by Soojin Lee
“Noona… oohraeji-masaeyo… na-nin… gaenchanahyo…”
My mom is sitting at my brother’s desk, clutching one of his shirts, sobbing. Seeing her teeth-bared, entrenched in a battle against her tears, whips me awake like a bugle of grief. It is a time at night where we are both wearing only oversized t-shirts. I discovered her here in my brother’s emptied room- wiping her snot and tears with the back of her hand, half her hair up in a beret while she rhythmically crumples and un-crumples one of my brother’s shirts. We look like two adolescent girls at a sleepover holding each other like this. I wonder if my mom and imo held each other like this when they got the news.
“He… he just looks so much like him…”
My brother is the same age as my mom’s little brother when he died. Earlier that day we moved my brother into his dorm- the citadel of absurd, stinking, hormonal male bodies, unstuck in time. A pillar of testosterone across the ages. My mom didn’t shed a single tear or coo sad “I-love-you”s. She doted on him with typical Korean excess instead. Fiddling with this and that until the care became unbearable as it mutated, like it always did, into a pillow pressed firmly across your face. Robert, stoic in his secret society of anxiety, barely eked out a sentence while my mom overcompensated. If I didn’t know his tell, the way he’d rub the back of his head in a sweeping upward motion with a slight wince, he would seem to any casual observer as incredibly calm. But baby boy had to be nervous.
My mom and I learned the same lesson in different ways and I finally, in my 20s, understand the intensity of her anxiety, inextricably tangled into the whole of human existence. Everyone leaves. Your love and care is completely irrelevant to the force of death. That shared blood spills out all over a car seat wrapped around an 18-wheeler just like everyone else’s. Nothing tethers you here.
After Gab died, I get the impression my family folded tighter and closer than ever before. Korean immigrants are notoriously insular to begin with but I can see my grandma laying in her yoh for three months straight, immobilized by grief- a desiccated carapace. They packed away Gab into a box and then every Earthly artifact into another. I have only seen one picture of him which I shortsightedly destroyed. My seven-year-old self, still barely relating to human beings, was more interested in the dog in the picture than my flesh and blood. I cut out his dog and put it in a locket. His name was Bekkop and he’s spraying snow everywhere like a purposeful homage to his namesake. An all-white hulking mass of a German Shepherd. Big ears, brown nose and
Gab’s pride and joy. Gab’s beaming and my mom is opening her mouth loud, beaming with just as much light.
I keep picturing him in the winter time even though he died in the summer of his first year at Cornell. This image of him in a phone booth in a walnut-brown distressed leather jacket with a sheep-skin collar and big tortoise shell glasses and my kind of thick straight-straight black hair sweeping around his head. I can see his breath. He’s by a highway and there is snow everywhere. The streetlight’s beam pouring down around him, a cone of light in the darkness of make-believe, ready to pull him out of this fake memory. I can hear the sound of his tenderness making his Korean sound like a bell on a mountain breeze: