‘My poor Papa’, I wished I could tell my father. ‘You’ve spent your entire mite for your brothers and sisters, when your father passed away leaving all his responsibilities on the shoulders of you, a 20-year-old. You got your brothers educated and sisters married and then started the responsibility of your own married life. You struggled all through your life in making both ends meet; you worked hard—six shifts a week at your regular workplace plus four hours every day in private tuitions. You could hardly save anything. The only savings you had after your retirement were in your provident fund; what did you do with these savings? You spent that money buying a house in the name of Suk-hwan, as Suk-hwan paid for half the price of the house. Alas, no-one lives in that house now. Had you kept those savings with you and continued in your rented flat, you could have some funds to live on. But, I haven’t any money now to get you treated in the nursing home. I don’t think Suk-hwan has that sort of money to spend on you either; Suk-hwan won’t sell that house to get some money for you.’
I continued my soliloquy with virtual Papa: ‘Had Mamma been alive today, I could have taken her advice. I still cannot forget that she asked me why I didn’t leave you and her in Pohang, instead of taking you two to Busan and then to Buyeo. Anyway, I can’t afford to keep you in Alkol Hospital anymore, I need to take you somewhere—not to Suk-hwan’s flat, not to Hye-jin’s residence, but somewhere else—to another flat, less expensive than your hospital bed’.
I was desperately looking for a flat where I could pay reasonable rent to accommodate Papa and Yun-seo. It was a difficult and strenuous search in those days, long before the internet was even conceived. Each evening, when I had an hour after work, after the visit to Alkol Hospital and before returning home for dinner with Hye-jin, I’d walk along the roads looking for any signs ‘To Let’. I was lucky to find one at the rent I could afford. The new flat was within walking distance from where I lived with Hye-jin. I met the landlord, introduced myself and paid the rent for one month in advance.
Next morning, Yun-seo and I took possession of the flat. It was a two-bedroom flat on the top floor. I hired two cots, one for Papa and the other for Yun-seo. Hye-jin took this as a good opportunity to get rid of Yun-seo, making sure that Yun-seo moved with all her belongings. Additionally, she lent Yun-seo some utensils, plates, glasses, and cups so that Yun-seo could prepare and serve meals for Papa and herself. She wanted to ensure that Yun-seo would never return to live in our apartment.
While Yun-seo organised the flat for Papa, I went to Alkol Hospital. I cleared the hospital bills for the last four weeks, got Papa discharged and took a taxi to the newly rented flat. When we reached the flat, Yun-seo was waiting for us. Papa, with his kitbag of clothes, needed to be carried to the top-floor flat. I realised that I’d made a big mistake by choosing this flat; Papa needed to climb three flights of stairs to reach his room. Papa wasn’t very heavy, but still too heavy to be carried by me alone.
Papa managed to limp up the stairs to the first and second floors, but the third set of stairs reaching the top floor was very steep. Papa sat on the floor as he couldn’t walk any further. I realised why this flat was available at such a cheap rate, but nothing could be done then, so I called Yun-seo and asked her to wait with Papa while I went downstairs to gather some help. I managed to get the help of the gatekeeper of the house—a robust fellow—who put Papa on his shoulder and carried him comfortably to the top floor where Yun-seo helped Papa to his freshly made bed.
The next couple of weeks went all right. I was happy that I solved the problem of keeping Papa in a comfortable room where he could see the sun rise daily, if awake at that time. Yun-seo, indeed, enjoyed the sunrise in the brief time when she used to get ready for preparing breakfast for Papa and herself. Around nine o’clock, Yun-seo would go out to the school where she was a mathematics teacher. Before going out, she ensured that morning chores had been done by Papa. Our regular physician, Barlow, visited Papa once a week—though in the first week he had to be called a few more times. I went to work from the apartment where I lived with Hye-jin, but while returning from work, I visited Papa and Yun-seo before going to my own apartment.
Hye-jin wasn’t happy that I returned home late every day. She complained to me that she was getting scarcely any time with me and she wasn’t in a position to carry on.
‘How can I carry on if you don’t spend a little time with me? I’m your wife; I cannot survive without your love and attention’.
A neighbour was due to leave our neighbourhood soon. Hye-jin wanted to invite this family to a good dinner at our flat. As I’d been working for ICL, I needed to visit clients very often. Every month, I needed to be away from home to visit the client sites for two to three weeks. The last few weeks, since the day Papa had been hospitalised, I couldn’t leave the town to go to my client sites. As Papa was reasonably okay, I informed my boss that I was ready to visit remote clients. This would give me some tax-free per diem funds. My next visit was planned for 12 March.
Since I’d be away from 12 March, Hye-jin fixed the dinner date on 11 March for the departing neighbour. I bought the required groceries the day before.
As recommended by the physician Barlow, a nurse, Delphi, used to visit Papa daily to dress his wounds near the pelvis. At this point in time I was short of funds so, in order to save some fees, I decided to do the dressings myself. I did this for five days and informed Delphi to resume the dressing from the twelfth when I’d be away.
On the eleventh, when I returned from work, I was aware that I’d be leaving next morning for the client site. I had made the reservation for the tour; I also carried with me the special suitcase with necessary tools and manuals. I also remembered that Hye-jin had invited the selected guests for dinner that night. As usual, on return from work, I first went to visit Papa. As I entered the top floor I found the anxious face of Yun-seo. Yun-seo said that something must be happening to Papa. He seemed to be in pain but couldn’t say anything.
I asked Papa, but couldn’t gather any extra information, but I could feel Papa’s pulse. He was alive and conscious. I desperately went to find Barlow, but he wasn’t in his chamber, or in his house. I left a message for him: ‘Please come to visit Papa as soon as you can’.
I wasn’t sure what was happening. I remembered the saying: ‘If you don’t get the doctor when you call him, the patient can’t be saved’. I wasn’t a great addict of smoking, yet whenever I needed to solve a big problem, the first thing I needed was a cigarette.
Hye-jin was a little angry when I turned up so late after work. ‘Why can’t you come home in time when you know that I’ve to get the dinner ready for the guests tonight?’
‘Please spare me, Hye-jin; Papa isn’t well. I don’t know what’s happening. I went to the doctor, he wasn’t there. I’ll go back to Papa now and then to the doctor again. Don’t look for me. Don’t go to the other flat if I’m not here.’
Hye-jin realised my state of my mind and said: ‘I hope Papa gets better. You don’t need to be here. I’ll tell the guests that you’re busy at work. Come home only when you’re in a position to take dinner here’.
I went back to Papa’s bed. Yun-seo was waiting by the bed and I could see that she had lost all hope. I rushed to Papa to feel his pulse, but felt nothing. I held my ear on Papa’s chest, no murmur could be heard. I tried to resuscitate Papa but to no avail. I set out for Barlow again.
This time Barlow was available at his chamber. When I arrived, Barlow had already read my message and was preparing to visit us. On hearing from me, Barlow held no hope of reviving Papa. He said that he was sorry that he was away seeing another patient when I called him last.
Barlow examined Papa and wrote the death certificate. Barlow told me that, as Papa’s organs were failing because of old age, he couldn’t find any particular reason for his death other than general heart failure. I thought perhaps Papa would have lived longer had he continued in Alkol Hospital and been regularly dressed by Delphi. Unfortunately, I couldn’t afford to spend anymore under the circumstances.
As Barlow left, I looked at the still face of Papa. I felt relieved that there was no need for me to run about—not for a good doctor, not for a good hospital, not for a good flat, not for someone to take care of him.
‘Now, what’s next?’ I lit a cigarette to think what I could do now. I had taken Papa from Suk-hwan’s premises with a promise to get him better, but couldn’t keep my promise. Now I needed to inform Suk-hwan and organise for Papa’s cremation.
‘I’ve to phone Suk-hwan and give him this news’. I told Yun-seo and went to a house where I could phone by paying.
‘Papa is no more’, I said when Suk-hwan responded to my phone-call.
For a moment, Suk-hwan was dumbfounded, then he said: ‘I’m coming over with my car. I’ll bring a trailer to take his body’.
‘I’ll inform the relevant neighbours who will be going with us to the cremation’, I said.
I went to the neighbours to tell them that my father had expired. Since Papa came to this neighbourhood only three weeks before and had never stepped onto the road, he wasn’t known there. Still, all of them came to pay homage to my departed father.
It was already ten o’clock when I returned to my flat to inform Hye-jin. I checked from outside that the guests had already departed, then I gave the sad news to Hye-jin.
‘I have to go there too and ask Yun-seo what needs be done now’, said Hye-jin. She took hold of Joo-won from his bed. I locked the flat door and together we walked to the other flat where Papa’s earthly remains were waiting.
I was watching the road from the top-floor flat; Suk-hwan would soon arrive and the mortal remains of Papa would be taken away. About a dozen men assembled near the front door of the house. They managed to get a cot to carry Papa’s remains and lots of flower bouquets. Within half an hour of the phone call, Suk-hwan also arrived in his car plus a trailer. Suk-hwan came up and looked at Papa’s bed; tears rolled down his cheeks, Yun-seo also cried out. I still couldn’t weep or cry. I gazed at Suk-hwan; I gazed at Yun-seo and also at Papa’s face. I wondered why Yun-seo started crying only after Suk-hwan appeared.
A few men went upstairs carrying the cot between them. Papa’s body was lifted from the bed and placed on the cot. Two men carried the cot down the steep steps from the top floor. I was wondering whether the cot would fall from their hands. I remembered how tough it was to get Papa to the top floor when I rented this flat three weeks ago, now the cot with Papa’s body could be easily taken down. There was no anxiety that Papa might be hurt somewhere in his frail body.
Papa’s body was rested in the cremation area. The priest carried out some rituals and read out some scripts. Suk-hwan, as the eldest son of Papa, carried out most of the rituals, worshipped gods and departed Papa, before putting the flame of fire onto Papa’s face. I stood silently close to Papa’s body, watching the rituals without saying any words. Soon Suk-hwan would get the flame near Papa’s face …
Next I found Suk-hwan holding my shoulder, my face on his chest. I heard Suk-hwan saying: ‘It seems you’re too tired to stand here, please be seated—a bit away from Papa’s body. You would get burnt otherwise. You’re falling on Papa; I almost got the flame on you’.
Indeed, I was very tired. I had worked hard during the day, taken only a couple of sandwiches for lunch and had eaten nothing since then. I sat, but still couldn’t remain up and erect. I thought I might fall at anytime.
Somehow I managed to escape from there for a few minutes and lit up a cigarette. For the first time I realised that I needed to smoke; I was feeling unbearable because I couldn’t smoke in the presence of my elders. I came to my senses after the cigarette and came back to where everyone else was. I no longer had control of the situation. Only a few hours ago I was keeping control on what to do next while strategising for the best treatment for Papa. Now I was just a person in the small crowd that returned, after the cremation, to the flat where Papa had breathed his last.
Next morning I had to make a quick trip to work. I’d already phoned one of my colleagues the night before to explain that I wouldn’t be in a position to make a trip to the client. This morning I needed to return the special suitcase containing gadgets and manuals for the client.
Yun-seo was wondering whether she could return to our apartment, as she clearly knew Hye-jin didn’t want her back. I looked at the boundaries of our life again. When I returned from work, I told Yun-seo to prepare to go back to our flat in a week’s time. In the meantime we would pack up her belongings and Papa’s, would clean the flat and hand it over to the owner. I knew that Hye-jin might not have wanted this, but I thought it would be very expensive and troublesome for Yun-seo to rent a flat for her own use; Hye-jin must accommodate Yun-seo as our guest till she could find a suitable alternative.
I’d been preparing for a change of job and I’d have joined Data Consultancy Services on 1 April had I not lost Papa recently. Fortunately, I hadn’t submitted my resignation to my employers, ICL, as yet. On 12 March I visited Prabin, the Deputy CEO of Data Consultancy Services, and requested one extra month’s time. Prabin agreed and sent me a letter of condolence for the untimely departure of my father.
A ceremony was organised by Suk-hwan on 26 March to bid farewell to Papa and remember his contributions to our life. I admired the way Suk-hwan organised this ceremony. When I asked how I should contribute, Suk-hwan asked me not to worry as he would take the necessary funds from Papa’s account.
Around 50 people were invited by Suk-hwan to this ceremony. As per prevalent customs, offerings were made to selected gods and goddesses with the guidance of a priest, who had to be paid for this work. The invited guests were also served food and drink. Mourning was observed for 15 days in our family, where Suk-hwan and myself, as well as our wives, wore special mourning dress and apparels. We took strictly vegetarian food. At the end of 15 days’ mourning, we resumed wearing normal clothing and eating normal food only after serving lunch or dinner to priests and invited guests.
After dinner with the guests, eulogies were read by guests and hosts. I couldn’t say any words. I couldn’t share my grief with others. Suk-hwan read out a prepared speech and I liked what Suk-hwan said; I never knew Suk-hwan had so much love and regard for Papa. One sentence in Suk-hwan’s speech hurt me deeply—‘When in his school days, Papa took a pledge that he’d never smoke, and he honoured his pledge through his entire life’. I remembered how I couldn’t help but smoke when Papa passed away and I was confused on what to do next, even during his cremation.
For the last few months I had wondered why Suk-hwan wasn’t taking adequate care of Papa. On the day of paying final tributes to Papa, when I heard Suk-hwan would spend Papa’s money for his funeral, I wanted to ask why Suk-hwan couldn’t spend Papa’s money for his treatment. Now I watched the invited guests appreciating Suk-hwan’s speech. I thought I hadn’t ever paid respect to Papa in the way Suk-hwan did in his eulogy. I prayed - let Papa’s soul be pleased with respect and regards from the invited guests - ‘May his soul rest in peace’.
At the end of the funeral, I realised that the world hadn’t stopped. Life still needed to go on: just a day later, Suk-hwan’s daughter, Ha-eun, would sit for her HSC exams—the most critical exam of the career; Yun-seo would also be busy as an invigilator on the exam days and for marking maths papers later on; we would all go back to work …
In his struggle to cure his aged father, Jie-won is restrained by many boundaries. When he takes Papa to cross the boundary of Suk-hwan’s residence to the hospital, he doesn’t know that Papa will face a Berlin wall to enter Suk-hwan’s place again. Discharged from the hospital, Papa can’t enter Jie-won’s place either; another Berlin Wall is raised by Hye-jin there.
Jie-won has to organise a refuge for Papa in an affordable rented flat outside the boundaries of Suk-hwan and Hye-jin. When Yun-seo comes to help and nurse Papa in this refuge, she could be ousted from Hye-jin’s boundaries. Jie-won checks that no Berlin wall stands when Papa dies in his refuge and Yun-seo returns to Jie-won’s.
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