Two years ago on April 21, 2018, a month before my 26th birthday, my mother passed away. A year ago, my sisters and I celebrated her first death anniversary by boarding a small yacht and spreading her ashes in open Pacific Ocean waters. It was a particularly marvelous, San Diego spring day. Also on that day, I was notified by Fuller’s Preaching Department that I was awarded the Parish Pulpit Fellowship—a research fellowship that affords the recipient generous liberty to chart the course, place, and pace of study. It made both the death anniversary and the award special: remembering and thanking mother for her life and looking forward to mine.
This year on April 21, 2020, I spent the morning firing one of my dad’s employee, golfing 18-holes late afternoon, and working front desk until midnight. It was a bizarre day. I didn’t do much reminiscing.
Today, I turn 28. I’ve extended my stay in Montgomery, Alabama a month and half longer to help my dad’s business. It’s been a bizarre couple months.
Yes, on March 19, 2020, I left Vienna, Austria on a nearly empty transatlantic flight to Boston, cancelling all future Parish Fellowship plans and starting the mandatory 14-day self-quarantine at my sister’s place.
The fellowship was one of the highlights of the past ten years. I had unprecedented freedom to live, read, study, relax, and travel. I was free from stringent financial stress, thanks to the fellowship’s grant and my fairly low-budget life. I was free from academic hustle: I read whatever I thought relevant or interesting; I also watched K-Dramas without feeling guilty. I was free from sleep depravation. I was free from most familial pressures (mostly self-produced), such as constantly preparing for future success. It felt strange and even unnerving to have had such freedom for a year. For nearly ten years I based major life decisions with my mom’s health in mind. At times, I silently rejected such burden by staying away in Chicago, but still carrying a lump in deep recess. Other times, I readily accepted the load with tears and laughter every Sunday at her nursing home. After her passing and the fellowship grant at hand the year 2019-2020 looked like a blank canvas for what unprecedented freedom might look like for Sooho.
One of the best and most difficult decisions in my life was to move back to California in 2016. I finished my second year serving as a youth pastor at NKFPC, and thriving at it. I loved the kids, the parents, and the staff. It’s rare for someone to love their first job out of college—even rarer for aspiring pastors in an immigrant setting. Despite the low-pay, hustling three jobs, and long weekends—only possible by relentless energy fresh out of college but no means sustainable in the long-run, in my opinion—I loved what I was doing and who I was becoming. But I had an itch, a lump in deep recess that put me on pause time to time: I wonder how mom’s doing.
The conviction settled quietly—deep convictions are rarely raucous and so quick. I was not to move to California for Fuller or furthering my academic pursuits. Seminary was secondary. More strongly and clearly, I was to move to California to be near my ailing mother. I had “to learn how to be a son to my mom”—this is word-for-word four years ago. Who said these words? Me, but not just me: the idea and the courage to mouth them came from God.
At the time and until recently, I thought the precious two years I visited my mom in the nursing home every week was for us. To heal past wounds. For me to forgive her for abandoning me after the divorce and burdening me and my sisters with her sickness. For me to ask for forgiveness for harboring such bitterness (though my mom’s mind was not all there due to the brain tumor). To catch up on loss time. I would feed her, watch K-dramas together, or read quietly as she napped. To mend harsh memories into more full-bodied ones: she did not abandon me, she tried to find a job in Korea; she did not burden us, she fought to live for us.
What I didn’t realize is how it prepared me for living with my dad (in Montgomery, Alabama of all places). Situation with my dad could not be more opposite than with my mom, however. My dad is workaholic par excellence: often he forgets what day of the week it is because he works relentlessly every day. And every day is different with ten new things to learn and a hundred tasks to do. My mom was in a nursing home where the slow pace is intended for caution (unless of an emergency). Every day of the week felt the same. Spending time together by working at a hotel vs spending time together by doing what I like for about two hours every Sunday (putting lotion on mom’s hands and face, attempting to read aloud the Korean bible to my mom, watching K-drama). Despite the obvious vast differences, the goal stayed relatively the same: to heal past wounds, to forgive and be forgiven, to mend memories.
Also to learn golf, I guess.
My dad is a golf fanatic, and he’s quite good. I, on the other hand, quit at a young age: I was 11, and I wanted to spend time with friends rather than lugging a golf bag under the sun for 4-5 hours. I decided to pick golf back up while here. I can spend time with dad, and I get some vitamin-D during these strange times of Covid-19 and stay-at-home. For someone who hasn’t touched a golf club in 15 years, I think I’m decent. And tightening my hands around the grip felt extra special after my dad whispered, “These clubs are old, but they used to be your mother’s.”
I fought with my dad more times in the past six weeks than in the 27 years before. One Sunday, at around the 14th hole, I’ve had enough of dad’s flood of coaching and said, “Dad, for this hole, don’t say anything anymore.” On a different day I shouted after my dad told me I overshot: “Can’t you just say ‘Ah, that’s okay! Next time!’ I know when I make a bad shot, dad.” One morning I picked up the phone with a groggy voice to an angry voice: “Are you still sleeping!?” His words pierced through my groggy haze. I hung up, stormed into his office, and said firmly: “Do not call me like that ever again. I worked until 2 am, woke up at 4 and 6 am because guests called, and I ran to the front desk. You didn’t even ask how I slept.”
To my dad’s credit he takes my words, despite how roughly or poorly I say it in Korean. He doesn’t barge into my room to tell me that too much sleep makes a lazy and useless person (to which I slowly sat up and responded, “Am I just a worker to you?”). He slightly eased up on his flurry of comments. And rare moments he quietly acknowledged that he was wrong with reformed actions.
One night my dad was in a good mood: though business is slow, he got to golf 18-holes (both of us played well that day), so we decided to grill some meat and drink soju. I was grilling the meats while my dad after 2-3 shots of soju blabbered about life, work, and golf, and how happy he is these days. He then grabbed a raw potato, peeled, chopped, and brought it to the grill. I cautioned him: “Dad, one at a time, one at… ONE AT A TIME.” He dumped the entire load on the pan and said stubbornly: “This is how you’re supposed to grill potatoes.” I gave up and tried to organize the potatoes and meats on the pan. A few minutes later dad asked, “What’s taking you so long with the meat?” “IT’S BECAUSE OF YOUR (DAMN) POTATOES. LOOK AT THE PAN, DAD. THE PAN IS 80% POTATOES. THERE’S NO SPACE FOR MEAT BECAUSE THE POTATOES COOK SO SLOW.” He sat back quietly with a smirk.
The next time we grilled, he put 4 potato slices at a time.
I also laughed with my dad so much more in the past weeks than before. “Your oldest sister is most like me, your middle sister most like mom; you’re a mix.” He took a shot of soju, “Maybe that’s why I can never get you to do business with me!” I chuckled and said as I poured another shot, “Dad, after these past weeks, I don’t think I’ll ever do business with you.” We took our shots: “You work too hard.”
We cackled about misbehaving employees working a bit straighter after realizing that my dad has a son who came out of nowhere and is fluent in English. We chuckled about companies who’ve given him past grievances speaking more politely after I took the phone and said in perfect parlance, “Hello, this is Mr. Lee’s son. As you can tell, my father’s English is a bit weak. Could you repeat what you said?”
Originally, my dad was going to sell his business and retire this year, but Covid-19 delayed his plans for about three years.
“It’s just three more years. The value of the business will get back up, and I’ll be able to retire with peace of mind.”
“You’ll be 70 then.”
“I know, but I’ll try to move to San Diego before and fly to Montgomery time-to-time.”
“You’ll need a house with a pool for Aidan and Asher, you know.”
“I know. I will.”
I didn’t want to come to help my dad for numerous reasons. One, I knew U.S. had to shut down, and Montgomery did not seem like a top choice for stay-at-home life. Two, I have not spent longer than five days with my dad at a time since the divorce nearly 13 years ago. Three, and most importantly, I did not want to betray—or what felt like betraying—mom and the precious two years we shared. But again the conviction settled quietly whilst in Vienna, Austria, before my sisters or dad suggested the idea. I knew I had to go and help him in Montgomery, Alabama. Underneath the “go help dad” resolve laid the deeper “learn how to be a son to dad” conviction.
Still I resisted. I cried that night. Why should I help him? I don’t want to; I just don’t want to. But, I know I have to. It’s not I should, as if I’m returning some favor, but the firmer I have to.
I first felt the same way when I realized I had to move back to California. It felt like swallowing a rock: choking on how I couldn’t for some reason fuss or cuss. Accepting that conviction took its sweet time passing down the esophagus.
That night in Vienna kind of boiled down to this, I think: Why should I be near my dad when he had not for me? Like I said, he is and always has been a workaholic, so he was rarely home.
But learning how to be a son is not contingent on model parents. Despite the grievances I can list from both my mom and dad, I wanted and needed to learn how to be a son. And, in my experience, learning how to be one involves understanding and forgiving major and minor shortcomings. These are riches that cannot be rushed nor so easily attained. They come surely, however, through the gift of presence.
The stress of running a hotel with (unbelievably) unreliable employees and during a pandemic is bottomless. Still, my dad says he’s doing better and can sleep with peace in mind. He attributes his well-being to teaching me golf, sharing soju and meals, watching and guiding me how to run a hotel. All the things he wanted to do but didn’t. I, on the other hand, attribute to prolonged presence. Even though numerous times I wanted to rip my own hair out because I spent 12-14 hours straight with my dad. But looking back, we’ve both grown. He is saying things I’ve always wanted to hear more: I’m proud of you, you live your own life, and you’re different from me. I’m saying things I held back on: don’t talk like that, I can take care of it, and I love you, dad.
I’m a jobless, a bit directionless, an unmarried 28-year-old son of Korean immigrants. Probably not the stellar son my dad had hoped for when I was born, but I’m the only he’s got.
What I do have I first reluctantly gave but found later is more precious than any accolade: presence.
Friends, I hope these strange times we live in will not strain but widen, deepen, and lengthen what shared presence does to humans, namely, to teach them to love.