My mom’s dad was sick for a long time before he died.
I’d been hearing it for years.
I’d heard for years that he was going to die soon. It wasn’t a surprise when my parents told me that he was in bad shape and we were going to visit.
It was my first time ever seeing him. I’d never even seen pictures. I might have spoken to him on the phone once.
I’d never been in a hospital either. I was surprised how sterile it was. The slight humming of fluorescent lights and the steady beeping of heart monitors. White walls and white floors and white curtains.
My grandmother walked in like she was visiting an old friend. I guess, in a way, she was. She strolled right in. The receptionists didn’t even look up when she waved.
I’d never seen a more sickly human being in my life. Not even in movies. There were people all around us, all equally as old as he was. But they weren’t equally as sick.
Saying he was skin and bones is an understatement. His limbs were chopsticks, twigs. He face was drawn, his cheeks hollow. He looked like someone had vacuumed out his organs and left the empty sack of skin behind.
My mom, my mom who looked so young and healthy, kneeled at the side of his bed and greeted her father, whom she hadn’t seen in years.
“Dad,” she said, sobbing, clutching at his hand. “I’m here. Your daughter is here.”
And then I stood, stoic next to my brother, as she introduced him to us.
“These are my kids. This is Jamie and that’s James,” she cried. “Dad, can you hear me?”
I’d seen my mom cry before, but never like this.
We left the hospital with heavy hearts and silence hanging in the air.
The next day, my mom’s father looked stable. His levels were alright so my family and I took a little trip up to Busan, a city in Korea. It was a three hour drive, not too far.
It was beautiful day out, a bit cloudy and drizzly but clearing up, the sun peeking through the clouds. The trees were vibrant, green. Flowers bloomed magenta and the air was cool.
We’d been there for two hours, just on the cusp of finishing dinner, when my mom got a call from her brother.
A lull fell over the restaurant. Her dad’s blood pressure was low, dangerously low. He wasn’t going to make it through the night.
The sky seemed to brighten.
Limbs seemed to fly as we scrambled to leave.
We stopped at a stop light, in a little black rented car, just pulling out of the restaurant on a hill. My dad looked up and said, “Look.”
We all craned our necks and bent low to try and get a peek at what he was pointing at through the windshield.
A double rainbow had lit the sky, it colors reflecting brightly off the droplets of mist and water that clung to the air. It was the brightest rainbow I’d ever seen.
The light turned green, and—as we marveled at the resplendent sky—my mother’s phone rang. My heart dropped.
I heard one end of the call clearly.
The other side was muffled crying.
I didn’t cry, but my mom did. I laid a hand on her shoulder, trying to comfort her in some way. I didn’t need comforting. I didn’t know him. I couldn’t call him my grandpa. I couldn’t even call him my grandfather. I had no claim on the man. He was a stranger.
But my mom knew him. He’d raised her.
It was unfair that it happened that way. That she’d flown all the way out because her father was dying and she hadn’t even gotten to see him die.
“I’m sorry,” I kept telling her. “I’m sorry.”
My mom turned to me, her eyes rimmed red, tears threatening to spill, and told me something: Koreans, when their loved ones die, do not say “I’m sorry for your loss.”
We do not offer comfort. We offer assurance.
We say, “They went to better place.” It’s a cultural, as well as a religious, difference.
“He went to a better place,” I told her.
I hope she believed me.