My grandpa is in the hospital with some bad cancer. I mean really bad. As in he probably won’t see the summer end. The doctor says he’s got days, at best. His liver is swollen….his bladder is infected….cuts and bruises won’t disappear because of the lack of platelets and other clotting materials in his blood….I’m scared. He’s scared. We’re all anxious.
And I know most people won’t even read this. I mean, what’s one grandparent when others have their own problems? But I think my grandpa is special. Not because he’s old and still not senile or has Alzheimers or anything. No, it’s because his life story is incredible.
Once, a very long time ago, in what is today North Korea, he grew up rich. His family owned a whole hospital. He even had a maid that carried him places. Aspiring to be a doctor, he studied hard and was admitted into Il Sung Kim University, that time a magnificent honor, one that will play a larger role later in his life. However, during his time in college, war broke out – the Korean War, also known as the Forgotten War. In no time, his college classmates began to disappear, drafted for the war effort. Scared, he hatched a plan: escape to South Korea, finish his medical schooling and when the war was over, return to North Korea to retrieve his family. He had no idea what would happen next.
He first had to escape from his dormitory. The North Korean People’s Army were rounding up students to be drafted into the army. My grandpa dressed in pajamas to make the guards less suspicious: he asked merely if he could go home and retrieve a letter and other personal belongings and to say good-bye to his family. Because he looked non-threatening and earnest, the guards let him go – where he escaped to his aunt’s house, living in their attic.
15 days later, he received a letter from the school saying if you don’t return soon, you will be sent to the coal mines, or worse. Fearful for his life and family, he lived in the mountains where other defectors lived and eventually made it to the U.N. lines. However, they were in retreat, so he followed them back to South Korea.
In Seoul, he had to make money – after all, he was a poor college student, now defected and clamoring for any small amount of change. He tried to enlist in the army, and was rejected based on the fact that he didn’t have a reliable ID.
Being young, though, had its perks. He worked as a laborer, digging holes in the ground and filling it with compost and other tossed-out foodstuffs for a dried a herring and a sack of rice a day. Only after a week, someone noticed how young he was and took him and made him work in the mess hall for U.N. soldiers, to interact and learn English. Since my grandpa was young, he was assumed a good learner. My grandpa wholeheartedly agreed, thinking that his ordeal was finally over.
He bought English and Japanese textbooks to master the languages and modern medicine, learning more and more every day. Just when he thought he was good, the hammer came down: Chinese POWs were hired themselves to do the work he himself was doing. Dejected, he tried to use his previous history as a medical student as influence: after talking to several nurses and doctors, they agreed to let him intern, but for no money, only food and a place to sleep. Ecstatic, my grandpa took the job and learned much about the modern field of medicine.
Finally, my grandpa thought – surely I will be of some use now! My days of running around as a vagabond are over. He needed money though – he needed to finish medical school. Then he saw his way out – the American doctors threw away expired antibiotics. Seeing his chance, he persuaded the doctors to give him the expired stuff and sell them locally to South Koreans who had no access to such medicine. He received three boxes of a hundred vials each – and that was his first lump of actual cash.
However, during this time, the South Korean government was rife with corruption – he quit upon seeing some of its examples. By chance he saw a poster advertising a job at the Korea Pfizer Pharmaceutical Company . He applied for a job. Upon going in for his interview, his heart sank in dismay – 2 dozen other men waiting before him. However, luck struck – because of his handle on English the other men didn’t have, he was hired.
Now he was making money – he even got perks such as his own car, a chauffeur, and a high salary. He met his wife during this time, married, and had several children (one of which is my mom, the youngest of the 4). And he was happy. Reflecting on his past, he had to go through much hardship to satisfy his urge for learning, especially learning medicine. He thought the worse was over – but there was one more obstacle he must face.
After the war, a military coup happened, and he was forced to give his services for free to small villages. After two years of this, and 10 years as a full-fledged doctor, he was suddenly jailed because of his ties to the Il Sun Kim University and the fact that he was successful at Pfizer. They didn’t just question him, they interrogated him.
Now he was depressed and on the verge of collapse. Excommunicated from North Korea, a spy in South Korea. Caught at a crossroad, he needed to leave the country until things settled down so he could see his family in North Korea one day. He decided to move to the United States.
Upon studying heavily for the admission to the U.S., he was accepted and moved to New York City, then to Atlanta, and finally to Lagrange, Georgia. He changed his vocation from a family practitioner to an anesthesiologist, because it didn’t require much interaction to others because his English was starting to suffer. After barely getting by in North Korea, from starving on the streets in South Korea, to being interrogated by his own people – my grandpa thought he was finally done with everything, and could see that the legacy he left behind inspired his children (and grandchildren) to try their hardest and do their best, no matter the hardships involved.
His own words: “In the beginning, I thought that life as an anesthesia doctor would be simple. But before long, I found that I had to endure a lot of heavy pressure. If there was a call at the hospital ad midnight, I had to rush out even if half asleep. Once, I had been called urgently for a blood transfusion that lasted almost an hour. This sort of procedure had to take place under the control of an anesthesia doctor. In the meantime, my children had to endure more hardship than me. When we got to the USA, my eldest child initially didn’t even understand what was required for homework. When I went to visit her in school, I saw her staring absent-mindedly at the window and shedding silent pearls of tears. Anyhow, it was quite painful and I felt very sorry for all my children. Really, it was them that had to weather much more terrible hardships and stormy waters. I believe that I have been incredibly blessed. My oldest daughter, Hwa Young is married to an American Airlines pilot. My son, Kun Zoo is a plastic surgeon. My third daughter, Sook Yung, is married to a dentist. And my youngest daughter, Sun Yun is married to a OBGYN. I feel so thankful and obligated to my beloved sons and daughters and my wife who have shared and endured so much hardship with me. Twice a year, the entire family reunites and takes a trip together. This is a tradition my wife and I hope continues.”
“Luck seems to protect my life and has allowed me to weather many adversities and tribulations. Still, I pray for my luck to last long enough to see the reunification of the Korean Peninsula. When that day comes, I can reunite with my parents and sisters, proudly show them that I became a medical doctor in the USA, and be loved by them again. Isn’t this obvious? I owe keeping my dreams to my determined granite posture that matches my luck.”
“Do your best to live up to your responsibilities simply by exerting yourself with sincere effort.”
As of now, he is fighting cancer and has mere moments left on this side of life. Even now, as a I clutch his hand and just soak in his presence, he often banters lightly, scolding me, “Why are you visiting me? You have to study! Go study at home and don’t worry about me!” in his broken English. I smile and shake my head sadly, trying to let him not see the tears glistening in my eyes.
And as I look at him, my teenage eyes see a once-proud warrior of life, having conquered everything thrown at him with determination, guts, gusto, and the like. A king now, having had many children and many more grandchildren. As I remember, he always hugged me, a strong, firm hug, and always slapped me on the back, saying, “LUCASSS!” But with a slight “r” sound, since Koreans can’t really pronounce L’s. A man that would sit and read all day, his Korean newspapers and watch Korean television.
I remember taking walks with him every morning, doing his daily miles, keeping his metabolism up. I remember that every time I’d see him, he would exclaim “Where are your studying books? You have to study hard to be successful like your mom and dad!” I remember he would eat oatmeal and eggs every morning, and would ALWAYS have Frosted Flakes somewhere in the house.
He’s tall, strong, handsome, and even to this day has found a place in my heart. No matter where he goes in the days, months years, he will always be there, that warm presence telling me to keep going even when the waters get rough. After all, you are my grandpa, and you do know best.
Best regards and with much love, your grandson, Lucas Kim.
To: Pil Kwan Kim.