Sunday, September 7, 2014

Rest In Peace, 'Donger.'

You wouldn't think that when you hold your baby as he takes his first breath, you would one day be holding him as he takes his last breath. It's not something I've ever considered, at least.

It was my college graduation day--May 11, 2012--when my mom told me that cousin Tom has cancer. What kind? I asked, as if there were any good kind of cancer I could hope for. She didn't know how to translate it from Korean into English. 췌장암, she said.

Pancreatic cancer.

When I returned back home from school, I started visiting Tom every weekend I could. Sometimes just to watch Nats and Redskins games with him, sometimes just to play with his dog, and sometimes to eat some good old seafood with him. Why did it have to take cancer to bring us closer together? Nonetheless, I'm glad he got to taste some Hot N Juicy and Chasin' Tails cajun seafood before he went, and that I also got to bring him some live catch of my own.

"He's in a better place now," people tell me. Where is he? And how is it better? As someone who doesn't believe in a heaven nor hell nor nirvana nor any other sort of life after life, this consolation means almost nothing to me, but I wish it did. It's times like this that I wish I believed.

"You were so good to him," Aunt Kathy tells me--the youngest aunt in the Park family. "I know you were." I felt like I didn't do enough, though. And I know there were others who did more for him. I could have taken him to a Nationals or Redskins game. I could have taken him with me to my crabbing and fishing trips. I could have done a Marvel movie marathon with him and watched some stand-up comedy with him. But I didn't. When his mom and Aunt Kathy and others tell me that I was "good to him," I feel like I am being commended in a way a helpless child could be commended for chipping in loose change to help pay a mortgage.

He is 19 years my senior; most of the Park cousins are considerably older than me and had grown up together, and I was the baby. My very first memory of Tom is when I went over to his house to visit my aunt and uncle with my mom, just a little after my parents had divorced. He walked over to me and stuck his foot in my face and then laughed when I got scared; I thought that he was going to smother me with it. Always the jokester. He continued making us laugh even after he was gone. As we were going through his things, one of the very first things we found were two very--let's say, explicit--DVDs in his top drawer. James handed them to me before I knew what they were and said, "Do you want these?" Also, I myself have been known to steal stupid things--giant stuffed toys from Kings Dominion, dinnerware from my campus dining halls, souvenirs from vacation spots. Imagine my amusement when we were going through his things, and I saw two green fold-up chairs in his closet and room that very clearly said "Patriot Center" on them--from his alma mater, George Mason University. I also found a sketchbook with drawings by his 14-year old self. They were actually pretty decent. He and I are more similar than I thought. On the paddle he got from his fraternity, which was placed on his casket, I learned that his nickname was 'Donger.' I'm not sure why, but it somehow seems appropriate.

While he was battling his illness, there were a good amount of times when we thought he was reaching his end. Whether he was particularly beat up from chemotherapy, or when his stent had a blockage and he vomited everything he tried to keep down, or occasions when he got delusional and unaware of his surroundings. But each time, he somehow pulled through, and the next time I would see him, he would be his usual snarky self, laying on the couch watching TV with his dog while his brother James cooked some spicy pork outside on the grill. He was invincible. I got used to thinking that no matter how horrible his condition got, he would recover. I foolishly thought there would always be more time. Only, last week, he decided he couldn't fight anymore. He was done. He got to play one last round of poker with our cousins and his friends. He got to have a proper farewell with a lot of people. He requested that "Amazing Grace" be sung at his viewing, and I hope I did it justice--although I'm sure if he were alive to witness it, he would have told me that I sucked and booed me off the stage.

I was afraid of asking him out of the fear of offending him, but I finally did, because others have wondered the same thing when I tell them about him: "Why have you been fighting for so long? What makes you want to keep living?" He had no wife, no kids, and I guess for some people, if you don't have those things, then you don't really have anything to live for. Of course, they would be wrong. He had his cousins, his brother, his adorable niece Alexis. He had his mother, who was holding his hand in her sleep when she awoke to his grip loosening as he passed away; she wailed "my baby, my baby" over his body through the morning. He had his father, who collapsed on the front porch as he watched the coroners cart the body away. He had his friends, his Alpha Chi Rho fraternity brothers, his job. He had all the people that showed up to his viewing, funeral, and burial ceremonies. Indeed, when I asked him why he was holding on, he responded by saying, "Alexis. I was fighting for her. But I can't do it anymore." It's damn near miraculous that he made it over two years with pancreatic cancer, and I am in awe of his resilience.

I think of all the could-have-been's. Having been a bachelor all his life, would he have found love and settled down if it wasn't for the cancer? Would he have liked Kevin Hart and Louis C.K.? If he ever did meet any boyfriend of mine, would he really have given them a "beat down," as he always threatened to do whenever he thought I was dating somebody? "He better treat you right, or we'll give him a beat down."

They simplified his life so much in the funeral program. August 27, 1971: born in Korea. 1977: immigrated to the United States. Elementary/Middle/High school. George Mason University (English Major). Work at a bank. Work at a mortgage company. August 28, 2014: deceased at 5:20am. There was so much more to him than that (as there is to anybody, of course). The district, regional, and state wrestling championships he participated in and won. The countless people he helped out that were in trouble by giving them all sorts of money and resources without expecting anything in return--myself included. The Treasurer and Vice President positions he held with Alpha Chi Rho. The crass dick jokes. The amazing shrimp barbie recipes. The surprising secret artistic abilities. So many other things that I myself will never get to know about him firsthand.

At his viewing, his mother wept at his casket while his father repeated, "It should have been me, I should have gone first." It will take an eternity for me to forget my aunt's cries of "my baby, my poor son" over his body.

The day I found out from James that Tom's condition was rapidly deteriorating, it had been almost two months since I had last seen him. You always think there would be more time. How did I let almost two months go by? I am a fool. I am a coward.

Last Tuesday, August 26, I went to his house as soon as I got the word from James. "Good to see you," Tom greeted me while he was drinking some soup. I tried to contain my shock at his 80-pound frame. He looked like a skeleton with skin stretched over his bones. I kept him company in his room while we watched the Nats game, and that's when he started to lose it.

"Hey, is the game on?" he asked, his eyes closed. I was confused, and didn't realize what was happening to his mental state..
"Yes...? We're watching it right now," I replied, worried. He stayed silent.
Then, a few moments later: "Oh, man, do you need anything? Are you okay?" he said, his eyes half-open.
"What?" I laughed. "Do you need anything? You're the one with cancer, man."
He paused and then chuckled. "Wait, sorry. I thought you were in labor just now. Must be hallucinating," he mumbled. More silence. Suddenly, he started rambling on in gibberish and groaning, and I cried openly in front of him, knowing he wasn't aware of it and thusly couldn't make fun of me like he had in the past when I cried for him. I caught the words "plastic Indian" and "sing sang sung steam," but didn't make sense of much else--not that those phrases in themselves make any sense.

I couldn't stay to watch him anymore, but he was slowly regaining his coherence. I walked over to him and told him I would be back the next day, and that we would watch some Louis C.K., as he had never heard of him before. He groaned in agreement--I think. Then, something I had never said to him before--something I rarely say to people in general, but especially anybody in the Park family, because they (we) all think lovey-dovey stuff is cringe-worthy: "I love you." Gratifyingly enough, I got an "I love you, too," in return.

The next day, Wednesday, August 27, I went to his house. It was his 43rd birthday. He was bedridden for most of the day. I went to his room, sat down next to him, and placed a hand on his sharp hip bone. His hand slowly reached over to meet mine, and though he couldn't speak, the gesture spoke volumes. Later, while I was in his living room with his parents and friends and brother, we heard him hop out of bed. He appeared in the hallway right outside of his room, saw us, and said, "What's going on?" We looked at each other in surprise.
"It's your birthday! This is your party!" we exclaimed. He grinned like a little kid, then went back into his room. Seeing him in the hallway was a harrowing view; with no shirt on, we could count each rib, each vertebrae.

Thursday, August 28. I woke up to a voicemail from James. "My brother has passed away. My mom says he went around 5:10, 5:20." I will never forget how cold Tom's skin felt on my lips as I kissed his forehead before his body was taken away.

I will live twice as hard for him. I don't have room for fear or apprehension or awkwardness or anxiety anymore. And there will always be room for tomfoolery (how apt of a word!).

If there is a heaven, I would like to think he's feeling "aw shucks"-abashed at how many people are mourning his death and how many people cried at his funeral. There's probably unlimited cajun seafood up there, with lots of steak and cigars and football and wrestling and fishing and poker.


  1. beautifully written. he would've loved how much you commemorated his life and personality.