Written by Jean Lee, translated into English by Veronica Liu
“Hello, Amir. Haven’t seen you for a long time, where have you been?” He was wearing a baggy white shirt, and all smiles. He gave me the feeling of a blooming sunflower.
“I just came back from the Midwest, and this is Jing Yao,” introducing this girl beside him. I had a feeling that this was not his girlfriend.
“Jean, do you remember that lady from Korea?”
“Of course I do. How is she?” From the smile on Amir’s face, I was sure that this lady’s illness was all cured, and living a happy, healthy life.
“No, she is not well. She only has two or three more days to live.” This was a big blow to me like being struck by thunder and lightning.
“She became homeless, roaming on the streets. When she was sleeping at night, someone hit her on the head. She was unconscious by the time she got to the hospital, and she still is.”
“What hospital is she at? I would like to go see her.”
Jing Yao said, “I will write down the address for you.”
Amir told me that Jing Yao is the one taking care of her.
“Can I go this afternoon after work?” My husband just appeared out of nowhere and stood in front of me.
Wherever I go, he likes to accompany me and drives me.
“What does she need? Something to wear? Food?”
“No, it is not necessary. Just hold her hand, tell her you love her, that’s all.”
“I can speak a few simple Korean words.”
I asked, “Does she have family?”
“Yes, but they don’t want anything to do with her.” Amir spoke softly, the smile gone from his face now. “I do have some understanding of this type of situation. Based upon my experience, perhaps her family did not understand her illness, or why she did certain things. Or maybe she misunderstood her family, or her family thought that her mental illness is embarrassing and they lose face, or some other reasons.”
We said goodbye and left Amir and Jing Yao.
I reminded my husband that when we get home, we will have a quick supper and then go visit her.
“Who is she?”
“Remember last winter I told you that Amir showed me a picture of a Korean woman that was just released from the sanitarium. She was living in the back of someone’s car.”
“Yes, I remember something like that.”
I remember in the picture this woman had her head down, eating rice with her hands. She was dirty and unkempt, and didn’t look human. Thinking about that, I felt sadness within my heart.
As we were locking up the shop, Jing Yao came back. I asked Jing Yao if it is ok for me to bring the set of Korean clothing that I have for the woman to wear when she leaves this earth. She said it is fine.
“Can I bring a can of Korean kimchi along? If she smells it, she may wake up.”
Jing Yao didn’t say anything.
Just as we are leaving, Olivia’s Korean mother walked over, so I told her about this briefly. I just wanted to vent.
“This Korean outfit is blue, is the color appropriate in your custom?
When she heard the part about the family not wanting to have anything to do with the woman, she had tears in her eyes. Then I remembered that when little Olivia was attending music school, she realized that her mom had played a part in cultivating her sensitivity and emotional caring. We stared at each other with tears in our eyes and saying our goodbyes.
After we got home, we quickly make our dinner.
I asked my husband to make sure not to let the vegetables burn in the frying pan, while I went to search for the outfit.
When I got upstairs, I looked through all my bags but was not able to find it.
I ran downstairs to ask my daughter-in-law if my Korean outfit was in her room. She said simply, “No Korean outfit,” with an expression like, “What are you talking about?”
I knew right away that it cannot be in her room. I was just in a panic when I asked her that question.
I went upstairs to look for it again, but still nothing.
I told myself to calm down and think carefully where it could be. I mentally thought of each room in the house, how is it possible that I can’t find an outfit, the house isn’t even that big?
All of a sudden, I thought of a closet in the room downstairs. I went in to look for it and I found it.
I called out to my daughter-in-law that I had found the outfit. She ran from the living room into the kitchen.
She could tell I was rushing, so she asked me where I was going.
I told her the tragedy knowing that she will give me support, because she is also Korean.
She asked me in a serious tone, “Did her family desert her?”
“I am not sure of the details, perhaps!”
My daughter-in-law asked, “How did you know her?”
“Remember we went to Korea in December to attend your wedding, I told you that my friend Amir showed me a picture of this Korean woman. I had asked him to bring her to see me; Amir said she has lice. I said that’s ok, I can put gloves on and help her wash her hair. Do you remember?”
She murmured something that I didn’t hear, and don’t even have the mind-set to ask.
I was so distraught that I cannot remember if I had dinner with my husband, son and daughter-in-law, only the fact that I ate my dinner in the car while my husband was driving us to visit the woman.
Following the directions that Jing Yao gave me, we went to a care home. As soon as we walked in the door, we saw lots of people, most of them were elderly, moving in slow motions. It was dinner time; there was no laughter, no music, silent and depressing.
A nurse asked, “Name of patient?”
My husband pulled out the information that Jin Yao gave us and said, “Kay.”
Nurse, “I have to ask the person that is taking care of her to see if it is ok for you to visit her.”
She picked up the phone and I could hear the conversation between her and Amir.
Then she beckoned us to follow her.
I didn’t know what to expect in the room, except to face the reality of whatever it may be. I held onto my husband’s hand tightly.
We saw Kay lying on the bed, calm facial expression, staring openly at the ceiling. Her hair was cut very short (even quite fashionably) and even cleaner than my hair.
“Kay, I am Jean. I am Amir’s friend and I think of you often.” I didn’t want to say I love you because it doesn’t seem right.
I thought I saw movement in her hand, so I excitedly said to my husband, “Look at her, she can hear me, her second finger moved.”
He said, “it was like that the whole time, moving and stopping.” I looked at her hand carefully, and he was right, too heavy.
I looked around the room. There was a blown up picture of Amir and Kay on the wall. There was also a small box of wilted orchids on the small table, looked like it was left behind by the patient who used to stay in this room. There was the untouched dinner for Kay. Maybe it is by law that even though she can’t eat; they still have to provide the food for her.
My husband said he is going to wait for me outside. I know he cannot bear to be in such a sad atmosphere.
Now that I am alone with Kay, I wanted to reach over and look under the blanket to see if she had lost weight and how thin was her legs? Did anyone hurt her? I remember when my father-in-law passed, I had touched his knees, and I can only feel bones and no muscles. When John (a friend) passed away, I didn’t want to touch him because he had family to care for him. I said to Kay, “I am not sure if I am being curious or caring, or a combination of both, but I do respect you and will not intrude on you.”
When the nurse came, I gave her the Korean clothing and told her what it was for. She took it and hung it in the empty closet. I also handed over the kimchi, letting her know that I am hoping that she can smell the food and wake up. She didn’t say anything, just took it and also put that in the closet.
The next day, I called the senior center to inquire about Kay.
The nurse said, “I am sorry but I can’t disclose that information.”
The next day, I tried again. “I am a friend of Amir. Please let me know if we need flowers or anything else if Kay passes on.”
She said, “I will relay your message to him.”
I left that message, but I was so mad at Amir. I had been scolding him internally for several days now. “Why didn’t you bring her over when I said I would help her treat the lice, or if we had tried to find a place for her to settle down, she might not have to go through all this? Why?” I was so upset; it reminded me of our masseuse, who is a good friend. When she left the sanitarium and chose to live on the streets, I had suggested helping her find a place to live, but she refused. After six months, she no longer wanted to be on the streets and asked if she can move in with me. I could not help her. This is something that I will regret for the rest of my life. I haven’t seen her for a long time. I don’t know if she is dead or alive. And with Kay, it is yet another regret in my life.
A week had gone by and I still haven’t heard from Amir. He could be busy with work, so I don’t blame him. I called the hospital again, and was told that Amir had discharged Kay. My English is just average, so I thought Kay already left this world.
One day I had tea with Maria, and she said discharge doesn’t mean death, “Someone in a coma can live for a long time. Why don’t you call again and find out for sure?” She seemed genuinely concerned about Kay. Kay, see, another stranger cares about you.
I said, “Ok, I will try.” In reality, I felt at peace inside, thinking that so many days had passed, whether she lives or dies is really up to the gods above. I knew for sure that Amir would take care of her.
“Yes, of course! You gave me a documentary DVD on the forest of South America. You did such a great job.”
“Where is Amir?” Amir is also a friend of hers.
“He is parking the car,” she said after a little while. “That Korean lady already passed. She was cremated.”
“You know of her too?”
Kay, another person cares about you.
“What did she wear when she left?”
“A Korean outfit.”
Thank you, God. She did wear that Korean outfit for her last journey.
Amir arrived, and still had that smiling face.
“Tomorrow morning we are going to take Kay’s ashes and spread it into the ocean. I tried calling you, but no one answered the phone.” He showed me his cell phone to prove the point.
“You don’t need to show me, I trust you.”
“We need to spread some flowers into the ocean too. Make sure you charge us.”
Amir picked some orange flowers “Kay likes the green and blue tones, “Amir added. The other woman started to say something, but, Amir interrupted her, “We will let Jean decide what to do.”
We made plans to meet the next day between around 9:00am to give him the merchandise.
Before Amir left, he showed me a picture. It was a picture taken at Kay’s father’s grave site. The man is bald, and was wearing a suit and tie. On the right it has his last name and on the left was his first name. We figure out that Kay’s last name is Kio. Did her family pay their last respect?”
“She has a sister who is taking care of things.” Amir’s voice was low, “I don’t really want to ask, as long as her family accepted her.”
I went home and sat down for dinner. My daughter-in-law was very observant; she noticed and made a comment that I didn’t eat too much. “Yes, because I have things to do. If I eat too much, I will not be able to bend down. It is inconvenient. If I get it done, I will eat something. If I don’t get it done, I would not allow myself to eat.” She signed. Most of my art is done while working on an empty stomach.
My wonderful daughter-in-law volunteered to look up the meaning of Kay’s father’s name and the meaning of what it means.
“Do we have any Korean newspapers?”
“Maybe, let me check. “ Then she came back and said, “No, we don’t.”
I said, “That’s ok,” because I already used Chinese newspapers to make a 3D heart, used the big leaves from Hawaii for the bottom. My husband helped me put some orange-red flowers circling the hearts. He glued these onto the leaves, adding some purple flowers on the side. The project is done!
In the evening, my daughter and I went for a walk. By the time we came back it is already 9 pm. Looking at the finished product, I felt that something was missing. So I used a piece of mocha and white color lace, pulling it in an angle from the right top corner of the heart to the bottom left corner. I reminded myself that I am going to add something else for Kay. She was special to somebody,not from a rock.
Sunday, I went to work a little earlier, I added a piece of blue ribbon next to the mocha-white color lace. These were all Kay’s favorite colors. I didn’t have to ask Kay’s father because he had already passed away, so I just wrote down, “My dearest daughter Kay”, and left a big blank spot for Amir to fill in her other names since he was closer to her than me. My love and emotionswere being given to someone I don’t know that well.
Amir came to the flower shop and I showed him what I did and the meaning of the heart shaped floral arrangement. He asked me to repeat once; he recorded It down and recorded it for the second time.
I asked Amir if he wanted to add anything, so he picked up a thick marker and wrote “Kay Kio…” and a very long name that looked Japanese. In my mind I immediately had doubtful thoughts. He wrote in the bottom his name, and other workers’ names. I was hoping that he would add my name too, but he didn’t.
“Do you want a longer ribbon?” He said “No, it’s fine,” took out his wallet and wanted to pay. “This is humanitarian.” I refused payment.
Then he put the floral arrangement into his car. He brought out a square green package, I can tell that there is a box inside.
Amir told me that Kay’s ashes are in the box and asked me to hold the box so he can take a picture of me and the box. I did as he said, not sure if I should be smiling or have a sad expression. “Is her sister going?” I asked, Amir replied, “She doesn’t have any sisters.” I remember he had mentioned her sister, how can there be no sister now? I said to him, “I feel like she is my sister.” “Yes, Kay is your sister.” Then he drove off, leaving me alone, standing there.
I needed the space, the quiet. Is Kay Korean? Japanese? Or was she married to Japanese? I used to think that she is Korean because that’s what Amir told me (he is Iranian). Is Amir mistaken?
If Kay is Japanese, and she wore a Korean outfit leaving this world, how would she feel? Will she know or not know? Should I call Amir and find out the facts?
Life is like a movie. I wish people in the world would give the ones that have mental illness more love and care while they are still alive.