By the time we arrived in Seoul, the stiffness and pain were so bad that I could not walk except by hanging onto Augusta and Susanna. The two girls had me bracketed – holding me by my elbows and arms. I was hunched over as though with osteoporosis that doubles old people up, folding them in half.
It had been leading up to this crescendo of pain for over a year – not yet diagnosed to be RA, an autoimmune disease that would in time be treated with a combination of heavy drugs. But then, there in Korea, I thought my life of pushing and striving – and all the travel from work – had finally caught up with me. How telling: joints – those mechanisms keeping me put together – just couldn’t – and were now attacking themselves. My very framework was falling apart.
But the trip to bring Dad’s ashes back to America to be placed with Mother in the sweet cemetery off Lyme Road in rural New England – had all three daughters converged together. Susie and me from Boston – with her daughter, Susanna, the youngest at 15; and Augusta, my Boo, 28. We met our eldest sister Myung at the airport and began the journey the following day.
We took with us a minister, thin as a rail, with a blue polyester suit – shiny from much use – and a well worn, thick Bible. The six of us and the driver in the van bounced up and down, our heads bobbing like notes of a song – each cradling enormous bouquets of fresh flowers of magenta and royal purple. We were off to exhume our father after fourteen years.
Hot, muggy, our clothes hung onto our bodies, and made us sweaty when normally we, at least the sisters, don’t sweat. And in the crematorium where two men, covered with a film of grey ash, took the body of our father and placed him without much ritual or pretense into the oven and told us to return in so many hours, calculated based on how long he had been buried. As they later pulled the oven rack out – the girls remained in the car after we returned from lunch at a truck stop where a tiny grandmother cooked the best country food I had had since my own little grandmother had cooked for us – I saw some bones large enough to have come from Dad’s legs or arms; and they placed it all into a blender like machine and ground him one degree more and poured the gritty grey ashes – what was left of Dad – onto simple, plain print paper. Is this all, Myung whispered. Susie smiled ever so slightly, as she touched the pile, and rubbed her fingers together to soak in, rub in, the ash into her, under her skin. You need more paper, I said, he won’t fit in this one sheet. And they did as I said and folded each little mound carefully, artfully as the Japanese might wrap up a purchase at a specialty shop. Two piles of ashes. It could be just a chest of drawers or a log that had been burned, but this was our Dad once flesh and bones, brilliant and sad, with a smile always off a bit crooked. Here he had been hands dry like all three of us; handsome as a movie star we thought so many years back. In the room with the workmen, the ovens, and a rain outside beginning to pitter patter on the tin roof – something came into my heart as I stared at the mounds of my father. And I realized I loved the mounds, the ashes. I loved my father even long after he was gone, buried, unburied, baked and poured into a jar. The love had not diminished. And something rooted deep – like ginseng on wild mountains – right into my core past the diseased joints and pain and stiffness. I was well. I am well. The skies opened and the monsoon poured down hard. Grace at times comes in torrents. Myung carried Dad and led the way, as Susie followed and I brought up the rear – to join the girls and return home.
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