It’s been less than two weeks since I was in Korea. It feels like an entire lifetime and also, like yesterday. This may partly be due to my exceptionally unusual sleeping schedule. I will never be an international jet-setter. My body would like me to choose a side of the international date line and stay put. I think I’m finally able to wake up in the morning time and recognize what day of the week it is. Today’s Monday, right?
I still get easily exhausted by doing things. Basically, any day I have more than three things to do, it makes me need to curl into a ball or fall haphazardly into my bed. I’ve been sorting a lot of papers, my papers, my mother’s papers, strewn-about boxes of paper my father left with scraps imprinted with his lengthy, messy scrawl. I especially like the box of cotton balls and bottle of nail polish remover he packed with the label “Ginger’s Crap and plastic thing.” I’ve been answering a lot of questions and trying to remember what life is like in Meeguk (America). What I’ve surmised is that Meeguk is a place where I have to fake it a lot of the time; mostly, I have to pretend I have a lot of answers to questions I barely hear, or pretend “I’m okay,” because that seems to be the only acceptable answer to the many questions I’m pretending to hear.
I was forewarned by others that while my grief remains fresh and my father will forever be dead, not all of the people in my life will accept that I may not be willing or able to “hit the ground running.” Some people have good intentions that are misplaced as tough love. Other people have ignorant coldness which I have ignored for many years and cannot endure at this time (and may not wish to resume enduring). But what has been pervasively overwhelming, is that I have an amazing tribe. I have busy mom friends who answer my calls in the middle of the night and distract me with stories of toddling tots. I have couple friends who interrupted their anniversary getaway to make time for a sad friend. I have single friends who entertain me with tales of dating woes and triumphs and who let me complain or cry. I have lawyer friends who have taken time out of burgeoning careers to remind me how to be a lawyer. And I have people who know me inside and out, people who know how to normalize even the most abnormal circumstances, and have huge things happening in their own lives. I love my friends who have made no demands except to ask me to take care of myself and to remind me they are omnipresent, even at a distance. I love more that those friends have stopped asking “How are you doing?”
I am reminded everyday that I am loved, beloved, valuable (though potential employers have yet to discover how much they really love me – job searches are not fun.) Slowly, I am developing some kind of guide to recreating a life…something I was sort of trying to postpone by renewing my contract in Korea. But here I am – thrown back in and doing my best to build something new. I think the thing I like to remind myself is that there is no roadmap or plan to chart personal loss – people grieve separately, differently – and there is no formulaic answer that solves or heals or resolves or improves for every single person – even as they suffer the loss of the same person.
SO, the short answers are: NO, we are not yet “okay.” Some days are better than others, and none of them feel “normal.” NO, we are not attending family bereavement counseling and NO, at this time, I do not believe it is necessary. NO, there is nothing you can say to make it better. YES, there are times you say or do the wrong thing. NO, I will not be able to answer all phone calls and NO, I do not know the best time to call. Just try and if I can answer, I will. If I can’t, I won’t. YES, I’m looking for work, and NO, I don’t know where I want to land, and NO, right now, I don’t think it’s a good time to reevaluate my life plan. YES, there are things you ca probably do, but you should probably be more specific about what you are willing or able to do, because right now – we’re kind of in survival mode and we aren’t 100% sure of what we need until we need it.
But here’s the shortest answer: I love you all too. Thank you for those who try, who put aside personal inconvenience and replace it with generosity, who have gone out of their way to try to make things seem less uncomfortable. My appreciation is unending, and I will probably not remember all of the tiny kindnesses that have been gifted to my family… but I hope I will…
It seems hollow to say my life has changed when nothing about my life in Korea has changed. Except, this huge thing has happened: My Dad DIED. And I’ve had to tell the story to far too many strangers. Far too many times. Too much, too soon, too many.
My life in Korea is easy, and if it were only me alone suffering through something, I’d probably stay and pretend that everything else is normal. I can talk workplace politics. I can feed students. I can hold babies on weekends and sleep in late everyday. I can let the routine and calm and nothingness and mundane simplicity of Korea be home. It would be easy, especially since most days, my classroom is just a stage for the Ginger Show anyhow. In Korea, I can pretend to be someone else with a different life. Actually, I just AM someone else with a different life.
But, someday, I’d have to go home. Since Korea has never been, nor was it intended to be, a permanent plan, someday, I would have to be just regular Ginger again. Someday, I’d have to come back to a life I left at home. When I get there, no one will have washed and waxed Henri Le Celica or made sure my tires have air. No one will call to report how many times Wagger-Grace, Border Collie Extraordinaire, has sniffed the interior of the car looking for me. There won’t have been anyone moving around my boxes or repacking things already packed or printing random new articles about Korea. Because, when I get home, whenever that would be, my dad will never be there again. Even if in Korea I can pretend that he MIGHT be…
So, I can delay the inevitable basket drop feeling of resuming a life where I return to being half-orphan, or I go home now. I’ve spent the past few years delaying a lot of realities, but this one isn’t something I can change with an insane delusion or a lot of hope or strategic planning. There is no use in stretching out a grieving process that never ends, only transitions into another kind of thing. At Christmas, my dad and I were talking about our birthdays and his parents, who had died many years ago. He said, still – there were times he thought of things he wanted to tell his parents, or his twin brother, and there were times he thought “I’m gonna call…” only to remember: There was no one to answer. I think that’s how it is already, except I’m still in some sort of half-denial phase.
If I don’t go home to feel my feelings, I probably will just be delusional forever about my grief. I’ll let grief get caught up in the nasty web of Korean culture clash and bad communication. I’ll let grief catch in my throat instead of be released. I’ll let grief capture me and make me freeze to a moment in time and a place in life. I’ll be trapped – in more ways than one.
And since I’m a girl that really really loves her freedom, that is not acceptable. So, as much as going home sounds super not fun at all, and looking for a new career in a new city, in a world without a dad seems extremely unappealing, that’s what I’m doing, because that’s what a girl does when she doesn’t want to belong to grief forever.
So, someday soon (like next week) this blog ends because there won’ be a Ginger and Korea anymore. But stay tuned, Readers… I’m sure to pop up somewhere else.
When my brothers, sister, and I went to write things about my dad that we wanted to share with you, we had to laugh; mostly because my dad would hate having so much attention focused on him. He hated to be the center of attention, so much so that it bored him to sleep. We used to tease him because he could fall asleep anywhere, including the dentist’s chair, the barber shop, and any sunny place. Looking for photos of my dad, there were more pictures of him sleeping or hiding than there were of him posing or smiling.
When, as a foursome, we decided we wanted to tell stories about my father, memories that made us smile, laugh or cry, we wanted people to know that my dad was a loving, but grumpy guy. My dad, his identical twin, Bob, and I shared a birthday. I remember going to other kid’s birthday parties and asking why they only had one cake – I always had three. My dad use to let me think all of those cakes were for me… and I got to open triple presents most years – again so that he could deflect the attention from himself. My dad taught me that the most important person in the room was the gap-filler, the stream-liner, the comfort person. The person who was most valuable was the one who could make every other person feel like they were most important. The most cherished lesson I learned from my dad was that loving other people was more meaningful than the love you got back. Because of this, I have always had more love to give. I know that it frustrated him that all of his kids sometimes gave too much to other people and he urged me to stop fixing broken people. I always reassured him, I had it to give because I had been so loved.
My brother, Jarid, remembers the same thing. No matter what my dad was doing, he would make special time to include him. Jarid remembers going to the Prairie House for breakfast in the mornings with Dad’s friends and the cool part is how he always wanted Jarid to come along, just the guys. Jarid remembers dad taking him places to do things to be special, even if there were things Dad didn’t particularly like. My dad spent many weekends camping and fishing because my mom and her family cherished that time and enjoyed those outings – it was never his favorite, but he loved us all enough to want us to have fun and be happy. Jarid and I used to look forward to the autumn every year because dad would throw us into huge piles of leaves. All of his yard cleaning work felt like it was solely for our entertainment.
My dad didn’t always say things with great eloquence. When I was in my twenties, I totaled my first vehicle. It was Christmas Eve and I was buying last minute Christmas gifts. I crashed into a car in front of me and passed out after the airbags deployed. In crisis, I called my dad. I said “Dad, I just totaled my truck. I’m still in the truck.” He said “Well, why’d you do that? That was stupid.” And he hung up. I was baffled, but before I could respond, he called back concerned and asked all of the other routine questions. Later, he said, “Well, you were calling. You were fine.” Alex remembers a similar story. Although he spent the least amount of time with Dad, because he is only 17, he says those were great years and he wishes he could have had more. Alex is so grateful for the time he got to spend with Dad, whether it was just normal father son activities like learning to ride a bike or fixing up his car. Dad was always there for Alex; Alex remembers when he was about 7ish, he had just gotten his first bike with training wheels a little too small. He asked dad if he would fall because he wobbled a lot; the training wheels only touched when you leaned to one side. Dad said to Alex: “You won’t fall, don’t be stupid.” But Alex fell off the sidewalk and down a rocky hill. When Dad got to him, he said from above: “Well, that was stupid.” What Alex remembers saying was: “You said I wouldn’t fall!” Even though he got pretty banged up from the fall, Alex knew he was good because Dad was there.
That’s the thing about my dad; no matter what any of us kids did, he had ultimate faith that we were fine, we were good, we would be okay. He let us be free to make mistakes, big and small, without real judgment, and without expectation. He believed in us when we did not have faith in our own abilities. It is the thing I will miss the very most.
We also love how our dad thought his own way. There were important lessons he wanted to teach us. He always wanted us to have a pet so that we could learn responsibility. I think my mom is now very responsible after caring for our several dogs, bunnies, fish, and turtles. On my twenty-fifth birthday, my dad handed over a heavy box. When I opened it, it was a deluxe Black & Decker power drill. I said “Oh. A drill.” My mom said “Well, I wanted to get you something shiny, but your dad said ‘every girl needs a drill.'” When I moved to Sacramento for law school, my dad told me, with all seriousness, “I saw on Dateline that sometimes you can use a drill as a weapon. Just keep it in your bedroom.” I thought, “Yup, just what a girl needs in her bedroom.”
In my classroom, I hear my father’s voice come from my mouth often. I’ve taught Korean boys how to make a Windsor knot in their tie and how to earn respect through a firm handshake. When I was prepping a resume writing lesson, I actually found my very first resume and it had my dad’s notes on it, teaching me how to be a professional and how to be a grown up. I realize now that after I finished school, how often my dad asked me for help and advice, and how uncomfortable I always was. I don’t think I ever believed I could know more than my dad about any topic.
JARID’s final thoughts: “Being like my dad growing up was so important to me, I wanted to be so much like him that even at dinner time when my father use to mix all the contents of his plate into one big pile I did the same because if Dad did it, it was cool he was my hero. In the end all that I can say is that I am honored to have known him, and I am privileged to have had him as my father and as my best friend, I love you, Dad.”
ALEX’s final thoughts: “I can’t thank you enough dad for just being there, if I had any problems whether it be school, girls, or cars I knew I could count on dad to give me advice even if sometimes it wasn’t the best I always kept it in mind and I’ve learned so much from him like don’t empty the transmission fluid when you’re actually trying to change the oil, or ‘don’t be stupid.’ I hope you’re having some quality time with Bob. Dad, you were and are my hero and I love you more than I can express in words.”
KRISTA and I just want to add that our dad always taught us we could do whatever boys could do. Except for pay for dates. He reminded me during our last conversation that feminist or whatever I was, I should stop paying for dates – he said it was maybe the only real advantage to being a girl. Whatever we did, even the stupid things, he said that as long as we were happy, we were doing the right thing. So, Dad, we will try to be happy, and we will try to honor you by giving you the gift you asked for during every birthday, Christmas and Father’s Day – we will try to be good kids.
It’s really easy to take life for granted. Day-to-day living and day-to-day problems, like: baby and child crises, back-stabbing coworkers, annoying ex-boyfriends, current romance rockiness, traffic, bills and debt, educational woes, and long-distance relationships of all varieties – it’s easy to take for granted these things as constants. Except when they are no longer constant.
Today, I take a short break from complaining about the (sometimes imagined or embellished) difficulties I’m facing in Korea, to acknowledge the loss of a high school classmate. Travis Carter was one of the Granite Mountain Hotshots killed in the Yarnell, AZ wildfire this week. Travis was a year younger than me when I attended a tiny boarding school in the Arizona desert where I lived in dirt and went camping twice a year for credit. There is nothing bad to say about Travis because he was one of those people whom no one can think of anything remotely negative to say. This is not just because he is deceased (which seems often to be the case when a person dies so tragically), but because he was a sincere, genuine guy who was affable and kind. This is, of course, from the far reaches of my non-law-school-damaged brain. I barely knew this person (then or now), so I can only comment that I remember him as sweet boy at 14.
But here’s the thing I must comment on…. this unique sense of grief that people share when they are even tangentially touched by tragedy. My Facebook feed, email accounts, and texts have been flooded with old pictures and comments, and group get-togethers, and random memory posts (like this one) from people from high school that I haven’t seen since we were pimply-faced and awkward (and awkwardly riding horses or awkwardly camping in dirt or awkwardly kissing our first loves – or awkwardly kissing our first loves on an awkward horse during an awkward camping trip). ANYHOW: These people do remember Travis as more than a fuzzy memory; they not only remember, but they know Travis as a roommate, a teammate, a confidante, a friend, a husband, a father, a son. Their memories and their loss reverberates to those of us who can only respond with vague ideas of what and who will forever be missing.
Those of us who didn’t know Travis, or any of the other 18 men who perished, as personally as we would have liked – we still grieve for the small fragments of memory we possess about these people. We grieve, because the loss reminds us of the fragility of our mortality, of the mortality of our loved ones. We grieve in the knowledge that one day can change your life – or end it. And it isn’t the same kind of grief that is being suffered by widows who lost their lovers, or children who lost their fathers, and companions who lost their best friends. But it is grief we share.
Those of us on the fringes can only say that we know we share your grief shallowly – the impact of your loss is only a vibration to us. But, what we share with you is sincere and genuine. We care that the world has lost a guy no one can say anything bad about – even during a pimply and awkward time. There are no words that will give enough comfort or solace, but hopefully, the knowledge that strangers are thinking of these families, of the memories of people we knew long ago (or not so long ago) helps – somehow.
At least, that is what we hope.
For more information on a memorial fund created for Travis Carter’s survivors, please see: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Travis-Krista-Children-Carter-Family-Memorial-Fund