My husband and I had our first date at Da Sung Sa on 6th Street. The next day I told my therapist he seemed like someone I could marry. Six months later we moved in together. Once we got engaged, it was time for me to meet his mom.
Keum was smart, powerful, complicated and beautiful, even in her middle-aged linens. Still the life of the party, even though she had been working as a Christian missionary for twenty-odd years. She was the kind of woman who would angrily slam her husband in the face with a substantial hunk of frozen beef, inspiring all the more devoted fidelity. The kind of woman who would insult you, laugh when you looked startled or dismayed, and then turn around and shower you with lavish warmth and stunning generosity. When she gave you a gift she would say: “This was very expensive.”
As the unassuming granddaughter, daughter, and sister of charismatic hot-tempered ladies, I knew that it would be pointless to try to compete—the thing was to fly under the radar. So we went to Busan, where Keum had been doing God’s work and receiving treatment for Stage Four lung cancer for five years.
We went out for barbecue and cod fish soup. Keum spryly jaunted up mountains on hikes with us, and put exercise equipment in public parks to vigorous use while bragging about her fitness. She didn’t seem like a sick woman until she’d had enough of us, when her mood would suddenly turn and she’d berate us for putting her out, saying how tired she was, and retreat to her darkened room for hours, fervent hymns swelling from the phone resting beside her on her pillow.
She treated us to a few nights at the Busan Novotel. My husband and I used the deluxe gym and when he instructed me on some unfamiliar piece of lifting equipment, standing so close to his handsome bare biceps I actually blushed. In the hotel room we took silly, sexy pictures of each other in front of the huge windows, the backdrop for our happiness the sky and sea.
Then one day it was decided that Keum was going to take me to her favorite local spa and gift me a treatment. “It has the best water in the whole city,” she said, patting my shoulder conspiratorially.
I fretted a little the night before but my husband reassured me. “You don’t have to feel self-conscious. My mom might feel self-conscious herself. She’s lost so much weight from the cancer. Plus you know, she had the breast implants and then got them removed so she thinks her boobs look weird.” I hadn’t known that but it actually did give me a little boost of confidence.
We went to the spa early in the morning, before it was light—not like the lazy Sunday afternoons with friends at Olympic Spa in K-Town. I managed to keep my dignity and my eyes averted as we undressed in the brightly lit changing room but soon after I found myself in a wet sauna, balancing my naked butt on a too-small wooden stool, lightheaded and dripping with sweat, skin flushed bright red, just praying that the mist was camouflaging my more egregious physical flaws.
That was the moment Keum chose to have a heart to heart.
“I live very far away from my son. And I won’t be… able watch over him forever. You are going to be his wife, but you must also be his mother. Don’t forget: his wife and his mother. Take good care of him.” She braced both hands against her bare thighs, exhaled, and looked down between her knees, waiting.
What could I say? I told her that I loved him, and I solemnly promised that I would. I was then treated to the most intense and deluxe Korean spa treatment I’d ever had. I got smacked and scrubbed and lotioned up and rinsed off, sprinkled with cold water and doused with warm, soothed and assailed with a succession of different scents that seemed to serve all different kinds of aromatherapeutic purposes. I emerged feeling tingly, bewildered, exhausted, and happy, kind of like a freshly bathed newborn baby. Keum looked me over and nodded in approval.
We flew back to Los Angeles. Keum danced at our wedding, then stormed out early, feeling sick after fighting with one of her sisters. I got pregnant. We hosted a cheerful Thanksgiving, which was followed a few days later by accusations of conspiracy, threatened disowning, phone throwing, and a very tense pseudo-reconciliatory dinner at the Cheesecake Factory in Torrance. Missionary work took Keum and her husband to Israel. I gave birth to my daughter and we would all Facetime, often not just with Keum and her husband but also a hot pink shag monkey toy Keum bought that hooted when they pressed a button, which the baby loved.
Two years after our first visit abroad to see Keum we took a second to Jerusalem, our eight-month-old in tow. Despite using oxygen tanks and meeting with hospice care, Keum wanted to show us a good time. With her as our guide we went to brunches by the souk, slipped notes into nooks in the Wailing Wall while she waited in the car. My daughter still on LA time and Keum wakeful, we three would sometimes convene on the living room floor in the wee hours of the morning. Keum would watch as the baby cruised around and smile, saying affectionately, “Busy girl.” At first, in fact, Keum seemed fine—the only sense of foreboding came when she would start to insult her husband for some infraction but then just trail off, reassuring him that he was probably doing the best he could.
Still the tense atmosphere rubbed off on everyone. I tried to cheer us all up by baking cookies and then got scolded for not putting things away properly. One morning when we were getting ready to go on a day trip to the Dead Sea my husband and I had a rare argument which began when I accused him of spending too much time checking hockey scores on the internet.
We sulked the whole drive there, staring out at the glaring desert as the baby napped in her car seat. Keum had periodic choking coughing fits into a handkerchief and asked us every few minutes: “Are you happy?” To which we would reply in dull robotic unison, “Yes we are very happy.”
We pulled up to Ein Gedi Spa, surrounded by palm trees, an oasis that I now know after reading the scathing Trip Advisor reviews saw its glory days back in the seventies. We had neglected to bring bathing suits to Israel in winter, so Keum insisted on buying us some. There was not much on offer, a collection of overpriced ‘80s neon and mesh. She thought it would be cute if we matched so we begrudgingly ended up with his-and-her’s hot turquoise, mine a one-piece with a ruffle skirt and inadequate lining. Neither Keum nor her husband wanted to soak so, in order for someone to stay with the baby, my husband and I decided to take turns and mine came first.
I entered the changing area, which was basically some free-standing middle school gym lockers surrounded by a hospital curtain, and got a sinking feeling. The soak area had the dank, dirty tile of a busy public bathroom and what looked a swimming pool-sized pit filled with steaming sulfurous shit right smack in the middle. Logically I knew it was the coveted Dead Sea mud but there was just no way I was going in.
I thought about my options. I could hide out in the locker room for what seemed like a reasonable amount of time, come out, and say that it was fabulous. But was that what Keum would really want? She had literally risen off her deathbed to take us here—wouldn’t she want us to truly enjoy the experience rather than lie to her face? To do so would be horribly disrespectful, wouldn’t it? Plus, I had been up every night with a relentlessly exuberant jet-lagged baby for the past week and half. I had been chastised for slovenly butter storage. I was in the Holy Land. Was I going to cower, half-naked next to a doodie bath when the glittering Dead Sea beckoned from just across the sand?
I emerged from the changing room and, mustering up my courage, told Keum that I would prefer to soak in the actual Sea. I saw fury flare up in her eyes and then subside. She told me I could do what I liked.
You could hitch a ride on a tractor out to the water, or you could walk. It didn’t look that far away, and I had some steam to burn off so I headed out, a quivering self-righteous ball of blue. After about ten minutes under the desert sun I wished I’d taken the tractor but now I was too far gone. The air shimmered ominously, the rocks jabbed up at me through my brand new swim shoes.
When I finally reached the sea shore I stumbled into the shallow waters, ready to float, let go, cool off, get away from it all, be purified by a spiritually iconic and chemically unique body of water. I lay down and closed my eyes.
I had realized I was not alone on the beach, but it was only when my ears filled with a familiar cadence that I realized I was surrounded by a group of American teenagers. It was hard to relax while listening to high school kids jockey for social status and flirt. I figured I’d done my ablutions, plus it was going to be like a 20-minute walk back. So back I immediately went, thighs chafing and salt prickling my drying skin.
My husband dutifully made his own pilgrimage. When we were ready to leave, it turned out we had lost the receipt required to get our locker key deposit and Keum got in a reassuringly fearsome argument with the concierge. By the time we were in the car returning to Jerusalem, the bad vibes from our little marital spat had lifted. When we got back their apartment, it turned out the receipt was in Keum’s husband’s pocket but by then she had little to say about it.
The next walk we tried to take together, she was too weak to make it to the elevator. We flew home to LA. Our daughter took her first steps. Just a few weeks after that, my husband was summoned back out of the country. I solo parented, taking the dog out for his chilly nighttime pee, looking up at the stars with one ear anxiously trained towards our apartment. And only days later, Keum died.