I'M LISTENING to Joon’s story but I can’t stop staring at him, at this change in his appearance: the dark circles under his eyes, the unkempt, unwashed hair, skin that’s red and blotchy. He looks older – years older – than I remember.
The situation with his mother hasn’t changed, he says. Not since he came back to Korea a couple of days ago. And it’s not expected to either. Not for the better anyhow. He talks about the plastic collar that keeps her neck in place, the network of wires attached to her body, constantly monitoring and measuring; and of the multiple tubes and hoses, large and small, penetrating holes cut into the base of her neck and the veins of her arms. When he goes into the critical-care unit to see her, he says, hands need to be scrubbed and shoes removed. He has to wear a special gown, mask and slippers.
“Do you know?” Joon says. “Do you know she stopped breathing for 20 minutes?”
What happened was that his mother was at home alone and in the middle of lunch when she started choking. It was a neighbour, he says, the woman next door, who called 119 when she found her in the hallway, crumpled on the floor and making terrible wheezing-gasping sounds, her face slowly turning blue.
“Goet-gae,” he says, making a circle with his fingers the size of a small stone. “That’s all it was. Just a small … how do you say?”
We are in a hospital waiting room in Nowon-gu, in Seoul, sitting on a thick blue wall-to-wall mat because there isn’t any furniture in here. The room is crowded and the air feels close. I’m dying to get out, or at least open a window, but there isn’t one of those either.
“Crab,” I tell him, but he frowns, doubtful that it’s the right word. And he’s probably right. There’s probably a more accurate, scientific word to describe the bite-sized miniature crustacean that can be eaten whole – shell, legs, pincers and all – but what it is I’m not sure.
“All this because of small crab,” he says.
Doctors and nurses dart in and out of the room, calling out names, ushering waiting loved ones down the corridor. I can’t make out what the voices on the PA are saying. With blankets and pillows and flasks of tea marking where people have staked claims, the room reminds me of an emergency-relief shelter, the kind you see on the news after a natural disaster. Some people sleep; others sit cross-legged, openly staring at us, quietly whispering.
“Nway-sah,” Joon murmurs, leaning in, unsure how this translates. “Do you know nway-sah?”
It’s a new word for me and I do a mental run-through of vocabulary to try to break it down. Nway: the brain. Sah: the Chinese character for death. It’s how he describes his mother’s present state.
“I brought you these,” I say, sliding towards him a plastic bag full of old socks and T-shirts, a ratty old sweatshirt: things I planned to throw out sooner or later. It’s what he asked for on the phone the day after he arrived. Any old clothes I could spare, he said. He hardly had time to pack; just took the first plane out of Vancouver the moment he heard the news.
“You know you can stay with me,” I offer, but he waves away the idea. Too far, he tells me. His mother has a sister; he might stay with her, he says and honestly, I’m relieved. I mean, it not like I really know the guy.
A pair of doors opposite the waiting room abruptly swing open and what appears to be three generations of a family slowly stream out, wailing and sobbing and holding each other up in a manner that comes as shocking. The waiting room falls dead silent and everyone turns to watch them shuffle down the corridor.
“Hyung,” Joon says, an intimate term meaning elder brother. “Thank you for the clothes.” He clutches the bag in his lap like a child who’s just received some long-wished-for gift. “Thank you for coming, Hyung.”
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