Lungs


You used to sit on this armchair, the imitation Queen Anne I salvaged from a yard sale years ago. The owner put it out because a clawed foot was chipped and the cushion mangled by a restless cat. I promised to get it fixed for you, but you cautioned me to be thrift with my money, to think about my future. I was surprised to see how soon you were at home in its imperfections, how easily you crumpled into it like some forlorn chameleon. That last time, you gazed blankly out into the night, and the left side of your body sagged over the armrest as though some negligent god had removed a good rib below your heart. A cigarette smouldered in an ashtray and a half-empty bottle of Crown Royal whiskey stood at attention by your feet. The reflection of your face on the dark window, lit for a moment by the red stop light from the street, recalled a person from a former life. Back then, in the old country, your face gleamed at me like a ripened fruit. Back then, you were not some vacant marionette propped up on a counterfeit chair. 
      Ahbujee...
   Back then, Father, you used to turn whenever I called out your name. 

You took me out to the sea one night to ride the thrilling black waves, strapped so tightly to your back in Mother’s baby wrap that it left us both gasping for breath. Mother boasted that the fabric was so strong, she carried all seven of us in it over the years without a stitch of repair. I remember your skin, smelling of a long day in the radish fields, tasting of saltwater and sweat, coarse as ox hide. You mounted the glassy surface, using the light of distant stars to navigate the way out of the narrow cove. Curious sea creatures swarmed us on all sides, kissed our exposed limbs, before darting back to the depths. I closed my eyes and cried, spooked by what I could not see.
     If you don’t think about it, you said, it can’t hurt you.  
For years afterwards I lived by those words, repeated them like a mantra, this promise of quelling calamity by simply closing a curtain on a thought. And even as it buckled under the weight of life, I still kept those words close to me because, in part, words never came easy to you, and never so easy as they did that night above the polished surface of a black sea. Made of soil and sinew, you could endure almost anything in the world of Things. But didn’t unseen forces well up inside you, Father, make you shudder before an image or emotion, like it did in the rest of us? Was there never some foreboding that crept up on you during your most solitary hour to snatch away a hopeful moment, even as you pretended it wasn’t there? Like those settlers of the New World standing at the edge of the woods at night, have you never banged on a pan to scare away some imagined menace? 
     There was the year when a young boy from the village died, crushed by an ox cart on his way home from school. I was four. After learning of his death, you became like The Evaporating Man in the story you used to tell, who wandered the countryside in search of his lost pet bird, the string that was once tied to the bird's leg still dangling from his finger. One day he gave up, found a place under a tree, and breathed himself out and away until, at last, he became one with the open sky. Mother heckled you about not eating, complained that your black mood was tormenting your children. On the day of the funeral, when strangers from adjacent villages and towns passed in front of our farmhouse, you were nowhere in sightyou, who was usually at the center of such solemn ceremonies, directing human traffic, offering yourself like a rock for mourners to brace against. At the burial site, a mudang, dressed in a traditional shaman's red gown, danced and beat on a drum to chase the evil spirits from the child’s grave. At one point, Mother rose from her place beside the grieving family and steered through the sea of mourners. I followed behind her. She stopped at the base of the tree house. This was where you and the other village elders met to discuss community affairs, and when domestic life with one woman and seven children sapped you of your masculinity, you came to bond with men over soju late into the night. Mother pleaded with you to come to your senses, to stop running away, to take it like a man. Moments later you were on your knees, my face clamped between your calloused hands, the sweet stench of rice wine on your breath. You stared wildly into my eyes and it frightened me the way standing on a ledge of a cliff might frighten others. Tell me, Father, was it me you were looking at or someone else through me?

You complained of a slight pain in your chest. I poured you another glass of Crown Royal and told you in my halting Korean that everything would be all right. You shifted in the chair and winced as you took the glass from me. Then you stared out at the empty street again, wheezing. The next day, when I took you to the doctor for an examination, he fidgeted with his stethoscope and muttered something about seeing all kinds of things—before his voice petered out. He spoke in a hushed tone to someone on the phone, put money in my hand for a cab, and gave me directions to the nearest hospital. A nurse waited for us at the Emergency entrance. She tucked her head under your right arm and gingerly lowered you onto a wheelchair. It was the last time I would see you sitting on anything. She then ushered me into the chloroformed waiting room, told me not to worry, promising me solace that almost came. 

It was through an oxygen mask strapped on your face and connected to a machine by your bedside that I heard you breathe for the last time. The cancer made one of your lungs collapse. That it ultimately stopped your heart from beating was something that my mind could not corral. Disease was chaos, but you, more than anyone I had ever known, held down anything that disrupted the order of things in this world. I tried not to think about it, like you had taught me, but something still ached deep behind the curtains.

You never spoke to me about him. Later, even Mother faltered when she retrieved memories from across the divide between your death and his. That he was the first-born, my eldest brother, much more your child than hers; that the two of you were always locking the doors on the world with the coded laughter and language of boys; that he had died because of medicine given to him by a mudang when he was seven (it was intended as a cure for some minor bronchial ailment.) She told me how much I resembled him as a child. Then she told me no more.

I am sitting on your chair, gazing out the open window. A crowd disgorges from a bus at the corner, and a young woman passes by on the sidewalk. She smiles at me, but for an instant, her eyes flicker with sad surprise. It was your face she had fixed into her vision every day, not mine. She considers stopping, then looks down at the sidewalk and picks up her pace. The faint odour of tobacco and your body still lingers, as though when you stepped out of this world you felt compelled to leave proof of having passed through this room. I rise from the chair and inhale you through my nostrils, drawing you deep into the tissues of my lungs, holding you for as long as I can. Then, slowly, release you through the open window and up above the street into the darkening sky, where, at last, you can mingle with everything else that has come and gone.

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