For three days past, I have been thinking of my cousin, Emily, and the hasty round of spiritual Ping-Pong we shared on Facebook before I went out for the day. She may doubt it, but her quiet faith inspires me, though a similar one has never been visited on me, personally. Hers is of the sort that gives, but without pushing or pulling.
We were in a hurry, Missus and I, to visit our friend, Mr. Choi in hospital. I introduced him here last October, after he was horribly injured at the auto repair garage where he is lead mechanic. Also our neighbor, he had long kept our series of aging heaps in tune. An old and defective gas bottle exploded next to him as he was working. The blast tore away every shred of his clothing except the leather belt that held up his trousers. In the next instant, his nude body was engulfed in a ball of flames.
The extent of his injury was near total; the skin and hair was burned away from 87% of his body. Gloves and a welder’s hat spared much of his face and hands. He was, as he would tell me, “barbecued”. By good luck and brisk effort by first responders, triage and stabilization were quick; he was taken to a top burn trauma unit in Seoul The consensus of specialists there was that the extent and severity of his injuries made his survival unlikely, to say nothing of recovery.
We left Korea in mid-November to join my Mom’s 91st Thanksgiving, not long after Mr. Choi emerged from the coma doctors induced to spare him the crushing pain certain to be his. The period of coma had been calculated to last a single week. It lasted two. After we left for the US, we had no more news of his condition until our return to Seoul on New Year’s Eve.
Imagine our delight to discover on our return that not only had he survived, but was healing well and allowed visitors. We were meeting a couple of old friends and colleagues in the city early Friday afternoon, and got permission to see Mr. Choi in the morning. Not so familiar with the maze of streets nearby Youngdeungpo Market, we made our way to the hospital and up to the recovery floor, where we learned he was in the room designated “Pikachu“, a wee Japanese rodent Pokemon character with electrical power. It lightened my apprehension for what we were about to face, unsure whether Mr. Choi still had one.
“Yoboseyo!?” [Hello], Missus called out. Mr. Choi’s bed was one of four in the room, and nearest the door. I noticed, looking in, a small, bare white cross on the door-facing wall, head-high, signifying we were in one of the hospitals operated by a denomination of Christianity.
“Nugueyo? [Who’s there?] a woman’s voice from behind the curtain that completely surrounded and concealed the area. Rustling sounds of hurry reached us, with a nervous quality as of surprise, unreadiness for visitors just then.
Missus answered first with her name, but was met with a quizzical sound in response, so she quickly added “Englishee“. Mr. Choi’s voice then answered strongly, “Wait a minute”. “English” was the title he had bestowed on me when we first met years before, and his words part of a modest repertoire of English phrases mostly learned from his children. Had our friendship ever depended on an ability to speak each other’s language, it wouldn’t have happened.
“Ahhh, yeah, yeah…changkanman gidaryseyo!” [Wait a bit], the pleasure in his voice, strong, normal-sounding, my relief at hearing the sound took me to the brink of tears; we paced elliptic paths in the hallway, waiting for whatever was happening inside to be concluded. A tall young man approached and entered the room across the hall. His left arm was missing at the shoulder. We exchanged looks; his signaled the likelihood that he was not Korean. When our eyes met, a mutual nod confirmed it. Had he been Korean, he would have bowed.
The sound of the curtain being pulled aside brought my head around at the instant it revealed Mr. Choi sitting upright in his bed. White sheaths showed at the cuffs of his pajama top and bottom A smile chased the pained expression from his face, and I paused a long moment to behold him, as a flood of relief washed over me.
Had I not known my friend still faced ten or more weeks in that bed, I’d have thought him ready to go home, for the face of the man I saw in the bed had been so skillfully repaired that in the soft light my weak eyes found little evidence of what he had endured. His sister, who shared nursing turns with his wife, told us the latter was on her way there. We waited, hoping her arrival would come soon enough for us to pay our respects.
To my growing delight, the worst of my fears were proved excessive. Mr. Choi’s effervescent joie de vivre was at maximum , I reckoned, for a man in his condition. We were soon cackling at each others jokes, as Missus looked on, interpreting each jest, pausing occasionally to explore linguistic nuances in our “humor”, never an easy challenge despite years of practice.
Growing serious for a moment, he spoke of his wife and the emotional toll his injuries had taken on her. It was the first and only time his composure would dissolve in tears.
We clowned for the camera in the manner to which he had accustomed me, much to the delight of his team at the shop, whenever I would pass on my walks about the neighborhood with dog or camera. A growing worry that we might not see his wife before we left for our Kangnam rendezvous, faded when she appeared. I had absentmindedly left home without my phone making it impossible to notify my friends should we be late. They were coming from some distance to meet us. We had no choice but to leave soon after the lady arrived.
The two women spoke of our daughters’ status in their respective educational pursuits as we listened and looked on. I know enough Korean language to understand that, when she subsided into a brief minute of weeping, it came as she recounted her partner’s suffering, and the intense pain but partly relieved by medication.
Their pure sympathy each for the others suffering touched me deeply. As we prepared, reluctantly, to take our leave, Mr. Choi revealed two things he longed to do. He wants to go fishing for the fingerlings that flavor maeuntang, a kind of fish stew, spicy hot as the manifold of Hell.
The other is to attend church together with his family, to express their gratitude for his deliverance, certain that divine providence alone had spared his life and allowed him to remain among his loved ones.
It was still in my thoughts an hour later, moments before tucking into just-served meals, the two aged former colleagues paused to offer grace at the balcony table overlooking the bustle of the Central City Express Bus Terminal. Later, I learned that one, paraplegic when we met almost thirty years before, had narrowly survived two life-threatening illnesses in the fifteen years since our last meeting.
Listening as the third colleague narrated the story, I saw that I would dishonor him and all those others whose presence in my life had sustained, despite the absence of any similar variety of personal faith. I resolved then and there not to be so arrogant as to belittle or dismiss theirs, free of any trace of ideology for export as it was.
That’s the moment when I remembered my early-morning exchange with Emily, and her way of observing Christmas with her family, delivering gifts new pairs of clean, warm socks to the homeless of San Francisco. Why should the faith of another offend or upset me in any way, when it makes them more humane, and more appreciative of their own life, and the lives of others?