Sunday, January 06, 2019

gi-il (忌日, 기일)

[NB: This is an updated repost originally from here.]

My mother died of brain cancer at 8:03AM on January 6, 2010, nine years ago today. Nine years is a long time, but sometimes, it still feels like yesterday.

Alas, I don't believe in ghosts, and I'm not inclined to believe in souls or in other remnants of personhood after someone dies. You're gone; you scatter; your echoes are the only things that remain, rippling forward in time ever more weakly, affecting the history of the cosmos in increasingly subtle, occult ways. At what point do you fade completely? Or do you ever fade completely? If there's no true boundary between you and the rest of the universe, the answers to such questions may be inarticulable.

I chronicled much of Mom's cancer ordeal at my blog, Kevin's Walk. Today is Sunday, and I thought I'd pass along, as I do every year, a famous story about the Chinese Taoist philosopher Chuang-tzu, who is said to have acted strangely when his wife died:

When Chuang Tzu’s wife died, his friend Hui Tzu came to offer his condolences and found Chuang Tzu hunkered down, drumming on a potter pan and singing.

Hui Tzu said, “You lived with her, raised children with her, and grew old together. Even weeping is not enough, but now you are drumming and singing. Is it a bit too much?”

Chuang Tzu said, “That is not how it is. When she just died, how could I not feel grief? But I looked deeply into it and saw that she was lifeless before she was born. She was also formless and there was not any energy. Somewhere in the vast imperceptible universe there was a change, an infusion of energy, and then she was born into form, and into life. Now the form has changed again, and she is dead. Such death and life are like the natural cycle of the four seasons. My dead wife is now resting between heaven and earth. If I wail at the top of my voice to express my grief, it would certainly show a failure to understand what is fated. Therefore I stopped.” (Chapter 18)

This version of the story is taken from here.

Different cultures develop different ways of dealing with death and mourning. In Korea, which carries on the old Chinese tradition of venerating one's ancestors, people typically have a jaesa (제사), a ceremony for previous generations. While it may sound morbid, I suppose this day could be described as a "death day," the closed-parenthesis counterpart of a birthday. But is it really all that morbid to celebrate the transition from life to death? Far from being morbid, the day could be seen as a kind of ritualized symmetry.

Today, then, I and my family commemorate my mother's death. While it pains me that I can no longer hug her or hold her hand, I'm grateful for the care and wisdom she imparted.

I love you and miss you, Mom.

ADDENDUM: without getting into details, because I want to respect people's privacy, I should note that there are people around me who are suffering. Two people that I know are suffering from different forms of neural degeneration; one person has been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and another—I suppose I can say it's an uncle of mine because I've mentioned him before—has terminal liver cancer. It's a grim reminder that mortality is the one incontrovertible fact of human existence—an empirical and epistemic reality that none can deny, try as they might. All life is doomed to move deathward because the nature of this reality is such that all things have a beginning, a middle, and an end. But it boots little to fixate on the end when there's so much middle to experience. Terminally ill or not, we all inevitably end, and while I might use words like "grim" and "doomed" and "incontrovertible" and "inevitably," the real truth is that death is natural—an inextricable part of life, and part of the natural order. The angel of death isn't to be feared: it's a friend and companion, symbolizing the mundane fact of change. A wave appears in the ocean; it exists in its distinctness for a little while, then returns to the larger body of which it has always been a part. So it is with us: each of us participates in the swirling ocean that is reality, the Tao, enjoying a brief moment of distinctness before stepping through the Great Door and returning to the matrix whence we came. But if we're like those ocean waves, then there's a sense in which we never really leave.

On a more personal and less philosophical note: I find it hard to believe that next year will mark the ten-year anniversary of Mom's passing. The wounds are still there; they'll never heal. But I'm living my life, muddling through, pursuing happiness in my own clumsy way. This year, sometime around November, I'll finally be out of scholastic debt. All that will remain will be my ever-revolving debts—public storage, my credit card, bank maintenance fees, etc. Small stuff. With the major debts gone, I can concentrate on saving money, and then I'll need to decide, sometime soon, whether it's worth my while to go back to the States, flush with cash, or to live the rest of my life here on the peninsula, visiting the States and Europe (and, I hope, elsewhere) only occasionally.

I saw someone online—maybe it was Jordan Peterson—suggest a little mental exercise: take 15 minutes and write down where you'll find yourself, ideally, in a few years, assuming you're not hampered by the usual constraints (e.g., money problems, etc.). I might write that mini-essay soon, so, Dear Reader, watch out for that. Mom would probably want me to look forward and not backward, anyway. A lot of road still lies ahead.

1 comment:

John Mac said...

Hard to believe how much time has passed. I won't dispense all the cliches, your post seems to strike the right balance. But it seems to me we do live on as long as we are held close in the memories of those who loved us.