Friday, January 07, 2011


It was a radically transformed version of the proper jaesa ritual, but I did the best with what I had, and luckily, I had plenty of help from my three brothers: David, Sean and Mike (he's family). I managed to rework the ritual to reflect both our meager means and certain safety constraints (e.g., a sensitive fire alarm that might not take kindly to burning incense).

I won't go into detail about the Kevinized ritual because I don't want to alarm any jaesa purists who feel it should have been done in only one prescribed way. I will, however, make one comment about the Korean approach to jaesa: from what I saw in Seoul, my Christian relatives altered their jeol (prostration; pronounce "jeol" to rhyme with Jethro Tull) by going no further than sinking to their knees. They never touched their heads to the ground. Whether all Korean Christians truncate their jeol in this manner, I have no idea. But it's significant that a subset of Koreans have taken hold of a very old tradition (it dates back to Chinese ancestor-worship) and remade it to suit their needs. To me, this opens the door at least a crack to other post hoc revisions. I admit that what we did tonight wasn't merely a slightly revised jaesa-- to the contrary I suspect my Korean relatives in Seoul would have seen only a few recognizable elements, mostly in terms of the overall flow and structure. I promised Mom that next year's jaesa would be even better, even closer to the real thing.

It was a hectic day of shopping and cooking and house-prepping. I had to put away my un-sorted boxes of books to make room for both the altar and the assembly space. Those poor books have been in and out of my closets at least three times now, for various reasons.

Some of the post-ritual talk focused on Mom, but a lot of it was just good-natured familial banter: a sign that life goes on, and that one's pain becomes part of one's history. So there was a good bit of laughter and simple conviviality, not to mention plenty of Korean food cooked by yours truly, with help from my two sous-chefs, David and Sean. Mom's portrait quietly presided over the proceedings, and after about two hours, my three guests went their separate ways, bellies full and ready to slumber, out into the cold but friendly night.

I still cry at odd moments. I still think about how my mother didn't deserve the end she got, and I still feel, even now, a powerful wish to reverse time and take her cancer into myself so that I could die in her place. But tonight, a year after I sobbed my goodbyes over her cooling body in an ICU berth and promised that we'd somehow be all right, I find that I'm starting to look forward to the future with some small measure of optimism. It's going to be a very rocky road for some time yet, but hey-- Mom knew that Rocky Road was one of my favorite flavors of ice cream.

We'll all be OK, I think. We'll manage.

We'll manage for her sake.



Anonymous said...

Many things I could comment on in this post, but the one I'll pick is: You may wish you could have taken your Mom's suffering into yourself--but she would never, never have wanted you to do that, or agreed to it. Quite the opposite, I'm sure. It's an expression of your love that you might have that feeling, but a better expression of your love to go ahead and have a good life from now on. As I'm sure she would tell you if she could.

I'm glad to see that you're putting out little green shoots, metaphorically speaking.


John B said...

I attended a funeral, and later a jaesa in Seoul, and the Catholic and Presbyterian attendees performed the full bow. I suspect it is common for Christians to modify the rite, but I think most perform it in the traditional manner.

Nathan B. said...

I was going to say exactly the same thing as Addofio. Your mother passed away leaving three grown, healthy, and good sons, and that's enough to make any parent proud. If I had to die today, I would worry about my child growing up. If I must pass away when he is middle-aged, I will know that he will be able to continue without me. To that extent, I would be able to die contented--at least on that score, even as I would wish to have continued with my family longer.

Anyway, Kevin, this post is beautifully and eloquent, and I'm sure your jaesa ceremony shared these qualities.

Nathan B. said...

Sorry: "beautiful and eloquent"--an editing error gone awry.

Kevin Kim said...

Thanks, everyone.