49th Day Ceremony
By Min Kang
It is January 7, 2022, a cold evening here in Texas, but it’s already the next morning in Busan, South Korea, about 7000 miles away. I FaceTime Dad to see how he’s doing before he has to go to Mom’s ceremony, a Buddhist ritual to be performed on the 49th day after one’s death.
Today is the 49th day after she died from lung cancer-related complications.
My phone dings to confirm that my call is connected but the screen goes black, meaning that he is driving and I am seeing the inside of his pants pocket again.
“Soh-Oun-ah,” I hear a chorus of women’s voices calling out my old Korean nickname and it’s my gomodeul, Dad’s sisters.
I can imagine my dad, the third child out of four kids, everyone else being girls, and his impulse to push away the fuss over him. He grew up in a small town outside of Busan called Miryang–the town’s name’s literal translation is “Secret Sunshine,” and when I visited this town 15 years ago, it did feel like I got a glimpse of a tucked away, sun-flooded, rural piece of Korea that hadn’t yet been encroached by rampant development. I remember my mom buying a couple of portable snacks at Busan Station before visiting Miryang: a netted bag of easy-to-peel tangerines and a row of hard-boiled eggs that stunk up the train car. I wonder if things are different now.
As the only son at the breakfast table, he was rewarded with extra servings of stewed pork or fried eggs for the simple fact that he was a boy. My oldest gomo would internalize this misogyny and try to birth a son, and after two girls, she finally had her boy. And now everyone is fussing over the only son in the family who’d recently become widowed.
The Korean word for widower is horabi: “odd-number father” or a husband without his pair. I’m glad he accepted the help from his estranged sisters who can support him through this painful time. He had to leave his extended family behind for opportunities in America which then left his sisters to care for their dwindling mother who died from Alzheimer’s. The distance between them with the passing time made them more distant, but that is no matter. Their brother was back, and he needed their help.
My dad is a partner-less shoe. A hand without his wife’s hand to hold.
In November 2021, I was supposed to be in Korea to help my father with the grieving, the cremation arrangements, and the cleaning of their apartment, but the pandemic got in the way–the Korean government dissolved their quarantine exemption program for vaccinated travelers in light of the spread of the highly-contagious Omicron strain, and it was no longer feasible for me to fly to Korea to quarantine for two weeks then visit for another.
A writer acquaintance reached out to me after she saw that I posted about canceling my trip to Korea in December.
“Covid steals so much,” she offered over DMs. Even though other people who are closer to me have said other words of condolences like, “At least she’s not suffering anymore,” or “She’s resting in a better place,” I find that the words of another writer feels the most validating, helps to make my pain feel seen.
When my father-in-law, a retired engineer from Taiwan, heard that my father had become a widower, he prepared my dad an envelope of money to help with funeral expenses, and my father-in-law made sure that the increment of bills was an odd number.
I tell my dad about this and that I would keep this cash to hand to him whenever I visit him and Mom’s ashes next, and I wonder aloud to him if it’s because the word for “widower” sounds like the word for “odd-number father.” He doesn’t know but chuckles at the in-law’s careful gesture.
Oh, how much I want to be in the same room with my dad, to be sad together, to eat jjajangmyun and sweet and sour pork together on their fold-out dinner table on the ground, one of the few dishes that you can order at all hours of the night after waking up from a bad bout of jet lag.
“Can you take photos of the ceremony if you’re allowed?” And I also let it slip in there that I wish I were there. He is the unsentimental type and only acknowledges my request for photos before he hangs up to focus on driving.
On that same, cold January night, my husband and child build a fire in our fireplace so that they can make s’mores indoors. My daughter has gotten it into her head that it would be imperative to eat the s’mores we promised a week ago but keep forgetting about, so over our fireplace, it was.
I sit in front of our modest but crackling fire as my daughter prepares the s’mores plate: with her sticky marshmallow finger, she counts and unwraps the foil of the leftover Christmas chocolates and breaks the crusty bricks of graham crackers in uneven segments. I want to participate, but I find that continuing to exist on this earth feels oh-so-difficult and all-consuming and I continue to stare at the fire some more, and hot tears start to drip down my cheeks.
This is the way that it has been for the past month and a half–if I dare to recall a small, soft memory of Mom, like a mundane detail of the way I would hug her and smell the wafts of sweet, fried dough after her busy morning of selling doughnuts, I am crestfallen.
I am devastated at the repeated realization that nothing is forever. Not my mom, nor my little triangle family of three.
I watch our fireplace, and I start to imagine my mom’s earthly belongings being burned up at the Buddhist temple, with my dad following a monk to send messages to the spirit world that she is indeed no longer on Earth. Her rectangle, clear-pink glasses will be tossed into the fire, along with some of her poly-blend short-sleeve blouses. Even her favorite Hello Kitty stuffy that became Mom’s companion until the end of her life—it too will burn. These simple, plasticky items will curl up in the heat, blacken, then serve as a reminder to her spirit that it is time to go.
I wonder what it feels like for her to roam the Earth, trying to find answers for whatever questions or desires she sought out as a living being. I wonder if recalling her old life feels like trying to remember the times of struggle after she’s reached the easy plateau of happiness in her life, the good times.
Did she have happiness, good times, to go by?
Her spirit’s natural tendency was to worry–she’s the root source of my own anxious tendencies. She’s the reason I have to take care of an errand as soon as I remember it, because I am afraid that if I don’t do it right then and there, I will never do it. When I would return home from college and as soon as she closed the donut shop at 12pm on those summer afternoons, she’d cajole me into driving her to the local post office to mail a piece of important document that wasn’t due for another month or to ship a giant box filled with rattling bottles of Centrum vitamins and American chocolates to my grandparents in Korea. I would roll my eyes at her urgency but I’d soften once she mentioned stopping by Arkansas Lane for a steamy bowl of pho or a cool bed of shrimp vermicelli.
As I enter my bathroom to take a nightly shower, it is difficult to have good thoughts about my mom so she can ease her into her next life. As much as her anxiety seems like an inconvenient quirk, her worries expedited action as well as brutality.
Mom’s worries often bordered the territory of “overly controlling” and veered into “outright abusive.” When my sister was enrolled into beauty school after she vehemently protested against the idea of going to college, she would skip the hair classes, too. After getting wise to this fact, my mom would tell my dad to drive past the local Ogle School of Hair, Skin, and Nails to see if her car was parked in the lot (it wasn’t). When I was a teenager and out with my high school boyfriend, I vaguely remember walking through the front door to see my mom charging at me with a plastic hanger in her hand, striking me on my back for breaking curfew. I may have also told my then-boyfriend to ignore my mom’s calls that started ringing right at 10pm, but my mind has a dark way of blotting out what it predetermines as harmful to remember.
Mom used to take at least one shower a day, and on some days, two. It’s not just about getting rid of the sticky sweat–it sometimes helps to wash off the bad day and to start anew with a luxuriously steaming-hot shower. It is never too late to turn the day around, and she seemed to be onto this fact.
Worrying was a prayer for her. She would recite wakeup calls to me or my sister over the voicemail function on our cellphones, and she’d forget that these voicemails can’t be used to wake others at their homes like it used to be in the 90s: “Yah, wake up, or you’ll be late for work. Yeobosaeyo… wake up and pick up the phone.”
As much as our shared past has hurt me, I am incapable of holding grudges against her even as these memories flood and flatten my body–this is because I truly believe she was doing her best with what she had, which was the baggage of her traumatic childhood.
She was raised by Korean War survivors who didn’t know how to raise kids by getting down on their knees to tell a story of how the cloudy skies can yield rain or why they couldn’t eat candy for dinner. They lacked the warmth and humor and a playfulness necessary for rearing kids. Instead, my grandfather kicked Mom’s head for daring to ask to go to the beach with her friends during summer break from college, and this left her unable to see out of her right eye for the entirety of that summer break (as well as a pink squiggle in the corner of her eye that always made her look tired). Her mother’s hands wrapped around Mom’s neck until she could barely see when she found out that my mom went on a date behind her back with my dad, a poor boy from the countryside.
Mom told me all of these stories after she had stopped hitting me or around the time I finished college. She never prefaced her stories with her reason why she told me, but I have an inkling that she was trying to process why she was the way she was, too.
I’m not sure that I believe in reincarnation, but in the case that it is real, I want to help her let go of the core-crushing tragedies of her previous life. There is no good in holding onto her spirit with nothing substantive to give back. I would be holding her back only to keep her to myself with no new life with me. No do-overs I could offer. This 49-day period was supposed to allow her spirit to be reborn, a prayer for every 7th day for 7 weeks, and I hope she’s ready to leave the earthly realm.
I imagine that while my dad and his sisters are burning Mom’s things, and Mom starts to remember bits and slivers from her old life, and before she decides to leave for good, she wants to pay each of us a quick visit.
First, she visits Alex, her youngest daughter, in our old city of Dallas with a new boyfriend who seems to be sensitive and kind to her needs: her skittish tendencies render her quick to leave and slow to apologize. Her boyfriend: a cheerful, obliging golden-retriever type who contrasts against her fearful, shelter-cat mentality. My sister and her boyfriend are huddled together, arm in arm, walking to dinner against the blustery, January cold. She will have too many beers on an empty stomach and on her measly teaching salary, but she seems more settled down than Mom ever thought possible. On this night, my sister will remember again that Mom is dead but she won’t feel like wanting to die, and that will be enough for Mom.
She then visits me in Houston and sees my husband and my daughter lighting a fireplace and using too-short, smoldering kabob sticks to melt their marshmallows into burnt, sugary goo. Does Mom remember the first time she tasted a marshmallow in the States? I wonder.
Also: Is Mom more human or marshmallow now?
She witnesses my staid, domestic life as a writer-turned-high school-teacher, in stark contrast against my chaotic, boy-crazy years in high school. The sneaking out, her discovery of my pregnancy test when I was 17–she worries for a split-second about my daughter, Edie, who looks so much like her, and predicts the stubborn teen years to follow, but the worry dissolves away as this truth glides to the surface: We all find our ways through, and all suffering ends eventually.
Her last visit is to her husband and his sisters as they complete the 49th day ceremony. As Dad follows the monk to a shrine, Mom notices his darkening skin and hollow cheeks from being unable to keep food down but knows she cannot help him here any longer. She is all he has known since his days as a dirt-poor, but spoiled, only son who never felt the pressures to make money and chose to study music. She would use her earnings as a part-time piano teacher to buy him a double portion of jjajangmyun, and she hopes he can one day eat a bowl of those savory, glossy-brown noodles without crying.
She knows he tries to quell his hunger pangs by eating cold, prepared side dishes from the brightly-lit grocery stores or the dark and bustling streets of the Bujeon Market. He buys them from women who resemble her with their dark, neat bundles of hair in nets and deft hands in rubber gloves. He eats these banchan from clear plastic containers with the yellowing rice from their old kitchenette that barely has room for two.
She witnesses the clutter she’s left behind: pots upon pots. Cheapie, mismatched ceramic bowls that are precariously stacked atop one another. Her collection of mugs with floral designs. If her anxiety, intensity, and madness for her family could be architectured, it would be the climbing vines of chaotic florals with no top or bottom, no beginning nor end. But she has to let these things go in order to cross over, and the burning ceremony may have brought out her sense of longing a little too much.
Or maybe I’m giving her earthly life too much credit. Maybe she was ready to leave behind her childhood traumas, heartbreak from her own daughters, and the failures of her body that was ravaged by cancer. When she finally decides to leave this realm behind, she feels a buzzing excitement, an easy familiarity of waiting for a plane to depart Korea then eventually landing in America. She hears the whir and high-pitch of energy that is about to propel then dissipate. Her being fills with light from an unknown source–she is curious to find out where the warm glow is coming from.
About the Author
Min Kang is the author of a chapbook darkly + completely (Essay Press, 2022) and Diary of a K-Drama Villain (2015), a book of poems, and her work has been published in Gulf Coast, Asia Literary Review, Bone Bouquet, and elsewhere. She was a finalist for the 2021 Loraine Williams Poetry Prize and the 2022 Annie Dillard Award for Creative Nonfiction and a semifinalist for the 2021 Switchback Books Gatewood Prize. She is a Kundiman fellow and a graduate of the LSU Creative Writing Program, SFSU Department of Creative Writing, and Texas A&M University. Min is currently finishing a memoir-in-essays about coming to terms with her mother’s cancer diagnosis and the generational trauma that her mother endured as a child. She is represented by Jonathan Rosen at the Seymour Agency. You can find her at www.byminkang.com or on Twitter/Instagram as @byminkang