My Grandmother Was One Amazing Lady – Rest In Peace, 할머니

Please say a prayer for my beloved grandmother and that she may be resting peacefully, as her spirit ascends to Heaven. She passed away today, 4:15 p.m. PT, surrounded by many of her 8 children, 21 grandchildren and other loved ones.

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Born January 9, 1928, she lived SUCH a full life. I remember her telling me stories about how as a young girl, she and her family lived through the Japanese occupation of Korea. She had to change her given Korean name, Kye Sun Lee, to a Japanese one, “Hiroko Doshiko.” And, everyone in her village had to adopt Japanese culture, practices, including speaking and schooling in Japanese.

She was the most wonderful grandma and took care of me and my brother while my parents worked ’round the clock. I have so many happy memories of her singing Korean nursery songs to me, walking me to/from school, cooking the most amazing food, trying to make me nap all the time in a heated ‘nice warm bed’ (even though it was 80 degrees out but I would still fall for it), giving me countless piggyback rides (“ubba” 😊), drawing pictures of tigers and lions for me and my brother – oh, how I wish I still had a copy …

She and my grandfather had 8 children – 7 daughters, and their last, #8, my uncle. My mom is the oldest – and, I am the 3rd oldest of 21 grandkids. In the mid 70s, my Halmoni immigrated to the U.S., to join my parents in Washington, D.C., in pursuit of the “American Dream” and better opportunities. Post-war Korea left a torn apart countryside and my grandfather’s successful business had suffered. All the siblings would have to lay down in a row, in a single room together to sleep at night. My Mom was the captain of the ship, ordering them around in her Stella-way and would throw one big blanket over everyone after they’d laid down. I would often think of my Mom and her family on my many Habitat for Humanity adventures, building homes for families in such similar situations.

My Gma had to face a hard decision to leave my then ill grandfather and 7 of her children behind in Korea, with hopes that she could earn enough to send money back home to support her family. With my parents, they built businesses and eventually were able to bring her other children to America. My uncle (born 1966-ish) was only in about 6th grade when he came to America. I never met my grandfather who passed away before my grandma or mom would see him again. I hope him and Halmoni are reuniting as I type …

These last few weeks have been the single most impactful experience of my entire life – and, one I’ve been dreading for much of my adulthood. But I am so grateful I had these last moments with her … and, could be there for her in her final days on Earth. Monday morning, before I left for my flight back to NYC, I got to see her one last time. Laying in her hospital bed, hooked up to so many machines, she was awake and pretty lucid – more than she’d been since arriving at the ICU. She couldn’t speak but our eyes were locked and she gazed at me with her loving Gma warmth and I held her hand. She started to squeeze it over and over again and it reminded me of how she would pat my back over and over when I was a kid to comfort me or make me fall asleep … I felt like this was her comforting me, saying goodbye for one last time and I bowed my head and wept silently, hoping she wouldn’t see.

My Halmoni and I always had a very close bond and I will miss her deeply forever. I find comfort in knowing that she leaves such a beautiful legacy of family, love and strength. She was always a very strong woman, to the very end (as the hospital staff learned quickly). I always liked to think that I inherited her powerful spirit, courage and strength – and, will honor her memory by continuing to live the rest of my life with her same fortitude and tenacity.

May you rest in peace … I will miss, cherish & love you forever, 할머니

KYE SUN LEE
January 9, 1928 – May 13, 2017

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