It was a already a weird day. The weather was dour and dull like soot, and the promised splendour of a park bursting with cherry blossoms in verdant bloom went unfulfilled. We played a board game in a raised gazebo in Incheon Grand Park while various Koreans came to gaze in wonder at whatever-the-hell we were doing and, in one case, photograph us extensively and hand us a free sleeve of kimbap. Not long after, a man lectured us (especially our poor American friend) on the ills of capitalism, entirely in Korean, despite the clear look of “I wouldn’t even care what you are saying if this were in a language we understood” washing over our pallid faces. And then we exited the park, and I received a call that my grandfather was gone.
I knew in that instant that I would be going home for a while, it was just a matter of logistics: how, when, and how much. I had long been prepping my school for these circumstances, and thus I was on a plane barely two days later.
Leaving Korea so abruptly, returning to Canada with so little pomp and fanfare, was considerably jarring. Indeed, it felt like plummeting down the rabbit hole all over again. As I took the subway to the airport in the middle of the morning, strange Korean men had fitful, nightmarish catnaps across from me, faces paralyzed in rictus, shaking back and forth in their seats, or wandered the corridor of the train barefoot, softly, wafting about as though phantoms in a dream. My airline was American, my stopover long and Japanese and featuring an earthquake, and my seat-mate en-route from Tokyo-Toronto the only Korean speaker on the plane (I helped him do his customs form, being the unyieldingly polite Canadian that I am, though I got stuck when I couldn’t figure out the Korean word/appropriate pantomime substitute for “postal code”). The world felt at once compressed and shaken up, borders erased and dropped.
If I was capable of sleeping on planes, I would doubt that my time in Toronto wasn’t actually something dreamt. I spent 12 hours blisteringly awake, my brain going from sad and tired to jittery and frayed, my consciousness set at a sort of constant buzz. I was in dead time, limbo-time, that seemed to just stretch out into forever. Counting the transit on both ends, I was in transit for nearly 20 hours, but due to the hilarities of timezones, I arrived in Toronto with barely any time theoretically missing.
My father and niece spirited me from the airport, and I recognized the route from so many previous relays to pick up my sisters: the highways, the buildings, the trees, the long, labyrinthine tunnelways into and out of Pearson. But this time, it felt so foreign. It seemed like a place I had read about in books, or had described to me second-hand. I couldn’t shake the feeling that my original move to Korea had split off two alternate reality versions of myself and that I had suddenly, through sorcery and sleep deprivation, taken the other’s place for a few days. In many ways, my old life, much like my old suit for the funeral, no longer fit quite right.
Much as I assumed it would be impossible for everyone else to understand my bizarre-ass life in Korea, it was more me that had problems adjusting to the correlate. My family is full of stalwart blog-readers, apparently, and thus I encountered rooms full of people already intimately knowledgeable about my life, my neuroses, my ongoing everything. One aunt told me, “It’s like I have a new relationship with you. I don’t think I’ve ever known you better.” It was far harder for me to understand them: to accept that I did not just pause my world when I moved, that I couldn’t just return to my life, circa August 2010 and pick up where I left off. I couldn’t really conceive that life went on while I was away.
Or that life did not go on. As we drove home, I considered that I was in Toronto for a Thursday, the weekday on which I had always, for as long as I can remember, had dinner with my grandfather. I took minutes before my brain connected the dots, that Thursday dinner was something permanently behind me–that it was not something I could simply pick back up after crossing the Pacific. That my grandfather was gone, and that the last time I would ever see him was already months in the past. That already I was switching over to past-tense verbs and that all present-tense progressives were gone.
My grandfather was amazing, as all of your grandfathers probably are. I won’t belabor the point. But without him, I would be working two jobs to support myself through university; I would never have been able to travel and to teach. It is because of him that I could even think about setting out on my own.
I went through the motions of the funereal process, dour and listless, my nerves frayed and tattered from jetlag and the nature of my return. “I’m happy to see you, but not under these circumstances. I last saw you when you were a drooling infant, covered in your own vomit and without object permanence. Do you remember me?” “Of course! Thank you for coming.” I told the same stories to dozens of strangers, and confronted the question of, “How’s that whole Korea thing?” as best as I could. I never rolled my eyes when people asked me North or South. I was a model of good, polite grandsonliness. My every movement and word was elegiac and respectful. Because they were trying, and I knew that, and they were sparing me saying the truth, which was, “Your grandfather passed away, and that sucks a whole lot.” They were trying to do me a favour of talking about something else.
It wasn’t real at that point. Even as I helped my father eulogize his own, I couldn’t feel it. We sat together across the bar in our basement, him writing by hand, scratching and rewriting in blue as we tried to find the words. It was just a dull writing project, and I suggested silly linguistic flourishes, things I thought would make it more elegant or touching. And then he wrote the last line, something that had clearly been in his head for a while, something that didn’t need a thesaurus or a style guide to generate. And I felt it.
The funeral was a funeral. Much as I tried to fight it, Amazing Grace rendered me a weeping child, one who could no more understand death or why me must lose people than when I was 20, or 7, or any other age. My sister held my shoulders, my mother my hand. I confronted the reality that the greatest supporter I had ever had, who had photocopies of all of my report cards and university transcripts and every school photo I had ever taken, who listened to everything I ever said even if it was stupid or unpleasant, who wanted nothing more than for me to succeed and be happy, was gone. He was gone, and I would never see him again.