Thursday, December 28, 2006

a death in the family

My uncle just passed away. He's the patriarch of the Texas branch of my Komerican family.

Brief history: my maternal grandmother weighed perhaps 70 pounds (32kg) because of a genetic condition: she had been born with an inverted stomach that made digestion a painful process. My mother's older sister had been seeing a young US Air Force captain at the time, Captain Morris. In the 1960s, Capt. Morris made the decision to take my mother's entire family to America with him, partly so that my grandmother would have better treatment available to her. So off everyone flew to the Air Force base at Waco, Texas.

Waco's been stigmatized, of course, thanks to David Koresh and his crazy cult, but in my mind it's always the place where Mom and Dad met. Captain Morris-- my future Uncle Ed (and don't we all have an Uncle Ed somewhere?)-- knew that a young Suk Ja was looking to practice her English with someone. Capt. Morris searched around on base and happened on a young airman nicknamed Ned, and asked him to help Suk Ja out with her English. The rest is history: after over a year of dating, Ned and Suk Ja decided to tie the knot. That was April 6, 1967. I was born on August 31, 1969.

My childhood is inextricably bound up with Texas, and especially with Uncle Ed, who was a true Texan. I remember one time in Texas, when I was a short, stocky little kid and we were out looking at horses somewhere, that I walked behind a horse and Uncle Ed yanked me away, leaned close, and said, "You ever walk close behind a horse like that again and I'll give you a whoopin'! Horses kick, boy!" That kinda stuck with me, as you might imagine. Uncle Ed spent his middle-age years working as a safety inspector for OSHA, and as far as I know, he kept right on working at this and that well into his seventies.

He was also, especially in his later years, a religiously inquisitive man. I remember once talking to him about the Axial Age, and he was hooked-- it fascinated him. The Axial Age is a brief period first described by Karl Jaspers as the time when the human intellect bloomed all over the planet, and people began to contemplate deeper existential issues than merely, "Will this year's crop be OK?" Questions like-- Who am I? Why are we here? What is the self? What is the nature of reality? What does it mean to be good, loving, mindful, compassionate, etc.? It's the period during which most of the major religious traditions appeared. Uncle Ed sat back after listening to my pedantic little mini-lecture, and in an almost Korean manner, just nodded and pondered.

I hadn't seen much of Uncle Ed in recent years, especially since I came to Korea. When Dad called me a few minutes ago to tell me of Uncle Ed's passing, I asked whether I should fly to Texas for the funeral. Dad thinks not; he and Mom will fly down, representing the East Coast branch of our family.

Uncle Ed was a gentle, jovial, occasionally stern figure throughout my childhood. He had his share of problems, like the rest of us, but he's the one who brought my mother and father together, and I'll always be thankful for that.

Rest in peace, Uncle Ed. I love you.


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