Jae Soo puts the box on the glass coffee table, kneels beside it and pulls on the cardboard flaps. Dust flies. Haejoon leans forward on the couch and wipes at the box with crumpled tissue. Mia sits beside her, knees tight together, creasing and uncreasing a piece of paper on her lap.
Struggling against the outer box, Jae Soo draws out another, smaller box. It is wrapped in packing tape. He stares at this smaller box a moment, sadly, as though it defeats him. Mia makes a small noise, like a cough, and he startles, rips open the inner box with difficulty, takes out a metal container wrapped in plastic. With his fingernail, he ruptures the plastic and pulls it off. The container, the shape of a small bowl, has turned a dull greenish-brown.
Jae Soo removes the boxes, the plastic, pushes them underneath the table. From his pocket he pulls an oversized square of silk, pink with green embroidery in vine-like borders. He spreads this on the table and places the metal container in the middle.
He clears his throat and lets his hand drop to the base of the urn. Its coolness fortifies him.
“Steven Inho Kim, 1968 to 1972,” he says, his voice low, in the cadence of ritual. “My son. Please forgive us for taking so long to honor you. It is your mother’s and my wish that you be buried beside us one day, but whether in Korea or here is yet to be determined, so please forgive the delay. We remember you clearly. You were a good boy, happy and uncomplaining; you lived a very short life, but you brought great joy into the world.”
He pauses. From the corner of his eye, he can see Mia staring out the picture window. She is squinting, as though she were looking somewhere far down the street. A feeling of disappointment passes through Jae Soo, gives way to irritation. He tightens his grip on the urn.
“In the years since you’ve been gone,” Jae Soo goes on, “we have been very lucky. Your sister has graduated from college and, since she decided not to go to graduate school, she’s gotten a job at a newspaper; your mother has become a banker—she’s just been made vice president with a 30 percent raise–and I have finished a fruitful series of experiments in Germany and Canada. I like to think about what you might have become, what you may have been like if you were still with us. You would have been 22. A young man. I know you would have been successful at whatever you wished.”
He has rehearsed this eulogy for a long time, turning it around in his head until it is like a lecture he’d given for 18 years. In practice, the words knit together in interlocking rows of meaning, fitting perfectly side by side. His own eloquence astonished and made him grateful. But today, the words and phrases sound flat in his ears, far from what he meant them to be. It is as though their sense existed somewhere inside him and stayed there, while only the words flew out.
He shakes his head to throw off the confusion. He owes Stevie, he tells himself. Family ceremony, ritual, the ordered meaning of things– He strains to keep hold of the thread.
“I’ve often wondered,” he says, his voice coming out a whisper, “why it was that you were born, only to suffer and die so young. I am not a religious man and such a question troubles me greatly. So much of my life has seemed so random, things happening to me–the war, coming to this country, your death–like I was caught up in larger forces and survived by sheer luck. I ask myself if you are the price I paid for leaving my homeland, for allowing my children to be born in a foreign place.
“I never intended to stay here. It was not a conscious decision–just one day after the next, until I woke up one morning and it had been 30 years. I wonder what my life would have been like if I had never left Korea. As a scientist, it is a difficult thing to accept, that there are some things we cannot know. That for some occurrences there may be no reasons…”
He stops. Haejoon is wiping her eyes with tissue, staring down at the carpet. He thinks he hears Mia say something. He looks, but she only turns her head further, craning her neck to look across the Biedronts lawn. Sudden anger washes over him, makes him forget where he is. He feels an old dull ache like the first drops of rain.
He bows his head and continues in Korean. He apologizes again for the delay in honoring his dead son, wishes for him peace and good dreams of the family reunited once again. Speaking Korean, he feels more comfortable. He thinks he may not have done too badly after all.
“Ja,” he says, looking up. “Mia?”
He has asked her to write something. She is good with words, (English, of course, she knows little Korean), though he wishes she would realize the folly of trying to earn a living with such talent.
She turns to face him, her face flat, sullen. He wishes she would sit up straight; her broad shoulders are slumped and useless-looking. Her hands press the worn piece of paper to her leg.
“This might be a little different,” she says, apologetically. She shrugs, pushes a strand of hair from her face.
Jae Soo folds his arms.
Mia bends her head low over the page and reads, her voice too loud. “You were funny-looking; your ears stuck out and your eyes were crossed. You stuck out your tongue when you laughed. And you laughed at everything I did. You’d watch me intently, whenever I sang for you or told you a story, your face bright with eagerness, anticipating the jokes.
“I remember the day I broke my nose. I was jumping up and down on the bed, higher and higher, until I could just graze the ceiling with the tips of my fingers. You were on the bed looking up at me, your mouth wide open, laughing and laughing. I was laughing, too. Then I fell off, smashed head first against the floor. Blood started spurting out of my nose, all over my dress. It came out of my mouth. And you thought that was hilarious, too, you just laughed harder–” Jae Soo listens with expanding fury. At first he thinks he will let her go on, say nothing at all, but anger chokes him. “Mia! What is that?!” He half-stands, gestures at her. “That is not the kind of thing–
“It’s okay, yubo, sit down,” his wife placates.
“What is it?!” Jae Soo grabs the paper from Mia and stares at it.
Mia’s face drains white; her mouth is open dumbly, taking in air.
“It’s what I remember,” she says.
“This is not an occasion for humor!” Jae Soo shouts, pulling away from his wife’s grasp. His elbow lurches and knocks against the urn. It smashes against the table. A spiderweb pattern blooms in the glass like a sudden frost.
They stare at this, each of them. Mia gets up. Her face is sallow, wounded. “I didn’t want to do this in the first place,” she says. “This whole thing was a dumb idea.”
She runs up the stairs and shuts the door to her room. Jae Soo hears the click of the lock. Haejoon shakes her head at him. “Really, Jae Soo,” she says, her eyes still with tears, “sometimes you are so strange.” She goes up the stairs, too. He hears the low knock, then Mia’s door opening.
Jae Soo listens but hears nothing. He imagines them together, sitting on the bed, their heads close, talking in low voices. As much as he strains, he cannot make out even the faintest murmur.
He sets the piece of silk on the floor. It is the pojagee his sister-in-law had given him the last time he was in Seoul. He puts the urn upon it and ties the diagonal ends of cloth together. It looks like a gift, the way you would carry a box of chocolate or some oranges to a host. It makes him feel a momentary confusion, as if he were anticipating a party. He unwraps it and moves the silk aside.
Jae Soo sees it so clearly, the past, that the future seems the dream, the present a cloud to be thrown off, obscuring. He sees the old Buick, its blue top rounded and shiny as a beetle’s shell.
He’d pulled up in front of their old house in Charlottesville, the house on Oxford Road, into the dirt semi-circle that had been their only driveway. Dr. Shepard had already arrived, was patting Haejoon’s shoulder while she sobbed into her hands. She had on her blue bathrobe. Her hair was wrapped in a towel. Mia, then five, flitted underfoot, worried, unsure, examining their grief with a child’s intuitive, partial comprehension.
He does not remember crying. He only remembers sitting, like he is sitting now, in a room of lengthening shadows, left alone because it is what they thought he needed, tiptoed around like a statue in the park.
Jae Soo runs his hand down Stevie’s container, finds himself struggling to pry the top off. It won’t come. He feels the anger return to him, making him clumsy. He swears and gets up to get a knife from a kitchen drawer. He works the blade beneath the rim, pulls and pulls, until finally it gives way, comes off in his hand and inside are the ashes of his dead son.
They are greyish-white, fine, barely taking up space inside the urn. Jae Soo is surprised at how much they look like the ashes of a cigarette, like ashes in a grate. He touches the end of his little finger against them and tastes. It is dry and slightly bitter.
Mia’s laughing face comes to him then, as she had been when she was a child, round and flushed pink. She sails into the air, propelled by her own force, her thick black hair up-ended, swinging, her short legs straight, pushing down against the mattress, the squeaking bedframe. And Stevie looks up at her, adoring, mouth open, small hands clapping together, his laughter a hoarse gurgling from the throat.
Jae Soo puts the lid back on Stevie’s urn and presses tight. He ties the pojagee back around it and places the urn on the unbroken side of the table. He tries to remember why he’d gotten angry at Mia. The emotion is remote to him now. He cannot remember. What he feels is a bafflement, a certain confusion when he realizes the way his life has gone.
It is growing dark and still he hears nothing from upstairs. Have they both fallen asleep? Jae Soo watches dusk settle across the room, the air turning grey and thick with shadows. He will send Stevie to his brother in Korea. Jae Soo sees the hill in Cheonju where his ancestors are buried, the mounded grass and marble tombstones, the twisted pines and soft, fragrant mimosa. He will request that Stevie be interred there, among the silent markers of their lineage. He will tell Mia. He will describe to her the place.
He wants to go up and tell her now, tell Haejoon, too, but he does not move. He realizes how slow he was to come to a decision, how long it has taken. Anger swells from nowhere, paralyzing him. He sinks back onto the carpet and looks up at the ceiling, at the dark and shifting patterns of regret.
The Eulogy was published in The Bridge in Fall 1990.