Monday, November 18, 2013

Saying Goodbye

I am sitting in the Wood County Hospital in Bowling Green, Ohio, in a gray ICU room, listening to the labored breathing of my grandfather as he slowly leaves us behind.  My grandfather, whom I've always known as "Appa" (Korean for "father") and I have a special relationship.  There is something unique between a grandfather and his first granddaughter, and I've been honored to carry that title.

It is from Appa that I inherited my love of literature, my admiration of academia.  He has fostered within me that transcendental spark, that hunger for enlightenment.

I have brought with me the copy of the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson that Appa passed down to me.  It is a worn copy, a 1960 edition, with a front cover barely attached, and the wonderful musty smell of well-thumbed pages.  On the endpaper, he has pasted his own inscription:

I've been reading the well-marked pages, comforted by the bold block script Appa has scrawled in the margins of nearly every page, annotations and notations, ponderances and questions.  And I've been adding my own, side-by-side our pens occupying the same space in different temporal paradigms.

There is one passage, an excerpt of a letter written to Margaret Fuller on December 8, 1839, that I read aloud to Appa, holding his slack hand, my voice quavering.
...I woke this morn with devout thanksgiving for my friends, the old and the new. I think no man in the planet has a circle more noble. They have come to me unsought: the great God gave them to me. Will they separate themselves from me again, or some of them? I know not, but I fear it not, for my relation to them is so pure that we hold by simple affinity; and the Genius of my life being thus social, the same affinity will exert its energy on whosoever is as noble as these men and women, wherever I may be.
Later today, I will walk down the street to the house where Appa resided for over twenty-five years.  I will step into his study, that room lined floor-to-ceiling with books, with the old wooden chair
propped in front of his typewriter.  This room smells of him, of old books and aftershave.  I will sit on the porch swing out back, and swing my legs like I did when I was a child.  Will partake of a handful of oyster crackers from his stainless-steel jar that is always full.  I will wander the back yard and stand beneath the pine tree I discovered and made my own when I was nine.  Back then it was little more than a twig, bravely pushing through the brick pavers.  Appa has cared for it for me since, and it has grown past the roofline of his house.  I will run my hands along the porcelain figurines lined up along the shelf, sit in the old cobbler's bench, and crank a tune out of his old penny organ.  I will twirl the spindle on the Shaker spinning wheel that rests in the corner, and pat the heavy brass cat that has eternally guarded the fire grate.

This is how I will say goodbye.  My parents advised me not to make the trip cross-country.  He could have already been gone by the time I arrived.  He certainly wouldn't be the Appa I know and love.  But sitting bedside with him, reading Emerson in the weak morning light, making my way through all the curios of my childhood, this is how I will allow myself to let go of a man who has loved and guided me in all my pursuits.

Yesterday, before he slipped into that place deeper than sleep, he comforted us and said his goodbyes.  "I love you all.  I've lived a good life. I'm not afraid."  Safe journey, dear philosopher.  You are surrounded by love.
Though my soul may set in darkness,
it will rise in perfect light;
I have loved the stars too fondly
to be fearful of the night.
-Sarah Williams, "The Old Astronomer to His Pupil"