I gazed at Hye-jin; why had Suk-hwan called? Why didn’t Hye-jin call me to take the phone? In a subdued voice Hye-jin’s said: ‘Mamma has died of sudden heart failure. Please call Suk-hwan now and find out what we all need to do’.
I thought that the floor was disintegrating below my feet. It was good that Hye-jin had me seated on a sofa before telling me this devastating news.
Why did I let Mamma go away from me and now away from the earth? Had I not come to Chuncheon for a high-paying job, Mamma would still continue living with me in my four-bedroom quarter at Busan. When I met her last at Suk-hwan's place, she had asked why I couldn’t accommodate my parents in Chuncheon. I felt I couldn’t take resort to Mamma’s shelter anymore, away from my partner, Hye-jin.
I wished I could fly now to see Mamma and tell her, ‘Please wait, I’ll soon get a job in the city and get you there with us’. Then I realised that I’d never get that chance; now I realised why Hye-jin was rushing through the dinner party and wasn’t having anything herself.
When I called Suk-hwan he narrated what happened over the phone: ‘As I’ve told Hye-jin already, Mamma died early this morning. Yesterday, when I returned home from work, I found Mamma sitting on a chair by the dining table. It was an auspicious day for Mamma; she was fasting when I left for work in the morning. I asked, “Why have you taken lunch so late?” She replied: “Not quite so. I’m not able to get up from the table. I’ve been feeling so sleepy for the last two hours”.
‘I helped her to bed and called the doctor. The doctor advised me to send her to the hospital asap. At the hospital, she was diagnosed as having had a coronary attack and was admitted to ICU. I waited there till midnight, when the doctors told me that her condition was steady. They advised me to go home, take rest and return to the hospital in the morning. Back home, I woke up at six and started shaving and was brushing my teeth when I got a phone call from the hospital—she’d breathed her last already.
‘With the situation changed, I thought I needn’t rush to the hospital. I ate my breakfast as I couldn’t guess when I would have my next meal. I told Ji-woo and Papa that Mamma had expired, then I called my neighbour, Prenab—you know him—and asked him to accompany me. Prenab and his wife, Lorraine, went with me to the hospital.
‘When we arrived, Mamma’s body wasn’t in the bed. I enquired about where the body had been taken, and someone said, “you’ve been informed a long while ago; you’ve taken two hours to reach here”.
‘Finally we got to where the body was kept. The hospital staff tallied the identification with the bed number and patient number and handed over the body to me. We found that someone had removed her diamond nose-ring, damaging her nostril; we couldn’t do anything about it. Before going to the hospital, I had asked Papa whether we should take the body home or straight to the crematorium. Papa said he needn’t see the body again and we might take Mamma’s body straight to the crematorium and avoid the hassle of dashing to our place, but Prenab and Lorraine insisted that we should take the body to our apartment where our neighbours would like to pay homage to her.
‘We took her body back to our place where Ji-woo, Papa and our neighbours all paid homage to her and decorated her bed with flowers. Her body was cremated in the late afternoon.’
I couldn’t speak a word while Suk-hwan was speaking. I didn’t know what to say. When he finished, I said: ‘Then I can’t see her anymore. Please tell me when I should be there with you’.
‘As per our customs, the funeral will be held on the fifteenth day, that is 14 days from today. Plan to come here 10 days from now. We will have three days to finalise all arrangements, which I’ll initiate in the meantime.’
‘Okay, a gap of 10 days means the Saturday after next. I’ll make reservations. We will be there by the Saturday after next.’
In respect of the departed mother, I wouldn’t shave, wouldn’t wear leather shoes and would eat only parboiled rice till the fifteenth day of her death. I had to apply for leave to spend a week in Buyeo from the Saturday after next, so I continued working in the week before that, though a bit shabbily dressed, suppressing deep sorrow within myself. There was no provision for compassionate leave; I couldn’t waste my earned leave by staying at home.
When I reached Buyeo, Mamma wasn’t there to ask the difficult question she had asked last time: ‘Why couldn’t you take us with you to Chuncheon?’ Mamma wasn’t there to receive me when I stepped into Suk-hwan’s place; still, I couldn’t realise that she was no longer there. For every doubt about the rituals, I was looking for Mamma to tell me what to do next, but alas, she wasn’t available anywhere within my reach. Joo-won, who had seen Mamma last time he was there, was also looking into her bed and places where Mamma could have been and also at Mamma’s photos, now decorated with garlands.
After the rituals and the funeral, I returned to Chuncheon with Hye-jin and Joo-won. Though I believed that Suk-hwan had left no stone unturned from the instant he came to know about Mamma’s sickness, I returned broken-hearted that I couldn’t do anything for Mamma in her last few days.
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