunny side of the second floor of Tom Bradley when my toddler niece, my parents’ first granddaughter, came running up. When she hugged and kissed her grandparents, I saw it. Color came back to Mom’s face. Dad smiled. When we were all together there, crowded around three tables shoved together eating McDonald’s for breakfast, I remembered. I realized.
Every once in a while, when you catch yourself saying “Why? Why am I doing all of this? There’s got to be more to life.…Life is so much more…” just stop. Don’t wait for the first flight out on a Saturday morning to Korea.
Take pictures. Email them to your friends and family. Mail hard copies to your grandparents. Make photo albums. Call your mother. Call your father even though you know he’s going to lecture you (again) about balancing your tires. Meet your sisters for brunch even if you're hungover. Say “I love you.” Say it often. Renew your passport and for God’s sake, just take a xanax and fly overseas to visit your family.
There really isn’t so much more to life. Life is, actually, so much less. All you really need is two things: your family and your friends.
And every once in a while, a McDonald’s tater tot doesn’t hurt either.
Rest in peace, hahl-muh-nee. We miss you. We’ll see you soon.