JY Lee | Viva la vida
Wandering Deliberate Lee | How my mother’s illness, the end of a relationship and my family business put me on a journey inward
September 5, 2013, 4:59 pm · Updated September 8, 2013, 11:13 pm·
Wandering Deliberate Lee
My world turned upside down last month. I separated with my immortal beloved who had been my soulmate. My family botanical garden business, the joy of my family, was posted for sale after its cancerous debt poisoned the flowers. Then death reared its beastly head and dared to lay its eyes upon my mother.
Fortune and love are freewheeling guests, for they come and go despite our pleas and prayers. Once they come, though, we seem to have more control over breakups and bankruptcies.
Despite that semblance of control, my desire for the most beautiful bond strained my delicate relationship, and my father’s zealous ambition for the most beautiful garden uprooted its frail financial foundation. My father and I shot for the moon, and we got lost in space.
The Grim Reaper is the most intractable guest, although we are free to meet him any time. After dropping me off at the airport in Korea, my mom drove to a hospital for her medical check-up. When I called her from the other side of the world, she casually told me she had breast cancer. The proud symbols of her beauty and maternity had betrayed her.
Because my father is a doctor, I am healthy and my mother seemed healthy, I had assumed my parents would saunter into their golden years. My mom, a hyper-kinetic Asian woman who drives 115 miles per hour on highways, never drank or smoked. She had been a globe-trotting businesswoman and a loving teacher who greeted her employees and students with the same affection and respect she greeted the president and ministers of Korea.
She cherished life and nursed her comatose grandmother round-the-clock. Yet she knew when to let go, as she told me if she ever becomes dependent for sustenance, let her return to her Creator. She savored numerous friendships around the world, yet magically managed to always be there for her two sons and husband.
I considered taking this semester off to be with her. Nothing else seemed to matter. But as much as she wanted to see me, she did not want her illness to disrupt my education. Like always, she put her family before herself. Although she was once admitted to Korea’s most prestigious university to study physics, she had to forgo her passion when her father squandered her tuition with his business venture. She would not let the same fate fall upon me.
She told me that even her illness is God’s gift. She had been working too much, and God gave her rest. Witnessing her faith elevate her spirits over this ordeal has been awe-inspiring. Though I do not usually pray, I whisper a few lines heavenward these days. Just as there are no atheists in foxholes, I began invoking the Lord’s name when I started counting her life backward. I meditate on the number 84 like a mystic numerologist — that’s the percentage odds breast cancer patients will survive beyond five years of diagnosis.
Through the prospect of her mortality, I also reflect on my own finitude. My mind fills with Cicero’s words that to philosophize is to learn to die. Philosophy often took a backseat during my Penn years as I prepared for the next chapter called job and graduate school. But when faced with the inevitable unraveling of our souls, this next stage fades in significance.
In this Dionysian celebration of life called college, with booze and sex, it’s easy to forget our frailty. Yet just as leaves drop in fall, the lush summer of our youth will pass. Every year that I have been at Penn, I have been chilled by the premature deaths in our University community. Though hard to imagine, not all of us will be breathing on graduation day. Nor will fortunes and relationships necessarily last.
So let us dance now and kiss our loved ones. Like whirling Sufis, let our daily revolutions of life bring us closer to death. I pray that when the dark angel from the underworld finally knocks, we can depart with a smile.
JY Lee is a fifth-year College and Wharton senior from Gangnam, South Korea. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. “Wandering Deliberate Lee” appears every other Monday. Follow him @junyoubius.