My father-in-law moved from Korea to America to live with my wife and me at the age of 62 and changed his life. He gave up his nightly soju (Korean liquor) and chain smoking. He brought his 50+ lighter collection, purchased from cities in Korea, but never used them.
He attended daily dawn prayer meetings; the senior pastor confided in him because he served the church the way he served the Korean Marines, with absolute loyalty and abandonment. After a year in Phoenix, I got a new call in North Carolina.
We turned the move into a road trip through Sante Fe, San Antonio, Houston, New Orleans and Atlanta. Coming from a country as small as New Jersey, America was endless. I have a picture of him walking across the White Sands National Monument. He imagined himself John Wayne (he loved Westerns with their Homeric, mano-o-mano duels between good and evil) strutting across the desert with a cowboy hat as if he had just vanquished evil and was walking away to a well-earned sunset.
He helped carry our sofas in as if he was in his 40s. He thanked me for the road trip because he’d never traveled outside of cocoon-shaped Korea or took a vacation longer than three days. Then he flew to southern California where his oldest daughter recently immigrated. He took a job bagging meat in a Korean supermarket. Another family to help settle.
A year later my wife got a call. He had lung cancer.
It didn’t fit with the testimonies I liked hearing on Sundays: A man turned his life around and God blessed him with a long life.
My father-in-law survived bullets and carpet bombings in Vietnam when he fought with American Marines. He wasn’t going to give up without emptying his colt.
My wife and I visited him. He was hospitalized and couldn’t speak. We shared good news with him. Suyun, his daughter, was with a third child. Suyun was two months pregnant, but she stayed another three weeks to care for him.
The doctors didn’t share his hope and confidence. It was terminal and late for treatment. One lung collapsed, and the other looked like North Korea in the night from a satellite – a dark mass with scattered sparks of light. He went into a coma. They told the family to prepare end-of-life decisions. We were poring through the forms when we heard he regained consciousness. This, we believed, was the first step up the hill of miraculous recovery. The doctors still didn’t believe it.
They said there was nothing more to do; the best thing was to spend the last days with him in hospice. He believed God wasn’t done with him yet. The doctors did their best, now let God do the work, he said.
In hospice, he breathed better, sat upright and spoke sentences. He called us in North Carolina, advised my wife to take care of herself, said he would visit next year and meet his newest grandson, then go on another epic cross-country journey.
One morning, he called and told his wife to buy him his favorite dish, jjajjangmyun, black bean noodles. When she arrived with the dish, he was dead.
For a year, Suyun couldn’t look at pictures of him. But for the one-year memorial she asked me to put together a slideshow so our kids could meet their grandfather. I made sure to include my favorite picture of him strutting. We recalled the trip. We recalled funny events – events that were not funny at the time. When you look back on life, it seems everything is worth a good laugh. I held our third child, Dylan, still nursing. “You were blessed by him,” I said, pointing to the picture.
In the photo, he rested his arm taped with an IV on Suyun’s belly, without a bump yet, but wildly busy creating a new human person, as he mouthed a blessing.
SAMUEL SON is co-pastor at New Life Triangle, a new multi-ethnic church/1001 new worshipping community of New Hope Presbytery in Raleigh, North Carolina.