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  • Between Us and the Rest
  • Lee Hye-kyung (bio)
    Translated by Jessica Lee (bio) and Young-Jun Lee (bio)

"But . . . isn't it better than suffering?"

Kyŏng-ŭn's husband breaks the silence as he accelerates on the highway. Perhaps her husband is right. The doctor did warn that her father only had a few days left to live. "At least he can die with dignity," Kyŏng-ŭn thought. The air is crisp and moist from all the rain over the last few days. As she stares out the car window into the sunny sky, Kyŏng-ŭn recalls how sunny it was the day she marched in her mother's funeral. Deep in her heart, she knows that she has already given up on her father. And yet her husband's words still pierce her heart like a sword. "Would you say the same thing if it were your father?" she wants to ask. Kyŏng-ŭn tightens her mouth before those words can escape. "Why am I so tense?" she wonders.

Three months earlier, Kyŏng-ŭn's eighty-year-old father had surgery for a cerebral hemorrhage. One day, when she was folding cotton diapers, she got a phone call from her sister. Her sister lived two and a half hours from the town hospital and got to see their father regularly, unlike Kyŏng-ŭn , who stayed home all the time. The smell of boiled laundry filled the air. According to the weather forecast a typhoon was passing by to the south and the rainy season was beginning.

"His kidneys almost stopped functioning and now he's having trouble breathing. They say he only has one or two weeks left. . . . [End Page 257] Kyŏng-hae and I are going to visit him as much as possible in the time remaining. I have to talk to her later again tonight, but I'm thinking about going there tomorrow."

Before she had time to think, Kyŏng-ŭn blurted out, "I want to go too."

"Do you think you can make it? I know it's hard for you to travel right now, but it would be good for you to see him at least once before he passes away. . . . You want us to pick you up?"

Kyŏng-ŭn quickly retracted her offer. "Actually, I'm not sure if I can go. Even if I do, it'd be better for me to take a train than a car."

With her ballooned-out belly, Kyŏng-ŭn barely managed to waddle down the stairs of the train station. Once on board, she took out a book. She read about childrearing, using her belly as a desk to prop up the book. "No parents are perfect. A child is not simply a possession but a gift from God." These words comforted Kyŏng-ŭn , who at thirty years of age was becoming a mother for the first time. Did my father suffer alone from anxiety his whole life? She closed the book and looked out the window.

When Kyŏng-ŭn left her house it was drizzling, but now the raindrops were much bigger. They splashed on the window and crawled downward, leaving thin tails of water in their wake. They looked like living organisms. Kyŏng-ŭn's parents had her thirty years before. Among the infinite numbers of sperm her father released that day, one reached her mother's egg, fertilized it, and created Kyŏng-ŭn. Maybe she would be different if some other sperm had swum faster. She tried to calm herself, as her mind raced like the fleeting raindrops on the windowpane. At her age, it was possible to be widowed or even outlive your children. Anyone can lose their parents. My father is just going back to where he came from. She felt a little calmer.

Interpreting her silence as anxiety, Kyŏng-ŭn's husband presses the gas pedal even harder. The thought of her mother-in-law on the phone crosses her mind as the speedometer inches toward 70, then 75, then 80 mph. [End Page 258]

"I heard about your father. You want to go see...