My Grandma’s Story (할머니의 이야기)

정자동 4번 출구. Jeongja Station Exit 4.

The subway started slowing down. I got up, took out my headphones, and made my way towards the sliding doors. My grandma had told me to meet her at Jeongja Station-she would be waiting there when I came out from the 4th exit. As I rode up the escalator, the cool underground air was replaced by a hot July breeze that warmed me up. I was rocking my bright red Ovechkin jersey shirt and the black shorts I wear with everything. Out in the sun, I walked into a circular plaza that had a metallic statue in the center and glass office buildings in the backdrop. Around the plaza were trees and benches for a passerby to rest and chat. My grandma was sitting on a nearby wooden bench under the shade of a couple of trees in full summer green. She looked up and caught my eye, smiling.

I spent the summer of 2019 in Korea, part of it on my own. I experienced a lot of firsts that season, but the most special first was spending time with my grandma one-on-one. I hadn’t seen her in seven years: I had just finished my freshman year in college and hadn’t seen her since middle school. I was also now old enough to appreciate the candid, deeper conversations you can have with someone when it’s just the two of you. I’m glad I saw her then. My grandma passed away last April in 2020. Due to COVID, I didn’t get to see her before she passed and only my dad made it to her funeral. Luckily, that summer I got to hear her tell me stories that she must have wanted to tell me all of my life. She was a fighter and an amazing woman who loved the Lord with all of her heart and strength. I think her story speaks for itself.

I.

My grandma was born and raised in Andong, South Korea, a rural part of Korea with a distinct dialect and cultural history. She learned to face obstacles from her childhood. She grew up with a single mom after her dad passed away early. When she was a teenager, she was determined to go to high school. Girls in the 1950s were discouraged from going to school, but my grandma knew the importance of an education. She talked with whoever needed convincing and she got her education. After that, I don’t remember much more of what she told me about her youth except that not much got in the way of doing what mattered to her.

Luckily, that summer I got to hear her tell me stories that she must have wanted to tell me all of my life.

Later, she married my grandpa and had three children: my aunt, dad, and uncle. My grandma was a devout Christian, but my grandpa wasn’t Christian at all-they had married on the condition that he would become Christian. This tension caused fights on Sunday mornings about whether my grandpa and the kids would go to church, fights my dad doesn’t remember too fondly. Nevertheless, my grandma faithfully worshipped God and parented. Well, I guess that depends on your definition of “faithfully parented.”

My grandma was very active and sometimes unpredictable. One time, my dad came home from school and called for my grandma. She didn’t respond, so he looked all around the apartment for her. He eventually found a small slip of paper on the kitchen table that read, “I went on a hiking trip with my friends. I prepared a few side dishes and soups in the fridge and I’ll be back in a few days. Spend the weekend well!” As I said, my grandma was consistently active and healthy: she used to play tennis, always enjoyed a scenic hike, and was the fastest walker I ever knew. Hiking trips were normal, but not surprise ones. This trip became the first of a few spontaneous get-aways. It was her way of getting relief from the stress of home life. She thought she needed it, so she took time off. Not much could stop my grandma from what she wanted. My dad told me this was no amusement then, but he tells the story with a chuckle.

II.

My grandma eventually moved the family to Seoul for her children’s education. They got an apartment in Gangnam and began attending 소망교회 (Somang Presbyterian Church). On a Sunday during that summer, I met my grandma there and listened to her tell me how she set up my dad and mom at this church.

At the time, my grandma had a close friend at the church who was my mom’s aunt. They were in the pews and chatting away after service one day. It turned out my grandma had a single son and her friend had a single niece. What a perfect match!

My dad didn’t think so when my grandma came home with a random girl’s number. At first he refused, but her persistence eventually wore him down. “I caught him around Christmas season,” my grandma told me with a chuckle. My dad wasn’t sure after the first date, but my grandma pushed him to take my mom on a couple more dates out of courtesy. The rest was history.

The first time my grandma met my mom and dad together was at a Korean-Chinese restaurant. If you know the Korean Chinese cuisine, you know there are lots of good stuff: 짜장면 (ja-jang-myeon), 짬뽕 (jjam-ppong), 탕수육 (tang-su-yuk), 유산슬 (yu-san-seul), 군만두 (goon-man-du)-the whole fix. My grandma said she ordered it all and my mom ate it all (okay, maybe not everything, but enough to impress). “Your mom had to have had a stomach ache that night,” my grandma told me, almost giggling, “but when I asked your dad, he said she was fine!” My grandma had her own little fun that night and got to test that her would-be daughter-in-law was vibrantly healthy.

III.

My dad decided to pursue a Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota a few years after my parents got married. No one in either of their families had lived in the U.S. before. My grandma dutifully sent off her eldest son, daughter-in-law, and only grandchild at the time (my older sister Yoojin was eighteen months old). When I was born, my grandma visited to help out and see her first grandson.

Even if you know nothing else about Minnesota, you probably know that it’s cold (and I was born in December, so it was COLD). My grandma remembered pushing my sister on the swings in the middle of winter. My grandma also remembered thinking she was going to die from the cold while my sister was just chillin’ and falling asleep (my sister loved the swings). In her short three-week visit, my grandma also found a church group to meet with and a library to frequent regularly because, why not?

My grandma told me she was still so grateful for this student-he’s one of those people in life you’re so thankful for but you’ll never get to see again to express your gratitude.

One time, my mom was busy and my dad was at school, so my grandma was tasked with the mission of picking up my sister from preschool. She was a Korean woman in her 60s making her way through walls of shoveled snow without a cellphone or much English. She got lost. She panicked and wondered how long my sister would be waiting in the cold. Luckily, she saw a student who was walking by in a hurry, and she called him down and asked, “Could you help me find this preschool?” Even though he seemed late, he took the time to help her through her broken English. My grandma told me she was still so grateful for this student-he’s one of those people in life you’re so thankful for but you’ll never get to see again to express your gratitude. She finally found the preschool, “And guess where I saw your sister when I got there?” my grandma asked me. “Riding on the swings! Hahaha,” she said as she broke out laughing.

IV.

My grandma visited us two more times in Virginia, and I saw her in Korea a total of six times. That’s only nine times we ever met. When my grandpa passed away from cancer during my senior year in high school, I realized how much we had missed from each other’s lives, especially our spiritual lives.

My grandma believed her own cancer was a blessing in disguise. She told me she used to pride herself on her health, which she worked hard to maintain. To her, everyone else who had health problems was just not taking care of themselves. Even my grandpa had had bad habits with drinking and smoking (and coffee) that, in part, must have led to his cancer. However, her point of view changed after she battled cancer herself.

One night after a round of chemo, she was on the hospital bed, tortured by the pain. She hated chemo because it sucked the life from her, hurt her, made her arms tingle, and destroyed her appetite. On this particular night, she was crying out to the Lord, pleading in anger, confusion, sorrow, and distress. “Why did you allow me to get this cancer? What did I do to deserve this?” Eventually, she felt God speak this message- Why didn’t you have compassion for those who were less healthy than you? Your health was my gift — my grace — and so is this. It wasn’t that she did anything to deserve her cancer, but it was that she hadn’t done anything to deserve her good health. This realization changed her, and she became thankful that God had allowed this cancer. Otherwise, she would have lived her entire life without a chance to fully understand God’s provision of health and his love for the sick and weak. God gave her the opportunity to care for her fellow hospital bedmates, and she took it with gratitude. God also strengthened her through her family and friends to continue praying and asking for healing too.

It wasn’t that she did anything to deserve her cancer, but it was that she hadn’t done anything to deserve her good health.

The last time I met with my grandma that summer ended up being the last time I would ever see her. We had dinner together and said our bye’s and 사랑해요’s (I love you’s). “I love you” is something my family says to each other at the end of phone calls, but I think that was the first time I had exchanged “I love you” with someone in my extended family. I then gave her a card I had prepared for her. She had had the same idea and handed me a letter she had written for me. I haven’t cried more times reading a letter than when I read (and re-read) this one. My tears were partly out of regret that I had just gotten to get closer with my grandma. The other part was knowing that she had enjoyed our times together as much as I did. She left me two Bible verses in the letter; the second one from Isaiah 41:10 was meant to be read “when I have hard and difficult times”:

So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.

My grandma truly believed in God’s promises. And with everything she experienced in her life, she still had lots more love to share with me and my family. She was an absolutely amazing woman, and I can’t wait to see her again on the other side.

Originally published at http://ajlstories.wordpress.com on December 26, 2020.

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a Korean-American Duke student following Christ with joy

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Andrew Lee

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a Korean-American Duke student following Christ with joy

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