The memories, once precious and dear, now haunted me. The words were heavy on the screen, hanging in the yellow KakaoTalk bubble.
“My dad died…”
For an eternal moment, I looked at the screen, unaware of what I was reading. I stood silent in the kitchen of the apartment that I had just moved into that morning. Holding the phone, the words seemed like a foreign phrase that I was unfamiliar with. How could this happen?
I was breathless. My host father died while serving as a firefighter on a day he was not scheduled for duty. He volunteered to go in after hearing of a local nightclub fire. From 8,000 miles away there was nothing I could do to comfort my host family. It was as if my own father had perished while I unknowingly folded fresh towels and arranged canned soup in my new apartment. The uncertainty of life hit me in a deep place I didn’t know existed. A parent figure in my life had never died.
During my grant year, I was blessed with a wonderful host family. Upon my arrival at Jeju International Airport in August 2013, I was greeted by my host sister and host father, whom I called Bruce. As we drove home, he pointed out in Korean the different signs of the island, and I knew I was at home in Korea. My new host family did not act as if hosting a foreign teacher for a year was strange, rather they acted as if it were a rite of passage for a typical Korean family. During the ride home, it was as if my new family and I had known each other for years. The already present familiarity was a blessing in a strange, new place. Throughout the year, even though Bruce and I never engaged in deep conversation due to the language barrier, I always knew I was welcome in his home.
In September, after a dinner of rice and bulgogi, Bruce concerningly warned me about “fake taxis.” He spoke in quick, rambling Korean to my host sister, who translated the words just as rapidly.
“Teacher,” my host sister chirped in formal English. “My father says to watch out for fake taxis. They aren’t real.” Bruce cut in again with a string of Korean syllables. My host mother and host sister nodded. “And teacher, they may not take you to the right place or they may take too much money. So be very careful.”
While Bruce’s only obligation to me was three meals a day and a roof over my head, he made sure that even my spiritual needs were met. That same week, he introduced me to the minister and his wife who lived in the upstairs apartment, and he ensured me that I had a ride to the local Presbyterian church on Sundays.
Weeks later, my first beer ever was with Bruce in the commons area of the house as the family picked apart spicy chicken that dripped with hot sauce. It was a rainy October, and the family was also hosting a visiting Japanese student for a week. We all laughed as I choked down what I believed to be an unbelievably stout beverage.
“Good?! Good?!” he asked, laughing at my expression. “Good!” I replied with a weak thumbs-up gesture. It was my first and last Korean beer, save for a few polite sips when Bruce would pour me a glass late at night.
During the cold months of December and January when I was on winter break, our family would often dine out for warm meals of samgyeopsal, duck, and pork. Occasionally, another family would join us and we would sit on ondol-heated floors and drink shots of soju. Bruce loved pouring shots for me, and I would toast with him and the fathers of the other families. On Christmas Day 2012, knowing there was no beach in my home state of Kentucky, he made sure I saw the ocean and ancient lava tubes. On the shores of the beach, we gnawed on skewered fish.
That same day, he took me to the fire station and introduced me to the firefighters. He was not scheduled to work that day, but since we were in the area, he wanted to show me the station. As we entered the squat, concrete building, the younger firefighters sat upright in their chairs, pretending that they were not dozing off or off task. Bruce disappeared into the office as one of the youngest firefighters poured my host mother and I coffee in small cups. As we waited, Bruce wafted through papers, eyed the board to see who was working which shift, and then spoke to the men who were present. From my limited understanding of Korean, it was a good-natured visit and Bruce simply wanted to check in on the station for the holiday.
When the summer rains returned, Bruce picked me up when he saw me walking home from school so I wouldn’t have to suffer the torrential Jeju downpours. On my final night on the island in July, Bruce took me to a local bar. He ordered rice wine and patbingsu and he ensured that all of our small family had a nice time. We sat, scooping up shaved ice and red beans. My host parents spoke in Korean, and my host sister turned and asked,“Teacher, my parents want to know if you remember this place. We brought you here when arrived in Jeju!” I could not have asked for a better bookend to my grant year. At the end of the night, Bruce called his coworkers and they said goodbye to me over the telephone.
The next day, Bruce and my host brother chauffeured me to the airport. After navigating the typical Jeju Airport weekend traffic, Bruce parked his truck, jumped out and quickly removed my luggage. After he unloaded my suitcases one final time on that sunny, sweltering July afternoon, he shook my hand, got back into his truck, and drove away. For a moment, I watched the silver truck pull away into the traffic stream, and slowly disappear around the corner. Exactly one year later, on July 13th, 2014, he was really gone.
In the months after I learned of his death, these memories of my host father were dreamlike. In December 2014, I returned to Korea with anticipation and dread in my heart. I landed at Incheon International Airport with heaviness, knowing that one of the people I returned for was no longer alive. My host family and I longed to be reunited, but I knew the emptiness would be there. Emptiness was a stranger to me I barely knew how to handle it. Bruce would not be home when we arrived, and I was afraid to face the void.
After an overnight stay in Seoul, I traveled to the much smaller Gimpo Airport in Seoul and boarded a Korean Air 747 bound for Jeju Island at Gimpo International Airport. Positioned between the wall of the plane and a Korean family to my left, I thought of what I would say when I saw my host family. I wished I could ask the family beside me for advice. Was there anything to say? Should I acknowledge Bruce’s absence? Do Koreans and Americans say the same comforts after a loss? My orientation years ago did not prepare me for this bittersweet reunion.
My phone sounded with excited KakaoTalk messages from my Korean family when I had landed. They were eagerly awaiting my arrival. I claimed my luggage and headed for the sliding door. My heart pounded when my host mother and I first saw each other. She ran past the barrier and greeted me with a hug. She seemed to know I was hungry, and we headed for the airport restaurant where we ate big bowls of bibimbap. The conversation was mundane–we talked of haircuts, boyfriends, and universities, but there was no mention of Bruce. After lunch at the airport, we piled into a taxi and made the scenic trip to Seogwipo.
When I entered the home, a sense of emptiness prevailed. It was like walking into a museum to find one of the main exhibitions missing.There was a gaping hole in my heart and in the spirit of the house, but I didn’t know what to do with this strange feeling. It was the elephant in the room – the emptiness we didn’t approach. Despite the emotional emptiness I experienced, the week flew by, and I believed we were happy. My host mother restored normalcy, making my favorite Korean foods.
As we went about our lives, a large photograph of Bruce in his full firefighter regalia graced the wall watching us as we went about life. I was comforted by this. My host mother showed me her newly renovated hobby room, where she taught sand therapy classes. My host sister talked about her life as a first-year high school student as she praised her brother for being admitted to KAIST. We all watched American movies as we folded laundry together, and we ate cinnamon churros in the local botanical gardens.
“If you come back to live in Korea,” my host mother said through my host sister’s translations, “You can always come back here. Bring your whole family with you next time and everyone will sleep here. Can you come back next month, in January?” I laughed as I explained the American academic calendar, but my heart wanted nothing more than return to the little house and stay forever. I wanted to be near my Korean family.
The feeling of loss slowly faded with each bowl of curry and every story we shared. As we drove by a hallabong shop, my host sister pointed and asked, “Sarah, do you remember? My dad’s sister owns and lives in that store!” I told her I remembered the store well. I retold the story of a post-Christmas dinner where the eight of us huddled in the small kitchen to eat pieces of a large raw fish Bruce cut up. My host mother and host sister laughed, surprised that I remembered such a routine occurrence like dinner. On one of my final afternoons on the island, my host mother showed me the DVD of Bruce’s funeral, which I was told was shown on live television.
It was the only time I saw my host mother and host sister cry over losing Bruce. After watching the DVD, they quickly dried their eyes, and we attempted to schedule my next visit to Korea. During my brief visit, the world was as whole as it could be. Though Bruce was gone, the emptiness I dreaded slowly dissipated. In my days on the island, I sometimes stopped at different places of the home and thought of the memories I had made. I looked at the small tea table and thought of the time we all huddled around it, eating sweet potatoes straight from a wood stove Bruce had installed. It reminded me of my first beer and how Bruce laughed as I slowly drank, pretending to enjoy it. I watched the front porch, where the shoes were kept and imagined Bruce’s sneakers still there. I saw his firefighter’s helmet on display in the home, and remembered all the times he had came home after a long shift and left it on the kitchen floor.
These well-treasured memories hurt when I first found out Bruce had died, but they served as my comfort. These memories gave me and my host family the opportunity to relive a happy time in our lives.
Before I boarded the plane to return home, my host mother and I loaded my luggage into the same silver truck that took me to Jeju International Airport at the end of my grant year. It was a strange feeling to see Bruce’s prayer beads swing from the rearview mirror, just as they did when he took me to the airport about 18 months earlier. I held back tears as we drove through town, stopping and going with the morning traffic. I felt the emptiness creeping again slowly as I watched the beads swing back and forth, but I did not let that void grow.
When I first learned of Bruce’s death, I struggled with brutal feeling of unfairness.. My time and life in Korea was too well orchestrated for a tragedy such as death. I foolishly believed that Bruce would live forever and that I would return to the island time after time for a reunion. Instead, we rode through the city in the same car that Bruce drove me around in – without him. I remembered the beers, the moments at the beach, and the hundreds of meals we ate around the small dinner table as a family. I let the memories take the place of the bitter feelings of emptiness bit-by-bit as we snaked through the traffic. I would not let the hurt and confusion of Bruce’s tragic death consume me. Rather, I chose to let his memories remain with me. I chose fullness and happiness in my heart; I knew that this was the best way to honor the memory of a husband, father, and firefighter.
Sarah Carey was a 2012-2013 ETA at Seogwipo Girls’ Middle School in Seogwipo, Jeju-do. Since returning to the United States, she received her master’s degree in education from Georgetown College (Kentucky) and has worked as an English as a Second Language and Gifted Education teacher.