The baby was beautiful. Pretty, lovely, and brilliant. How could this beautiful thing have sprouted from the last branch of my bloodline? I was unbelievably grateful and deeply moved. The baby was like a fluttering cherry blossom, like the year’s first snow piled up overnight. Like a precious, gem-studded bowl with each gem carefully, individually chosen.
Drinking up the hot black herbal tea that filled that shining bowl everyday was my job.
One day, when I said I bought kimchi at the church bazaar in front of my house, my daughter immediately asked: Mom, how heavy is that kimchi? Ten kilograms? You mean to say you can carry ten kilograms without collapsing? Then, Mom, I think you can take care of my Minu. I need to start working again to pay off my debts. I can’t breathe living like this. I think I’m really dying.
I did not want to quit the job I had gotten through the senior citizens’ welfare center. Although it was simple work, like cataloguing and stuffing envelopes with fliers in the neighborhood library, and though it didn’t pay much, it wasn’t trivial work to me. I also didn’t want to give up my freedom of leisurely strolling in the marketplace, or taking solitary walks when I felt like getting some fresh air. But my bruised, tired knees weren’t excuses enough to refuse my daughter’s request. Compared to the old people who lay in intensive care units, with coxitis or sclerosis, or walked with their toes turned out and only with the help of canes, you might consider me really healthy. My son-in-law grew up alone after losing both his parents overnight from an accident when he was a high school student. So my daughter had only me to fall back on.
Six months after giving birth, my daughter went back to work, and I began taking care of Minu. I bought powdered milk and diapers, and prepared meat and vegetable soup with an allowance of less than a million won a month. My daughter came to me tearfully every weekend to pick up Minu, but she didn’t turn back even once after dropping him off every Monday morning.
From six in the morning until midnight, I was on my feet. If I didn’t think at all and simply responded, I could barely fulfill half of the baby’s demands. Minu ate well and didn’t get sick often, but he wasn’t an easy baby. He cried incessantly, piping and squealing like a dolphin. When he wanted something, he would throw a tantrum until he got it, stamping his feet and throwing things until I relented.
I’m not a machine.
I would mutter this while sipping on some soju I bought from a neighborhood store when I was finally alone on weekends. Those times, I really did wish I were a machine. The body is a strange thing. It puts on airs, claiming that it can work only when it’s regularly provided with alone time for itself, just like food. Although I might be just a heap of old bones covered with a few drops of oil and several patches of skin, I felt as if I had recovered my higher being as a human being when I sat alone in my quiet room and slowly passed soju from my cup to my throat. Sometimes I thought of the deep blue of the Han River. An elderly woman whose only pastime and recreation was the angelic task of raising her grandson—that was the role assigned to me. Nobody knew it was so hard for me that I couldn’t help crying sometimes.
Raising a baby alone was a mountain I had already climbed when I was young. I belatedly realized that I could stand straight without falling down on that unpredictable, warlike journey only because I filled every minute of it with the youthful ability to recover, the helplessly persistent, idiotic expectations of a better day, and an ironclad resolution to follow through with what I had chosen to do in my life. I didn’t have these things any more. I wasn’t sure whether a life like that could be called life, not just subsistence or survival. I had become a sort of utensil, like a spoon. I loaded the baby precariously onto my swaying body and carried it day and night, from one day to the next.
I remember the mirror attached to the dairy shelf. My thinning gray hair was so disheveled that I would fit the phrase “a half-dead person.” Dressed in my usual loose-fitting trousers and crimson spandex T-shirt, I realized I was sweating like a pig. It was then that I exchanged glances with him. He was looking at me in the mirror from a little distance.
I had lived without paying attention to a mirror since the age of forty. I wouldn’t have been much surprised to find the inside of a mirror I happened to look into empty. The fact that I could no longer control my aging body according to my will justified my shabbiness to me. I ate whatever fell into my lap and wore whatever clothes I could lay my hands on. But the mirror that reflected my image back to me surprised me that day. It let me know that my form and shape was no phantom, but a real flesh-and-blood human being that could be reflected into someone else’s pupils, and that I had to be responsible for my appearance.
Give it to me, ma’am. I’ll help you.
No, that’s okay.
Please, let me help you.
Well, why, why are you doing this?
Are you a student? Do I know you?