approaching the inevitable

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Something I’ve noticed over the years is that many older people here (in Korea) seem to have their facial expressions set into permanent frowns. I wonder if they are even aware of their expression, their protruding lower lip or the tension in their brow. I also wonder how much their memories have to do with it, harsh Japanese rule, the Korean war, the struggles that followed.

My mother-in-law is one of these people. There’s a dark cloud that seems to follow her. EunBong once asked her why she hardly smiles, and she replied, “You know my life, how can I smile?” During the war, her family had to flee. She was the youngest daughter in her family at the time, and was left behind in the ruble. In the end, her mother couldn’t bare to leave her and returned to fetch her, but the initial feeling must have been scaring.

One thing I’ve observed is that she’s constantly complaining of her health, but she doesn’t take care of herself well. She smokes two packs a day, she’s also addicted to pain-killers and instant coffee, and she doesn’t like to eat because she said food gets caught between her teeth.

I used to get upset at her smoking around EunBong when she was pregnant, and then smoking around Fina when she was born. She basically thought I was being ridiculous, because our “saju” (astrological fate) is already decided at birth, and cigarettes aren’t going to change it. She told me that her mother smoked through all of her pregnancies, as did she, and their babies were fine. She doesn’t believe that cigarettes are unhealthy at all. Recently, though, she started coughing up blood. I’m not a doctor, but I think I can see what the problem is. If there’s one bright side, it’s that EunBong finally understands why I really don’t like cigarettes.

It’s really difficult to look at a situation like this and know how to react. She’s been slowing killing herself for decades. There’s nothing I can say to her, except  the usually Korean expression, “Geon gang hassaeyo” (Have good health). The really hard part, for me, is the suffering that it’s causing EunBong. She keeps asking me what I think, but I don’t want to tell her what I think. It’s not what she wants to hear, anyway.

On Friday, she will go to the hospital for tests. She keeps saying that she wants to go to the hospital and just stay there for a long time. She’s already talking to EunBong as if she’s died, saying things like she’s glad she got to see EunBong get married and have a baby, or she’s sorry she’ll leave EunBong’s dad alone, with no one to take care of him. It makes EunBong really upset to listen to. Actually, I’m a bit concerned that her mother wants to be sick so that she can have people take care of her.

It’s kind of like looking at the weather channel and seeing a huge storm heading your way. You don’t know how long it will take to reach, or if it will suddenly shift one way or the other. All you can do is prepare yourself and wait. I’d like to build a tornado cellar for EunBong, but I know that’s beyond my means. When the time comes, whether it be this year or in ten, I’ll try my best to be a sturdy stump for her to lean against.

2 responses »

  1. Your mom-in-law sounds a lot like my father (who’s hacking up a lung in the next room as I type). I only managed to kick my smoking addiction at the beginning of this year so I can’t be too judgemental but I still try to encourage him to quit. Aside from being an outrageously expensive habit in Canada ($12/pack), his last remaining brother is dying of cancer at the moment. You’d think this might offer incentive but, puzzlingly, seems to have affected the opposite.

    One day he refused to eat some food of mine because it was labelled “organic”. When I asked why he would prefer to eat foods grown in pesticides he said, “We’re all going to die one day and I intend for my body to be well and used up before I do.” A fair enough attitude if our decisions effected only ourselves but he seems unwilling to grasp the concept of the butterfly effect. What’s to be done but love and accept?

    I hope your mother-in-law will be well and find peace.

    P.S. When I was in Hungary and the Czech Republic I noticed too that the older generations seemed dour and somewhat resigned. Understandably so after surviving the communist regimes. I made a game with myself to see how many people I could make smile (1 pt) or laugh(2 pts). I “lost” more times than I “won” but it was a fun and challenging (I didn’t have the first clue what passed for funny in these countries -turns out the darker the humour the better your chances) game nonetheless.

    • Hi Eris,
      Thank you for a great comment!

      It must be difficult (and probably defeating) to realize that your addiction to something is stronger than your desire for good health.

      I used to try to talk to random people in Korea, but my Korean friends told me that I “look easy” if I talk to people. haha
      It explained why no one was eager to respond…

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