What does graduating from Fuller mean for me?

A lot.

It means my knowledge suffices to receive the Master of Divinity from one of the leading seminaries in the world.

It means I’m the first in my immediate family—a bunch of immigrants—to receive a Master’s.

It also means my move from Chicago to Pasadena has come to fruition.

But it mostly means the end of a long and painful chapter in my life.

The journey west

Last year, my mother passed away (April 21, 2018) after battling brain tumor for seven long years. But it wasn’t just her battle: it was our family’s—it was mine. For seven years I was the son of an ailing mother.

So, three years ago, I moved back to California, leaving some of my most cherished friends. I masked my motive by saying, “I’m starting my MDiv at Fuller.” But the real reason was to be closer to my mother.

Nursing homes

She was in her nursing home for about four years then. Nursing homes have an odd aura, and my mother’s wasn’t different. It feels sterile for good medical and health reasons, but the feeling looms in the air. It’s not frightening—not always. But it is always there: it forebodes.

The staff made valiant effort to lighten the mood. To me, their efforts never came across fake or insensitive, just a bit futile. But how could it not be? Nursing homes are thick with the thought of death. When the room is thick with that, how could it not thin out one’s energy?

So, I was never fond of seeing her there: it’s depressing.

Night-tremors

Often late at night, when sleep didn’t come easy, I would have abrupt and unwanted images of my lonely mother—bedridden, isolated, and depressed. I would cry those many nights. I felt her intense loneliness in my bones—my inner voice screamed—but felt utterly useless about it. I hated those night-tremors.

What could I do? She doesn’t know how to use her phone. Sometimes, she would forget I visited. Other times, she wouldn’t even notice me there. So, what could I ever possibly do at 2 a.m. in the morning?

Eventually, exhaustion would win, and I would fall asleep.

These night-tremors only started when I moved back. I’m not entirely sure why it started then, but I have a hunch. Back in Illinois, I visited my mom once every three or four months for about three to four days. I had at least four hours to prepare myself to see an ailing mother. And on my way back, I had at least four hours to decompress, lay those thoughts aside, and live as Sooho.

Things drastically changed when I moved back. I saw her nearly every Sunday for a couple of hours. At first, it was good, very good to see her. But within a couple of months, I wearied. I even dreaded at the thought of seeing her Sunday morning—what kind of son was I? The guilt made it no better, of course. I was tired, beaten by a cancer that wasn’t even mine—but it was.

This went on for about two years until her death.

A mother gone, a son lost

I wanted to drop everything. Forget Fuller. Forget MDiv. Forget academics and my dream of becoming a systematic theologian. Forget life goals, plans, and hopes. All things die, or so I justified.

But I obviously didn’t forget these things since I’m graduating—on time, I might add.

It was the combination of many things that carried me through:

  • Sitting down with a professor and hearing about losing his mother 18 years ago.
  • Feeling understood.
  • My old and current roommates.
  • Receiving many emails and messages.
  • Friends who forgot about my mother and treated me normal.
  • Friends who didn’t forget about my mother but treated me normal.
  • Therapy.
  • Watching Running Man.
  • Reading fiction.
  • Reading theology.
  • Sleeping.
  • Wailing.

A time to die and a time to be born.

I reversed Ecclesiastes 3:2 because it seems like the only irreversible one. Maybe it is irreversible because being born and dying are not things you do; they are things that happen to you. Well, you can die by suicide—that’s something you can do. So, being born is the only thing listed in Ecclesiastes 3 that you cannot do to yourself.

So, it makes sense why it’s frightening and difficult to say goodbye, end, or put to death a chapter in your life. Will there be a new beginning?

I have to say goodbye to this chapter. This doesn’t mean that I can’t go back and re-read the chapter. But it does mean that I have to stop writing this chapter. It’s time this chapter dies, and it’s also time for a new chapter to be born.

To mother

You weren’t perfect, but neither was I, and I have to accept both. It’s good to accept both.

I moved to California and thereby started and finished Fuller because of you. It’s a good thing that I did these things.

I saw you every week for two years. Some weeks were intimate; others were painful. It’s a very good thing that I saw you.

You died. We mourned—still mourn—your death. And it’s a gift to cry.

Crying was my first words to you when I came out of your womb, and it’ll continue to be my words when I think about your death.

My Master of Divinity is dedicated to 김영자 (Kim Young Ja), 1960-2018.

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