Have you ever felt like you were being pulled to a place? No matter how many times you were diverted from the course, you still ended up in the location where you needed to be? Did you follow the signs or did you resist them?
I think I loved Seoul from the second we crossed the bridge from Incheon into the city. It’s a huge city of nearly 12 million people, but to me it never felt crowded. For the first couple days we were there, we walked all over our own “neighborhood,” took quick subway rides across to other districts and each time it felt like discovering a whole new city. Each district seemed to have its own vibe and the variety and hustle and bustle of it all was exhilarating to me.
Monday, our third day in the city, we decided to make our Hongdae day – first stop was the Trick Eye and Ice museums, then we’d have time to wander around this vibrant university district for a few hours until it was time to find dinner (the usual way we schedule our days…around a meal, of course!). The museum took a little less time than we anticipated and since we have to carry whatever we own on our backs regularly, shopping was out of the question.
Shawn mentioned in his last post that we ended up stumbling upon the foreign missionaries cemetery. After our plans left us with excess time, I noticed that the cemetery wasn’t a long walk from where we were and it might be a nice break from the city. Shawn and I both enjoy cemeteries, which sounds morbid, but it’s not a Harold & Maude type of fascination; but it seems like you can tell a lot about a culture by the way they honor their dead, and they are always a place of quiet retreat, as well.
The cemetery didn’t take long to explore and I wanted to try to go down to the park by the river, which I could see on the map wasn’t much further. We wound our way through a play/exercise structure (what is up with all these outdoor gyms??), through a parking lot, and down to, what we assumed, was to the be the park. It wasn’t. It was, however, the Jeoldusan Martyrs’ Shrine and Memorial Park. Besides being a retreat from the city noise, it ended up meaning a lot more to me personally. I don’t know if he knew it at the time, but I really needed to be there that day.
Me with said hill in the background
As we made our way slowly through the park, we noticed one Korean after another running up the hill to what we thought was just another statue. Turned out it was time for mass and they were late. Being Catholic and it being weeks since the last time I attended mass, I decided to go check it out. I couldn’t understand a word being said, but the ceremony was familiar and welcoming. Multiple Koreans tried to offer me a cushion to sit on, but I declined and hung back to watch from the doorway. After some time, during the homily which really made no sense to me, I said we could move on so we could try to find the park again.
We took a path down the hill and again all we found was a dead end. We tried heading down another path – again no luck. Finally, we tried the main road and found a way to get out of the martyrs shrine, but there was no obvious way to get down to the park. By that time, I was over the park idea, but had a hard time deciding to leave. But, I didn’t say anything.
As we started to leave the main entrance, I noticed that there was a building selling the candles lit at this beautiful memorial I had seen earlier. I wanted to light one, but couldn’t see where people were getting them from and being that it was supposed to be a place of quiet reflection, I opted not to interrupt anyone and ask. Since they were right there, though, I went in, made my donation and grabbed a candle. A blue one. Shawn decided to stay back as I went to add my little light to the group; I was grateful for the time alone. I wrote my inscription and found myself a spot alone to pray. I looked up and saw a statue of the Mother Mary overlooking that memorial. How had I missed it before? Mary has played an interesting role in my life, as of late, and her “presence” really enlightened me to the fact that I was led there. It was only then that I realized it was the 14th of October.
There’s a part of my life I haven’t shared here partly because I didn’t know how to address it, partly because I was afraid. It is a huge part of me and somehow this experience helps me feel it’s the right time to share it.
It was just after noon on February 14, 2012. I was sitting in the office of my allergy clinic in the office building of my work, where I had just received my weekly allergy shot. It was crowded but quiet and I kept noticing my phone go off with multiple missed calls from my mom and a couple more from an aunt and a cousin. My hands shook as I made my way into the hallway to find out what was so urgent. I felt it deep in my gut, but I refused to accept what I hoped wasn’t true. I can’t recall the words my mom spoke, I don’t think I actually ever heard them, but somehow I figured out the message through the tears and shallow breathing…my brother was dead. He was 35. He died of acute liver failure – we had no idea he was even sick.
PJ always loved the color blue because it reminded him of Mary, who he loved even though he was far from religious
Receiving that news was a pivotal point in my life. PJ (as we called him) was smack dab in the middle between me and my sister, Gina (Gina being the oldest, 9 years older than me, PJ being 4.5 years older than me). We had a rough time growing up together, with our age difference, but as adults we became very close siblings and friends.
“You will lose someone you can’t live without, and your heart will be badly broken, and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved. But this is also the good news. They live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up. And you come through. It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly—that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp.”
– Anne Lamott
That day changed me. PJ was pursuing his dream of being a sports journalist by going back to college and writing for the school newspaper in spite of his physical maladies and the depression that constantly plagued him with self doubt. At the time he died, we had been working toward our dream for over a year, but it was only then that I knew for sure – we needed to travel. There was no longer a question or whether it was the right move. We proved it by continuing our saving and planning, despite my intense and frequent bouts of depression. We continued to make huge sacrifices despite my desire to go out and spend money on anything and everything, hoping that a fancy dinner or new clothes would somehow make me feel better, even for a second. I honestly don’t know what I would have done without this dream. Maybe fallen apart. Who knows?
On the one-year anniversary of his death, we were at the Oregon coast for a mini retreat as a family. I decided that day that I couldn’t keep sulking around for the next 7 months until we left. I would kick myself for letting time with my family pass me by while I sat clinging to my depression. I essentially put off the grieving I still had yet to face.
February 14, 2013 – with two of my favorite people
Grieving is an odd thing. The day I found out my brother died, I sat in my living room with Shawn next to me, holding my hand and wondered, “what now?” Do I just spend the rest of the afternoon sitting there sobbing? What was going to happen the next day? Do I go to work? Do I drive to Seattle? If you’ve never experienced a loss like this – one that shouldn’t have happened – it may be hard to understand. Grieving isn’t just about being sad or finding ways to recoup the energy that feels drained from you (although it’s that, too). For me, it’s finding a way to redefine yourself without that essential person. Your story has changed – a major character is gone – how does your story continue to play out without him? These are questions I still struggle with and there are days when I just can’t believe it’s true. Still. Nearly 21 months later. This is how I know I still have work to do.
“The breezes at dawn have secrets to tell you
Don’t go back to sleep!
You must ask for what you really want.
Don’t go back to sleep!
People are going back and forth
across the doorsill where the two worlds touch,
The door is round and open
Don’t go back to sleep!”
That day was leading me back to my path. I needed a reminder of what still lingers deep inside my soul. I remember Sarah, from Sarah Somewhere, once telling me that travel has allowed her to see the messages the Universe holds in ways she never noticed before. I am starting to see what she meant. I don’t plan to miss out on my travels being depressed, but I do plan to give myself the time I needed back then and still need now.
2008, the year of the infamous “chicken wing” incident – PJ was good at getting under my skin
Seoul is the kind of place PJ would have loved. He was always one for big cities; New York and LA were two of his favorites. It seems fitting that it would be there that I’d get my message and it will forever hold a piece of my heart because of it.