Friday, September 21, 2018

punched in the gut

This is going to sound awfully fucking selfish, but I really didn't need to hear the news I got from my #3 Ajumma this evening. I had decided to go visit her and Ajeossi before Chuseok vacation since I knew I'd be gone for the entire break, and since Ajumma had called and texted several times asking/demanding that I give her a visit. Months had gone by since my last visit, and I decided that the time had come to stop being a rude relative and actually see part of my extended family. My original plan was the usual one: duck in, do a quick hi-bye, then duck out. It's awful to treat my relatives this way, and I feel even guiltier about planning a strike-and-fade after what I found out tonight.

Not to put too fine a point on it: it appears my #3 Ajeossi has terminal liver cancer. According to Ajumma, he wasn't symptomatic for the longest time, and the cancer had progressed quite a bit before symptoms became noticeable. The diagnosis (and, I presume, the terminal prognosis) came in July. Ajeossi has been given three to six months, so, as Ajumma put it, the clock starts ticking in October. Ajeossi's second son Jae-yeol, my cousin, is going to be a father sometime in December; it's not obvious that Ajeossi will be around to celebrate becoming a granddad twice over. Ajumma's a bit worried for Jae-yeol, who just left an internship with Porsche (yes, that Porsche) and is now looking for a real job. Apparently, he's running into issues because of his German skills, which I had thought would be first-rate by now, given that he's lived in Germany for years and has even done grad-school work there. Whatever might be going on, I wish him luck. With a family on the way, he'll need to find work pronto.

I passed over the issue of why I hadn't been told about Ajeossi's liver cancer back in July, and I asked instead about what could be done for Ajeossi. Surgery? A transplant? Radiotherapy to supplement his chemo? "It's too late for any of that," Ajumma said. I'm sure she's repeating what she's heard from the doctors treating Ajeossi, and it fuels my resentment toward Korean health care, which strikes me as especially poor when it comes to cancer patients: the docs often seem to give up too easily, which is infinitely frustrating.*

I asked Ajumma to please keep me updated, and frequently. Will she send updates? Fucked if I know. That's another thing about Korean culture that once again comes through loud and clear in this situation: Koreans love to gab and jabber, but they always seem to fail at communication when it comes to the most important things in life. I recall not learning about a coworker's wedding until one week before she was to be married. And when I sent a long letter, in broken Korean, to this very same Ajumma and Ajeossi back when my mom was dying, I got no reply whatsoever. Mom died on January 6, 2010, and maybe two weeks later, Ajeossi called to ask about Mom. I told him there'd been a memorial service for her, and he shouted "What?!" into the phone. He and Ajumma had never once asked for updates after my letter; they never used their children to get in touch with me via email; there were never any phone calls from Korea at awkward hours of the night. Koreans don't communicate the most important things, and I just don't get it. (Feel free to leave a comment about how Americans can be the same way, but I'd submit that that's only true for Americans who lack common sense. In Korea, the problem is nearly universal, and it's fueled by another cultural quirk, which is that Koreans think they can do your thinking for you. In other words: why wasn't I informed? Because someone felt I didn't need to know until things got bad.)

So I've got the specter of my Ajeossi's liver cancer hovering over me as I make final preparations for tomorrow's walk. To some extent, this feels a bit like Mom's brain cancer all over again. If I'm honest, I know that Ajeossi isn't Mom, so the impact of this news is somewhat less, but he's nevertheless one of my close relatives, from the branch of my wacky family with which I have the most contact. Losing him is going to be hard, and it's not made any easier by knowing he has only a few months. Anticipate death all you want: it's still a sledgehammer to the head when it happens.

This bit of trivia may not matter to you, Dear Reader, but my Korean relatives are all over the place, religiously speaking. Ajeossi #1 is, so far as I know, nonreligious except when it comes to certain rituals like the jaesa (the Korean yahrzeit ceremony) for his mother. Ajeossi #2, a rich businessman, converted to Christianity more out of a desire to network with other businessmen than because he feels particularly churchy. Ajeossi #3, the one with liver cancer, is a devoted elder of the Presbyterian Church—a sincere Christian, through and through. Lastly, Ajeossi #4, sort of the black sheep of the family who has lived in Japan for over a decade and who is partly Japanese at this point, is a Buddhist (it was the #4 branch of the family that taught me proper meditative posture when doing chamseon [zazen]). God only knows what any of this means when one of the brothers passes away.

Ajumma was sad when I told her I had to go. She's an empty-nester, and now she faces the prospect of losing her husband. It's funny to think of how she spent years and years railing at Ajeossi for his various perceived failings, but I know that, deep down, Ajumma has always loved him. "If you need anything, come over and ask," she told me. And half-jokingly: "Think of me as your imitation mother (gat-jja eomeoni)."** I think she sees it as her duty to take care of me, to pick up where Mom left off. None of this can be easy for her; terminal cancer doesn't leave other people with much to do because no one can help heal the patient. Asking me to come visit and to request things from her gives Ajumma a sense of control, and a way to be useful to someone since she can't heal her husband. I really ought to try and visit more. It's my blessing and curse to be as independent as I am; I'm perfectly comfortable living alone because, as we introverts know, alone isn't the same as lonely. I may be half-Korean, but I don't have the Korean need to be gregarious.

Yeesh. Anyway, as you can imagine, I'm not really feeling like doing much of anything at the moment, but I need to tear myself away from this keyboard, make final prep, and try to get some sleep—which I might not get, given my current state of mind. As I just wrote to my brothers: fuck fucking cancer.

*Granted, I should give the doctors the benefit of the doubt: they may have looked at Ajeossi's scans and seen a tumor that was so far along that, even by American standards, there really is no hope. The problem is that I learned long ago that Koreans who work in institutions and bureaucracies (and I suppose this is true in other countries, too) tend to be lazy, to seek the simplest, easiest solution to a problem, and not to adopt a fighting spirit when they come face to face with something seemingly intractable. It's much easier to give up on a cancer patient than to make an earnest effort at combating the disease, and because I've seen that mentality so often here, it's hard to shake the feeling that something like that is happening right now.

**She said the phrase in both Korean and English, so "imitation mother" is her translation. I think most people would translate gat-jja as "fake."

1 comment:

John Mac said...

Sorry to hear this news. I can see why the helplessness of the situation makes it all the more distressing.

Well, while this is not the kind of pain you just "walk off", I hope that over the course of these next few days you can find some peace of mind through physical exertion and time alone to contemplate.

Hang in there!