Today is a morning like any other Saturday morning, but I find myself reflecting on the memories of my grandfather who passed away a decade ago.
My grandfather was a learned man with progressive ideas, he went to university at a time where only one university existed in Korea. He also lived during the Korean War where the country was divided into two deadly opposing political ideas: capitalism versus communism. My grandfather wasn’t a communist, yet he wasn’t capitalist either. He believed some values of socialism were correct. When given the choice to back down and hide or live by his truth he chose the latter and was blacklisted as a young man from ever finding a job. The only job available to him was the cheap and dangerous work of being a miner in a remote town, a job only so marginally better than total poverty and with repercussions that would kill him later in life from lung collapse.
It must not have been easy, he didn’t give up on his inherent goodness and was a pillar of the community, respected and helping others. At home his troubles came out when he was not a faithful husband and prone to violence. His family forgave him, we all forgave him because it was tragically, unbearably, simply understandable. In legends of historical figures, maybe they acted better than this. Some heroes have battled more and triumphed more, but the reality of the everyday political exiles only go so far. He had his own truth, he believed in something so they believed in him.
He stayed the foundation of his family so much so that when my parents immigrated to Canada, they simply couldn’t function without him and he moved here with us. What I remember most about him is when we would go over after my parents fought about money and we were all tired and scared, he would make some clever joke about the door yelping because you slammed it too hard and it would be the funniest joke I ever heard.
He died the second year I left home to live on campus. I remember only having one ambition in life, to become just like him. To be the rock of a community, to do what is right and help the misfortunate. In my grief and love for the man I admired I didn’t expect to be crushed by the utter weight of the burdens he had been carrying inside himself, far from the worries of others. Such is the interplay of the community of humans, when one member leaves we pick up where they left off.
I always knew poverty existed and felt moved by suffering and the history of slavery and indigenous children selling bracelets but that was nothing like drowning in the bloodbath of caring I experienced. It wasn’t so much the tiredness of caring on a daily basis, although that was there too. It was the intensity of empathy, it was as if finding the love of your life but the person on the other end is hopelessly trapped in addiction and family problems and poverty and misery. When I saw suffering I couldn’t turn away with the same ferocity you wouldn’t want to let go of a soulmate.
When someone dies it’s as if they ask you a question, the question of their life. Here is my suffering, what do I do with this? The question pounding inside me like a thundering baseline that I couldn’t escape no matter how I rebelled or tried to destroy myself through men and financial irresponsibility, a question that I thought I answered but came back stronger and somehow got me ostracized by family and friends, at work getting fired and laid off, always seemingly making the wrong bets.
The question comes back to me now, now as I have settled into a life of financial and emotional comfort, after reflection and rebuilding and therapy and mentoring and friendship and healing.
What will you do to help?
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