“See you tomorrow!” she says. A moment of recognition flashes through my grandmother’s usually vacant eyes. Halmoni reaches out and pets Mom’s hair as if Mom were an infant, and squeezes my cheeks with her arthritic fingers until my pale skin turns pink. I’m relieved she remembers us, even if only for a minute. Mom looks a little surprised, not used to having her mother treat her so tenderly. Halmoni walks us all the way to the elevator even though the nurses have to help her with every step she takes. Mom presses the elevator button as Grandmother, Halmoni, turns me around and tells me that she’s going to pick me up at school tomorrow.
As we are stepping into the elevator Halmoni keeps on repeating, “See you tomorrow.” I’ve already tried explaining that we would not be seeing her tomorrow; tomorrow we would be flying from back home to New Jersey. The bell dings and the mirrored doors slide open. We step in and right then, I feel it; it’s like something is squeezing my chest, crushing my lungs and grinding my heart into my backbone. I feel like I’m about to cry, and I guess Mom senses it because she squeezes my hand tightly, looks at Halmoni, and says back with a huge smile, “Yeah of course, Mom. See you tomorrow!” Grandma’s face lights up and the doors close with a quiet hush, taunting me with the reflection of my long, sad face.
We stop on one more floor before we reach the lobby. A tall man walks in with his daughter. “Why is she crying, Dad?” I hear the little girl ask. I feel my face turn red, and I begin to taste the hot tears streaming down my face as they begin seeping into the corners of my mouth.
One week before, I sit quietly watching while Mom guides a plastic spoon to Grandma’s mouth, doing her best to keep the spoon steady, even as Halmoni shakes while sipping the soup from it.
“Be careful,” Mom says. I sigh. There is something peculiar about watching Mom feed her mother, as though this scene were some sort of strange version of Alice in Wonderland, where a child feeds her parent instead of the other way around. Our whole family is usually a very reserved and unemotional one, so I’m surprised by the sudden urge to protect Mom from all of this sadness somehow. I’ve been alive for sixteen years and I have never seen my mother cry. If it were up to me I would rather die than see my own mother in that state.
“We missed you in America,” Mom says to her unresponsive mother. “We finally got the back of the house redone. You would like it I think. There’s just enough room for us to garden now.” Mom’s voice is calm and tender. She puts down the spoon and reaches for my grandmother’s hand. “Mom, you remember me, right?” she asks hopefully. I think everyone in the whole nursing home besides her knows that Halmoni doesn’t usually recognize a single soul from her past, even on her good days.
A few days ago, on the plane ride from New York to Seoul, where Halmoni is, Mom was desperately optimistic. “She might not remember our neighbor, the one who was annoying with his trash cans, but I know she’ll remember me. She could never forget her own daughter,” she kept saying aloud, more to herself than to me.
I’m eight years old and sitting time out for a heinous crime that I did not commit.
“Anne, why did you tip over the crayon container?” Mrs. Sanvick asks pointedly.
“But I didn’t do it,” I protest. She shakes her head.
“I don’t want excuses. You did it, so you need to clean up the mess,” she commands. The students won’t stop pointing and whispering. My teacher keeps on glaring at me, convinced that I’m the guilty party. For the entire day, I’m a criminal in the eyes of my classmates. When I get home, I run into Halmoni’s arms and start bawling my eyes out in small muffled sobs. Mom comes out of the study to see the debacle.
Usually, Mom would scold me for disobeying and for getting into trouble. “You’d better do what your teacher says. If I even get an idea that you’ve been doing anything stupid in school, You’ll definitely be punished,” she would say. Halmoni would chime in, telling me to be good.
Today, however, Halmoni wraps me up in a warm blanket and apologizes for the bad day I’ve had, comforting me by rubbing my back. Mom grabs her phone and calls my teacher demanding to know why I had been punished.
“My daughter never causes problems,” I hear her say firmly. I’m shocked to hear her raise her voice to my teacher. Both Mom and Halmoni are usually the first two to jump on my case. I expected them to discipline me, but instead they protect me.
“Why is she crying, Dad?” I hear the little girl ask again as she begins to tug on her father’s sleeve.
I quickly wipe the tears off of my face and turn my head to look at the little girl. When I look down I’m surprised to see that the girl isn’t pointing to me. She’s pointing at Mom. I look into Mother’s eyes and see a well of tears falling freely down her face. Mom looks me in the eye, and I guess we both understand that the next time we see Halmoni, she will be unable to recognize either of us.
It’s the first time I’ve ever seen Mom cry. We don’t say anything at first. We’re both embarrassed to be crying in front of the other after a lifetime of her constantly telling me that “only the weak shed tears,” but that principle seems to be fading, the way Halmoni’s memory is. When the elevator reaches the lobby and the doors slowly slide open, Mom says, “Don’t cry. It’s pathetic.”