Authors: Gong Ji-Young
I could tell he was holding back. He yanked the cigarette from my lips and crushed it out hard in the car ashtray. But it wasn’t in my nature to back down.
“I was only fifteen. Do you understand now why I tried to kill myself, and why I’m still trying? Our family, Mom, Dad, our brothers—you all thought that was more
than me. Do you know now what you did to me? What made me even more miserable than dying? And yet you have the nerve to call those men animals? I think
He yanked hard on the steering wheel, pulled the car around, and started heading toward our mother’s house. I couldn’t speak from the force of the U-turn. It seemed like his way of saying,
No, I will not leave you on your own tonight. If I do, something bad will happen again.
I could hear my mother playing the piano. It was Chopin’s
. My mother was sitting with her back to me at the grand piano in the middle of the living room. There was a time when my mother would have paid any amount of money to lose weight, but now she was as gaunt as if someone had stripped a heavy coat from her body. I thought
about the fact that, with or without cancer, it would not be long before I would have to say goodbye to my mother, who was in her seventies, and I felt sentimental. What cannot be reconciled in the face of death? What in this life is worth clinging to? Especially if that thing is hatred. I had once overheard her telling her friends that it made her feel ashamed as a woman to have one of her breasts removed. She said that she had no idea what caused her cancer, and that it would cost twenty million won to reconstruct her breast. I had taunted her, saying,
What are you going to do? Try out for Miss Old Korea?
As I listened to her playing the piano, I thought,
Twenty million won would mean ten thousand won for each inmate who has nothing in his account half the year.
I was surprised at myself for thinking that. Why was I making that kind of comparison?
Over a pink silk blouse, my mother wore a silk scarf draped long in the front, and her shoulders were moving quietly. I didn’t know if it was my sentimental mood, but for once, her piano playing didn’t make me want to plug my ears the way it used to. When the song ended, I clapped. I could hear the housekeeper in the kitchen clapping, too. My mother smiled as if deep in thought, to make herself look as elegant as a real pianist on stage, and began playing another song.
The reason I hated my mother and the rest of our family was not that they fancied themselves to be cultured and artistic, wearing looks on their faces that said they weren’t all about money, camouflaging their own
in that all-too-typical way. I hated them because even though they all felt vulnerable and lonely as hell whenever they found themselves sitting alone at night, they had too many tools and opportunities at their disposal to help them disguise their own feelings and thus deprived themselves of the chance to face their own
loneliness, their pitifulness, and their isolation. In short, they were missing out on the chance to face life head on.
I went over to the piano. It used to be so hard for me to listen to my mother’s playing. After that fateful day, whenever my mother played a romantic song like this one, I would plug my ears, put on some rock music, and turn the volume up as high as it would go. I probably did it because of her. Had she been a pop singer, I would have listened to classical.
Turn it off! Turn that noise off!
she would scream, and race up to my room on the second floor, whereupon I would quickly turn the volume down and open the door with a peaceful look on my face.
Turn it down!
You’re driving me crazy. Why did I have to give birth to you only to suffer like this? Why did I ever give birth to you? I should have gotten rid of you when the doctor suggested it, when he said I was too old for another
! But your dad insisted. He claimed you were a gift from God.
I always won those arguments, since I was the one who remained calm, but my mother had no idea how much my heart bled each time. Back then, I cursed our religion that forbade abortion. What was it Job said?
Curse the night I was conceived? Why did I not die at birth, come forth from the womb and expire?
I liked Job’s earnest voice. I would wait until I heard my mother’s footsteps reach the bottom of the stairs, and then I would crank the volume back up again. It was my way of getting revenge for the blood I lost each time she wounded me.
When did I ask you to give birth to me?
I had resorted to that sort of mud flinging once.
You think I made you because I wanted to make you? If
I’d known it would be you, I wouldn’t have! I should have gone to the hospital anyway, despite your father.
That was her response.
Since you couldn’t kill me when I was inside of you,
I told her,
I’m trying to finish the job now. So why do you keep stopping me? Why are you stopping me?
That’s when she said,
Then die somewhere where I can’t see you! Die somewhere where I can’t stop you!
Those were our mother–daughter talks. When they were over, I would smash all of the innocent records and flower vases in my room. But now that I was over thirty and watching my mother who was now in her seventies, as she played Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1, I wanted to ask her something.
“Don’t bother me! This song requires all of my concentration!”
It was the same thing she always said. It reminded me of something that happened when I was little. We had guests over, and my mother had seated them all in a row and was wearing a pretty lavender concert dress, probably playing this same song, when she suddenly burst into tears and ran out of the room. She was muttering something as she went. One of the guests asked,
What on earth is wrong with her?
Someone else said,
I think she said she’s too sad to keep playing.
My dad explained,
My wife is an artist, so she’s very sensitive. Just reading a poem can make her cry.
And then he laughed. A few of the guests laughed politely. I was embarrassed. I could tell my father was tired of dealing with his pianist wife. It made sense. My mother had attended a top-tier girls’ high school, but my father only graduated from a commercial high school. I had no idea what
I waited quietly for the song to end. My uncle might have been right about crying, as I felt different after having
cried my eyes out the night before. I thought maybe that was why I was able to stand there and watch my mother without getting upset, like a ray of sunlight shining down on good people and bad people alike.
“Happy birthday, Mom. I didn’t get you a gift. To be honest, I didn’t know it was your birthday. But happy birthday for now, and I’ll give you your present later.”
“You don’t have to say anything or buy me any gifts. Just don’t worry me!”
“Still, happy birthday. Isn’t it better to say something even if I do worry you, rather than say nothing and worry you anyway?”
“Now what’s gotten into you? You scare me to death. Last time, when you smashed your IV bottle in the hospital and glared at me, I thought you were possessed by the ghost of your dad’s mother.”
There she went again. It was never a good sign when she said I resembled someone on my father’s side of the family. I used to wonder all the time what she prayed about when she went to church. I told myself to hang in there. It was her birthday, after all.
“Mom, what was the happiest time of your life?”
“Wasn’t there a time when you thought you felt really happy?”
I guess I just wanted to talk to her. I wanted to talk to my mother who was facing her death, a mother who might spend her final days in the hospital as cancer cells spread through her body again. I wanted to have a real
on my mother’s birthday, a conversation between a mother and a daughter who had returned to her old home after a long time away, to look down at a warm sunlit garden together and have the kind of real conversation that mothers and daughters have. I wanted to tell her,
I don’t have any memories of being happy. I’ve had all of the things that other people don’t get to have, and I’ve eaten all of the things that other people don’t get to eat, but I don’t remember ever feeling happy.
Either my tone was softer than usual, or maybe it wasn’t really in her nature to be so severe, despite the arrogance that came from having ridden to school on a palanquin carried by servants when she was young, but she surprised me by responding gently.
“How could I have been happy? You know I was busy taking care of your grandmother and putting up with her senility when I was younger. I was afraid your father’s
would go bankrupt. Then, after raising three boys, I was ready to start playing piano again, but you dropped in and I had to give up piano entirely. You gave me so much trouble. And today’s my so-called birthday. I just had surgery and could have a relapse and die at any moment, but do you see those three sisters-in-law of yours anywhere?”
I sighed to myself. Here we go again. Nothing was good enough for her. She had every nice thing you could possibly own, but it was never enough. When my father was alive, he kept her from having to wash even a single cup. He said she might damage a finger while doing the dishes and wouldn’t be able to play the piano that she loved so much. Nevertheless, nothing was ever good enough for her.
“They have important things to do,” I told her. “A pianist, a doctor, and an actress! The first one’s nerves are on edge because of her recital. The second one is working at the hospital. And I hear the third is pregnant again? But Mom, whenever you meet your friends, all you do is brag about them. ‘My sons married a pianist, a doctor, and an actress.’ And your friends all envy you for it. But at least you have one stupid daughter, and since she’s not busy, she has the time to wish you a happy birthday in the morning. What luck.”
“Go away! You stay out all night drinking and have to be carried home on your brother’s back, and now you’re starting up with me first thing in the morning? All I wanted to do was play one song after such a long time. Why do you have to torment me?”
“When did I torment you? All I did was say happy birthday!”
“Just looking at you gives me a headache. Now I’ve lost my appetite! And while you’re here, let me ask you this. Why on earth don’t you want to marry that prosecutor, Kang?”
I laughed out loud. As I laughed, I had to acknowledge once again that people never change, that even I never change. What my brother had said last night was right. You can be facing your own death and have your cancer
on, and be eating breakfast with your daughter who has come back from the dead herself and is home again for the first time in a long while, and still, people never change. Maybe that is the only thing that doesn’t change in this world.
“I’m just like you, Mom,” I said through clenched teeth. “I, too, hate men whose families have no education. Admit it. You always looked down on Dad and Aunt Monica. So maybe I take after you.”
Mom stopped moving her shoulders in time with the music and stared at me. She looked as if she was staring at something foreign.
“You’re just like your aunt!” she said.
I tried to hold it back, but I could feel all of my childhood emotions surging up inside me. That stern voice! There was no point in sticking around. Even though I tried to remind myself that it was her birthday, not even a birthday was enough to tear down the fortress walls erected by our pasts. It would take far longer than that to dismantle them.
But then again, how was time of any use when no one was willing to try? Even if I had been even slightly willing to try, my old habits all too easily took down that willingness. It didn’t matter that it was her birthday, and it wouldn’t have mattered even if it had been the anniversary of her death.
I walked away from the piano and cried, “I’m just like you. I thought I was like Aunt Monica, but I’m not. I’m just like you! And that’s why I hate myself!”
My mother slammed her fists on the piano as if she couldn’t take any more.
As always, I was playing the role of the unfilial daughter. Later, at the dinner table, my mother would explain to my brothers
about how I had come home and hurt her feelings and ruined her birthday and shortened her life and made everything worse for them. My sisters-in-law would hide the bored looks on their faces and pretend to chew their food, while my brothers would make an effort to hear her out with the patience and filial devotion befitting the birthday of an old, weak mother who has had a breast cancer operation. Not that they had much choice since she wouldn’t let anyone else get a single word in. Meanwhile, the meal would end, and once it did, someone would make this or that excuse, like students who have just finished a class they hate, and someone would get up first, and they would all file out. Then my mother would end the day by shouting at the cleaning girl, as if that were her way of saying good night. She would leave out all of the words that said she really just wanted to be loved and wanted to give love, and that she was lonely and wanted someone to be with her, and instead she would say that the dishes were chipped and the cupboards were dusty. There was no way I could stay in that house until dinnertime. I purposefully stomped all the way upstairs to get my bag, still no further away from being that teenager who had run away from
home after fighting with her mom. I was on my way out of the house when I felt something inside of me burst. I could tell that something was happening on the inside.