In 2021, Things Fell Apart.

This post has been delayed numerous times for many different reasons.

First, I didn’t want to make public such sensitive and vulnerable material.
Second, I halted the writing multiple times because of overwhelming anger or grief.
Third, I became happier when I moved to Korea, so the bulk of the post felt distant.

But now, I post this for me. 2023 has not been an amazing year, so far. Rereading this draft a dozen time confirmed for me that life is shitty—often too many damn times—but it is also beautiful and precious. I think I need this reminder as I turn 31 soon.

Initially, this post was going to be an inflammatory harangue against Covid, the status of academia and religious studies, and my parents. I was hoping to garner pity by weaving a “the world is against me” story. And while many of the details are true to the best of my memory, the more I wrote the more I realized I was telling a different kind of story.

In my mind, I wanted to justify to friends and family why I fell apart during the pandemic. I wanted to be understood that I’m not a failure who was bested by Covid. Or to justify that my prolonged depression and inactivity were not due to laziness but to shock. But as the writing came to life under my fingers, a new horizon emerged and confronted these presumptions.

When I left San Diego and moved out of my dad’s for South Korea, I wept. I sobbed as I muttered: “Why is it so hard to love a parent?” The words slipped, and with it they released an anguish I’ve gnashed my teeth over for the past decade. Failed communications, colliding worldviews and priorities, tormenting expectations (from both sides), the guilt and regret that drive us to try again. It’s all so tiring and so exhausting.

I didn’t know how to love the two who made, birthed, and raised me in love: my parents.

2021 was a difficult year. Painful and dark. I started five or more drafts of this post. I couldn’t write beyond a few sentences. I would just close my laptop, not because of writer’s block but because of the tears.

It was an excruciating year.

I lost a significant part of myself in 2021. A key identity marker. A major cornerstone of my 20s; what drove and kept me stable and sane through some of my worst times. It all came crumbling down February 2021.

March 2011, my older sister calls me a week before my first spring break of college and mumbles through her sobbing, “Take the next flight home. Mom’s hospitalized and is taking a CAT scan. They suspect brain tumor.”

Two months before I even turned 20 that call forever changed the course of the next ten years: how I was to live, think, mature, make life decisions, see myself and my place within my family and the world. My 20s started with the person who delivered me to life on the brink of death.

Who can bear such life-crushing weight?

My first and main coping mechanism was to throw myself into other things. Long distance was of tremendous help: it’s much easier to enjoy friends and learning when your college is 2200 miles away from your sick mother.

In the beginning, I tried to think about my mom often as I considered it my filial duty. But I would freeze. Who can enjoy friends and concentrate on turning in papers or deep philosophical quandaries when your own mother is literally losing her mind? I couldn’t, at least without ignoring the thorn inching deeper into my subconscious. So, in college I severed the cord. I forged a new identity, and threw my all into nurturing it.

And I’m not going to lie: it was surprisingly easy to cut myself from her, especially since I’ve been cutting our bond for years.

2007, after the divorce mom disappears. She wins custody but leaves my sisters in charge of my well-being. The next time I see her is a year or so later.

Nobody explained that she tried to start a business in Korea. The first time she came back she handed me her business card with restrained glee and pride. I remembered only her English name, Grace, and nothing else on the card. (I wish I kept one of her cards.) I scoffed. I didn’t know much about business, but I had a feeling she wasn’t going to make it.

She didn’t. She came back pretty much penniless. We never talked about Korea, and I never saw those business cards again.

There are only losers in divorces. My dad lost custody of me, my mom the breadwinner and stability, my sisters their 20s, and I lost parents.

Nobody wins; nobody won.

The ground tilled. The seeds of anger and bitterness sown.

I begun to despise my parents.

June 2010, high school graduation, I saw dad for the first time in years. We shared a rare moment of exchanging a few words hindered by language barrier. I remember it with pain. I told him I decided to go to a Christian college, study bible and theology, and become a pastor.

Nothing can be hidden in the eyes. Even between strangers, the eyes are windows. We see because outside light comes in through the eyes, and our expressions are on display because inner light shines out through the eyes.

With subdued disappointment in his eyes, he says, “I wish you would study business and become a businessman like me.” I was furious. He disappears from my life, never asks what I want or how I was doing, and he comes for a hour or so during my graduation to tell me to do business—to live like him? I survived and thrived without him in my teens. I don’t need him to direct my adulthood. I wanted to tell him off.

Instead, with equally despondent eyes I said, “We’ll see.”

Initially, I thought those eyes were aimed at me, that he was disappointed in me, and that irritated me.

I now understand those eyes better. He was disappointed in himself. He knew how little time we spent together before and after the divorce, how little influence he’s had and has over me. I grew up without him. He could not suppress his regret, and I mistook his regret as disappointment in me.

In a fragile relationship, emotions are often misread. My dad’s disappointment in himself looked like disappointment in me.

Spring 2011, very quickly, in less than six months’ time, I swapped dreams of pastorate for academia. In my first year of college, I fell in love with research and writing; t’was as simple as that. My professors were inspiring, what I was studying was ground-breaking and world-building. I found wells of life in dead figures and their texts; I drank deeply with euphoric satisfaction. I consumed a proliferation of interpretations and disputes—a true smorgasbord. I loved the dissonance between texts and the harmony I had to forged. For years, theology was my sustenance.

I tasted life’s unfair bitterness when I heard news of my mom. But the crisis made theology even sweeter—more desired and needed. As my life’s family foundation was fissuring I decided, consciously or otherwise, to cement new ground. And on this rock, I built “Sooho as professor, as theologian” as a gaudy monument. I devoted my 20s to building this identity and dream. I guarded carefully it, and it prevented me from spiraling into utter despair.

In the early years, I blamed my mother for her brain tumor. I was being irrational and spiteful, but those first few years of the diagnosis were agonizing. During her seizures, she couldn’t recognize anybody, not even her children. Her medication made her berserk. Her spasms paralyzed her. When we took away her wallet, she threatened to run away by bus with the coins she scavenged around the house. Once she ran out the door, and I had to chase her. She screamed, “Stop chasing me! Help! Help! That man is chasing me!” She was scared. To her, nobody understood or knew her. She was utterly alone. To me, I lost my mom for the second time since the divorce. And I hated her for that.

I wish I was more emphatic, more loving, more understanding—more of anything else besides hate. She deserved none of my spite. When she ran away, I was so fed up and annoyed that I refused to emphasize with her. The rotten roots were too deep and entangled. It took years to unearth those seeds of anger and bitterness.

Nobody deserves cancer, much less brain tumor. It’s harrowing to see someone you love and has loved you without limits lose their mind. The field of mind and neurobiology is nebulous with new discoveries around every corner. But the simple fact is that if the mind is damaged so much more is lost than just neurons. For years, she lost her sense of selfhood. She was 51 when she was diagnosed, but her fairly young and healthy body deteriorated fast. She lost her independence and ability to choose: she could not leave, change diet, organize her day, decide what to do, or even use the bathroom without permission or assistance. She lost her future along with her present. And she almost lost her only son.

Seeing her suffer for so many years and at such young age shocked my outlook in life. Life could end instantly or slowly with much anguish. Cancer, most of all, makes no sense, so I likewise responded without much sense: with fury and spite.

January 2020, a fast-spreading respiratory virus named Covid-19 is slamming news headlines. I went to Europe the following month to continue my fellowship studies. How disruptive could a microscopic, nonliving entity be?

Very. Very, very.

July 2011, I was being selfish, but I lobbied hard to return to college. I didn’t want to be near mom and be bombarded with trauma, guilt, and anger. Unfairly, I wanted to dump the responsibility, again, on my sisters. But between full-time work and how unfeasible around-the-clock home care was, someone had to stay-home with mom.

I felt it slip through my fingers; I just started building this dream, this guiding lighthouse. Why must everything crumble together? I panicked—I didn’t want to let go.

I saw it in her eyes. My sister was exhausted. Lord knows she’ve done enough. She looked to me to see if I would lend a hand. I did not. She wasn’t too disappointed, however. She herself knew how taxing it is to care for an ailing parent, and she did not wish that upon me or anyone.

With unbelievable timing, the state came to cover many medical expenses. My mom was to receive her first of many chemotherapies, during which she would stay admitted at the hospital. That pernicious chemical coursing through her body left my mom weakened but more mentally recovered—she didn’t need constant care in the aftermath. She may have lost her hair, but she recognized her children.

But like some sinister cycle, the tumor relapsed, her mental capabilities began to fail again. She needed another round of that devastating treatment. But in the meantime, who will take care of her?

It was a perennial dilemma. In the course of three years, my mom suffered two relapses and three chemotherapies. I think I’ve heard the doctor say that my mom only has six months and that we should prepare for anything 6 or 7 times. Hearing that fucks with your mind. So, while away, I severed—I had to sever—myself from my mom. Far away, I was only Sooho the aspiring academic, not Sooho the son of a sick mother.

February 2020, it’s the ninth or tenth time dad called this month to tell me to come back to America. It’s the most he’s called in the past five years. Annoyed and stubbornly, I continue my European trek. Europe was still fine.

It’s the tenth time she’s called in the past hour. In the beginning, I would pick up almost every time and say, “Umma. Umma. Are you okay? Why did you call?” The line goes dead immediately. She calls again the next second. My sisters and I are the only ones on her contacts. Each of us would average 40-50 calls until her phone ran out of battery. Pretty soon, I started to screen most of her calls.

At some point, I realized she calls often because she forgets she called. My sisters and I were the only ones she had left. She probably wanted to hear our voices as she sat in that lonely nursing room, surrounded by elders way above her age, and constantly clouded with death. So, I started to pick up every time again. Sometimes we would actually talk, often repeated conversations: “Mmm, I’m still in away. Don’t worry I’ll be back”; “What do you want for lunch? Do you want 짜장면 (black bean noodles) again? Okay. Mmm, I’ll be there soon.”

But I never understood why she would hang up. I still don’t. Maybe the answer is too sad, and I shouldn’t try to make sense of it.

March 2020, Trump announces a deadline for US citizens residing in Europe wanting to return to American soil. A few days later, I board transatlantic flight from Vienna, Austria to Boston, Mass., USA with about 20 other people, effectively canceling my fellowship.

For years this was the routine: I would fly out for a weekend every other month to see her in the nursing home—a most depressing place. I would buy lunch, something the nursing home doesn’t cook, and feed her. We would spend a couple hours together. I turn on some Korean drama for us, or she naps while I read besides her. Time to time I would wheelchair her out to a nearby park or to some activity in the lobby. Some days were better than others. The worst were after spending hours with her, I would get in the car to leave, but she calls and asks when I was visiting that day.

I screamed and slammed against the wheel. Does any of this matter? Do any of these things add up to anything? What’s the point if she just forgets? Why try? I felt utterly helpless, so I just cried in the car. A few minutes later, I went to my sister’s for dinner. My first nephew was born then, so we spent most of the time talking about him, watching him, or entertaining him. I didn’t tell my sister anything. I slept and took a flight to Chicago the next day. I mentally left mom behind.

April 2020, I move to Montgomery, Alabama to help dad’s struggling business. Covid has been extremely unfriendly to the hospitality sector. For about six weeks, I worked side-by-side with my father who I haven’t spend more than five days since the divorce. I don’t want to repeat the details already written on my 28th birthday post. To keep it short: it was a miserable time. And, sadly, it wasn’t a one-time favor.

In wondrous irony, it was being far away that softened my heart of stone and fertilized my foul soil. As imperfect as my college was and still is, I can say with some confidence that I was “saved” during those formative years. The friends I’ve made, the mentors who’ve nurtured me, the studies I’ve absorbed, the ministries I’ve volunteered for; they all and more saved me from complete despair.

Little by little, stitch by stitch, I begun to reattach myself to my mom. Every call and every visit wasn’t horrible or horrifying. Holding my mom in my mind and heart didn’t burn like hot coals. Soon enough, I began to treasure her. I actually looked forward to flying back home.

I don’t know how else to describe that day besides a holy moment. The lunchtime sunlight was a bit brighter and warmer in that normally dull room, my mom’s face glowed, the outside world came to a hush as I fed my mom 순두부 (tofu stew). It was as if the world was witnessing a threshold moment of something that was in the works for years. I broke down in front of her. I’ve never cried in front of my mom in my teen and adult years, but this time I couldn’t hold back, and I didn’t. She wasn’t fully aware what was going on, but she looked peaceful—ready to receive whatever I was about to say. I held her hand and said through my sobs, “I forgive you. I finally, finally forgive you. Umma, please forgive me.”

July 2020, I start my PhD applications in earnest. I booked calls with previous and current PhD students under the supervisors I would love to work with. I’ve sent cold emails to professors asking if they could spare an hour for me to bombast them with questions. I signed up for GRE course (God, I hope standardized tests die). I planned the next few months for an uphill battle.

May 11, 2014, Commencement day, and freaking Mother’s Day. What are the odds. While I celebrate this landmark moment, my mother is still in her nursing home unaware of her son’s graduation.

For a long time, I did not appreciate Mother’s Day. Actually, I actively ignored it. Only after my sisters became mothers, did the day become special again. It’s amazing how bitter things can turn sweet.

December 2020, I’ve sent in my last PhD application. Months of revising my writing sample and personal statement, wrestling not only with the wording but also with myself—why would I want to do and pursue such a crazy, highly-competitive, and (frankly) least-lucrative career?

I’ve had some amazing conversations with friends, peers, and professors. My friends, many of them already in a doctoral program, cheered me on and reaffirmed my gifting and talent and creativity. My old professors (the ones I’ve asked for recommendations) likewise validated my tenacity inside and outside the classroom and vision. I even had a chance to converse with a potential supervisor, and he was thrilled for my ideas!

So, with determination and a shit-ton of nervous energy, I sent in my applications to Yale, University of Chicago, and Emory to study religious studies in conversation with economics, ecology, and ethics.

August 2016, I pack my tiny 2006 Scion tC with all my earthly belongings and drove west. Chicago to Los Angeles was about a 30-hour drive. There were times I almost got stranded in a cellphone dead-zone. (America is big. Always fill your gas tank at every gas station if you’re doing a roadtrip.) After two years of youth ministries, I was ready to take the next step toward fulfilling my academic goals: going to graduate school.

Now, I could list a sterling list of Fuller’s appeals and benefits and why it was such a good fit, but the real reason was because I wanted to be close to my mom. Attending a seminary and living in Pasadena gave me the opportunity to see my mom at least once a week for a few hours. It was probably one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. My only regret is that I didn’t move back sooner.

February 2021, “Thank you for your application. Unfortunately…”

The culmination of about a decade’s worth of planning, working, and dreaming fell apart after receiving three emails starting with those words.

I felt cold. And numb. I felt like I was drowning, but without the panic. Just sinking deeper with my lungs filling with anguish. I felt myself fold inward; I caved in and didn’t want to come out.

For weeks, I didn’t tell anybody. I felt so ashamed. A failure.

“Sooho as professor, as theologian” came crumbling down. The foundation, the very reason I kept going in my 20s, cracked under the immense weight of the tsunami.

April 2018, my older sister calls, “Go to mom’s nursing home. Now.”

It was Saturday and usually I see mom on Sunday, so I asked, “Why?”

“She’s gone, Sooho.”

There is no one way to process grief. Some throw themselves to new projects or activities, because life must go on. Others, like myself, shut down.

For about two weeks, I stayed in my room or my sister’s place and slept 14-16 hours a day. I would eat one meal, watch TV, ignore my phone’s notifications, and go back to sleep. I remember I would cry; cry until I had no more tears and my face felt hot. I cried because of shame and regret—I wish I could’ve done more. I cried because she was gone—and there’s nothing more I can do. I cried because she was so young, and I’m young. I cried because her suffering is finally over.

Death is cruel. But death of a parent, especially a mother, is earth-shattering. The very body that bore me unto life is no longer.

May 2021, I, once again, go back to Alabama to help my dad’s business. Covid and old age wore him down, and he decided to sell the business. The stress was unbearable, so he needed help to finalize everything, teach the new owner, pack-up, and move out.

It was not easy. My dad and I fought a lot. There were incompetent workers in abundance. I clocked-in nearly 16 hours (or more) a day, seven days a week for about 6-7 weeks. Things rarely went smoothly. Crisis after crisis.

I collapsed about half way through. I’ve felt it for a long time, but I finally told someone: “I cannot find a reason to continue, to go on. I want to end.”

Stuck in the middle of god-forsaken nowhere, alone, overworked, and stressed, I viscerally would scream on the inside: “There’s nothing about me, right now, that I like. I hate where my life has been, where it is, and how it seems to go nowhere. I enjoy none of this. I hate everything about me and my life. Why should I continue?”

Somehow, I did. And eventually, my dad found a buyer, packed his belongings, and cleaned the house. We all left Alabama, hopefully, for good.

April 2019, my sisters and I gather to honor my mom’s first death-anniversary. We ate at her favorite sushi restaurant, got on a boat to spread her ashes in the Pacific Ocean, and enjoyed a picnic under the beautiful San Diego sun.

Right before we got on the boat, I opened an email from the fellowship committee: “Congratulations.” My sisters cheered and embraced me: “Mom, must be looking out for you.”

The Parish Pulpit Fellowship is an exclusive research fellowship that awards one or two Master of Divinity graduates funds to travel outside of the U.S. and study homiletics (the art of preaching).

After my mom’s passing, I felt lost. I made one major life decision (moving back to California) based on mom. She was my North Star for a time. Now that she is at final rest, I realized I had freedom and independence to imagine new possibilities I never would’ve entertained—such as traveling the world.

Even though Covid interrupted my fellowship plans, I am still deeply grateful that the committee chose me.

August 2021, I’m back in San Diego. I moved in with my dad and step-mom, with all the awkwardness and stress thereof.

I felt lost and without motivation. My dad and I clashed whenever he brought up what I’m doing with my life, to stop wasting it, to find a business to pursue.

2021 was supposed to be a monumental year. Crawling out the pandemic, entering the last year of my 20s, hearing back PhD programs and finally moving forward in my career that I’ve dreamt about since 20.

2021 was anything but those things. The ramifications of covid still lingered. I entered my last year of my 20s rejected from PhD programs and utterly dejected about life and my 30s.

I felt like a failure and someone far behind everyone else. I would browse through LinkedIn and be impressed, proud of people I know and barely know. They’re switching jobs, getting promotions, posting that they’re hiring, sharing accomplishments and breakthroughs. Their professional smile beams as they continue to rack up months and years in experience.

I, on the other hand, played golf at my dad’s country club. I had it very good and the absolute minimal stress. So then why was I so unhappy? My depression loomed above despite all the ease I’ve had. Golf was an escape, and it never solved the deeper issue.

September 2019, I decided to go to South Korea first for my fellowship. Reconnecting with my roots should be good for my research, yeah? It also didn’t hurt that I’ve always wanted to spend a few years after college in Korea (but familial duties to my mother came first).

This was the projected timeline: 4 months in Korea (including visits to Japan, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Cambodia); 1 month in Budapest, Hungary; a few weeks in Vienna, Austria and Prague, Czech; 3 months in Scotland; 3 months in Germany; and capping it off with a month or so back in Seoul before America.

Then Covid gets its ugly little fingers everywhere fucks everything up.

December 2021, an English academy in Korea finally gets back to me and asks for an interview. We Zoomed, I mock taught a session, and he gave me an offer the next day but asked if I can start in two months.

I replied, yes.

Deciding to move to Korea was a quick but not an easy decision, especially at my age. It still feels like I’m going backward or escaping. Maybe it was an escape from my dad.

But it was my decision. I used what little agency I had to leave. To sow this worn soul back in the motherland. I’m still hoping it was the right decision. Nobody notices a seedling growing until sprouts appear. Only the farmer who’d sown the seed knows of its existence. I don’t know yet what my soul will bear—a luscious fruit, a resplendent flower, a mighty oak tree, or just some grass. For now, I’ll continue to wake up every morning, drink water, get some sun (after putting on sunscreen), work on short-term and long-term projects, enjoy the little things, feel the big things, and try to sleep 7-8 hours.

About a third of the time I’ve known my mom, she was sick. About a fourth she was away in Korea after the divorce.

About a half of the time I’ve known dad, he’s been away. The other half he was rarely home.

I blame them because they’ve done blameworthy things. But I no longer hate them. I’m learning to pull those rotten roots of bitterness. Learning to love them, however, requires time to let scarred ground heal. I want to plant new seeds soon—maybe there are some already.

January 2022, I wept on the plane. I felt ashamed not just because I didn’t love my dad enough, but of everything I bottled up inside for the past decade. Even then I had an inkling of desire for the plane to crash and end my fatigue. I let myself entertain the thought and quietly but firmly said, “No.”

And I will continue to say No as long as I can because those thoughts tend to come back.

Plans fail and life is often shitty. That’s just a fact of being human. And it sucks so much because so many times I just want what I’ve worked for and dreamed about to work out. When my plans failed (the year-long fellowship and the decade-long dream of academia), the scariest part was not depression and shame but the inability to dream again.

Somehow, I found the courage to dream and hope again. It’s such a precious gift. So, fruit or flower, tree or grass, I will water.

In 2021, things fell apart. In 2022 and onwards, I will dream and hope again.


  1. Yoully Kang says:

    Oh, Sooho… you for sharing this with us. It’s so well written and it captures the fullness of the heartbreaking challenges you’ve faced. It makes me feel angry for you. You’ve gone through a lot of shit…but for what it’s worth, I wanted to say I’ve always admired the way you’ve confronted each situation and pursued loving your family. I don’t think you ever really ran away… you only took breaks. Honestly with all that you’ve gone through, that in itself is incredible. You have such a precious heart. Always rooting for you and am happy that Korea’s been a turning point. Miss you and love you always!!! Ps- I might visit korea next year and would love to see you if I do 🤗

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sooho Lee says:

      Thanks for reading and for your kind words ㅠㅠ. You were there for many of my early years, and for that I’m so grateful. Thanks for always rooting for me 🙂.
      Oh yeah! Most likely I’ll still be here!


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