Tuesday, 2 November 2004

Eventful. . . A Little Too Eventful.

So a lot has happened since my last letter. I
remember writing in my journal a few months ago, "what
does it mean that my life has been so peaceful lately
-- does the lack of opposition show that I'm off
course from my life goals, or what?"

Calm before the storm, friends. Calm before the
storm.

To summarize (as if I EVER summarize). . .

1. As I described before, my nephew was diagnosed
with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, a particularly nasty
kind of degenerative muscle disease.
2. (This was an awesome part -- a ray of sunshine, if
you will): My brother got engaged to his girlfriend in
Red Deer, Caryn Siler, who's a grate humman beign.
(Sorry about that spelling, folks. A little inside
joke action there.)
3. My grandfather has been in and out of the hospital
more frequently again in the last few months, which
leads to all the worries and concerns I've discussed
in previous letters.

4. (Hold onto something: this is the big one.) My
mother has been diagnosed with stomach cancer --
gastric adenocarcinoma of diffuse (signet ring cell)
type ('cos I know you'd be curious, Dr. Dave). It's
about the nastiest form of stomach cancer out there.
Since the diagnosis, we've found out that it's spread
to her liver as well, which means that surgery is not
an option, and because of the kind of cancer,
chemotherapy won't cure it; they've opted not to use
chemo because it might give her an extra two months,
but only at the cost of making her other remaining six
to twelve months miserable.

You know how serious it is when Dad writes an e-mail
about test results, and spends as much time talking
about heaven as he talks about what the doctor said.

So let's just say it's been a difficult time -- I
wrote after I learned of Matthias' muscular dystrophy
that allowing yourself to love someone always opens
you up to the possibility of loss. This takes that a
little farther again, as this time, the one touched is
my mother, someone I never allowed myself to love --
someone whom I love as naturally as breathing, who's
been part of the bedrock of my life since before I had
a heartbeat.

I found out on Friday the 15th, talked to Mom and Dad
that Saturday morning, and have yet to make the rest
of my rounds on the phone. Deb, sorry I haven't
called you yet. I love you.

The upshot is that my mom and dad have come to Korea
to be here on my birthday, and the week after; once
Mom had the diagnosis, that was the first thing she
wanted to do, and my uncle bought my mom and dad
tickets to Korea, while my aunt got on the phone to
raise funds so that both parents could go. Dad's
church graciously gave him another two weekends off
(they just got back from a trip to Germany to see my
other sister, Rebecca), to send him to Korea as well.
I've been surprised at the suddenness, but it's so
good to see my mom and dad again.

It's been a tearful weekend, and a week of great joy
and great sadness, with joy outweighing the sadness,
but a few main impressions have come out of it:

1. I am surrounded with good people -- the coworkers
really stepped up for me on the Friday I found out
with compassion and understanding, and also with
enough humour to make me feel like things can continue
at least somewhat normally. Matt has been a rock for
me, and Lina (my Korean girlfriend) has proven her
quality and compassion in a really amazing way.

Meanwhile, my church has really banded together in
support. I feel really surrounded by love, care and
prayer (as does my mom). People have helped me find
cots and bedding for my parents, and even picked them
up at the airport when I was at work! Last Sunday,
mom and dad came to my church with me and my
girlfriend, and all three newcomers had a wonderful,
warm welcome, and on Wednesday night we went to a
church family's house for dinner, and on Friday we'll
have a farewell potluck dinner at another's.

2. My mom is surrounded by good people. My mom's
church has answered the news with so much love,
support and generousity, that I want to go back there
and give every single one of them a hug. Christians
like to talk about community and the unity of
Christians, but Mom and Dad's community have really
shown that it's more than words.

3. I've been really amazed by my Mom's reaction -- it
seems like she's handling this whole thing better than
anyone else. She's said that the whole thing so far
has made her realize how many people there are who
care about her. She has a level of peace and trust in
God that helps to keep me from flying off the
handlebars with my own anxiety. My Dad, too, has been
really solid, but please remember them both in your
prayers, and not just my mom. I think Dad is the one
who has the hardest role. Pastors are not usually the
ones who ask for emotional support; usually, they're
the ones who give it, so it's a hard place for him to
be. Mom has the hope of heaven staring her right in
the face -- she'll even tell you that she's not afraid
of going home -- but Dad's the one who will remain,
bereaved, after she's gone.

4. It's so good to be around my parents. It's one of
those instant comfort buttons. When I'm sitting
around a house with my folks, it's not exciting. Most
conversations happen at night around bedtime, and the
rest of the day is mostly quiet, in Korea as in
Canada, but it's just a good atmosphere -- having
their presence here is really nice, and mom and dad
have really been game to try out foods and go places
as far as their stamina will carry them. (Their
stamina's diminished -- Dad by a cold and Mom by her
stomach.) We had a great weekend eating different
kinds of non-spicy Korean foods (mom loved Korean food
-- both parents were real sports about trying new
tastes) and seeing the Han River, looking over Soul's
skyline from the tallest building in Korea's, walking
through a palace, buying Korean-style clothes in the
traditional market (that was my thanks-for-coming-out
gift for my parents), and meeting my church family.
We spent the whole weekend with Lina, my girlfriend,
and she really got along well with Mom. She even came
to church with us on sunday and really enjoyed meeting
the people who've been helping her care for me these
few months.

My mom loves people so easily that it makes people
love her, too. Lina really loved meeting my folks. I
loved seeing her be accepted and loved by them. Most
of the weekend, Lina walked around with my mom,
holding her hand, and she sent me a message (hopefully
teasing) that she misses my mom more than she misses
me when she can't see us during the week.

In other news, I went to Japan during the five day
weekend that was Korean thanksgiving. It was really
interesting to see how two countries can be so similar
in some ways and so different in others -- just a
different feel on the streets, a different aesthetic,
a different (much lower) noise level. A different
twinge in the shapes of faces and eyes and noses, a
different fashion sense -- it was interesting going
back to knowing NONE of the language, after reaching a
point where I can survive fairly well in Korea with my
Korean.

They have better urban planning, though. Quieter and
more peaceful -- but sometimes oppressively quiet.
Expensive. Really expensive. We spent the whole time
visiting and staying with friends Matt had made while
travelling in Cambodia and Thailand, which was easily
the best way to encounter a new country -- we didn't
see the touristy spots, but I think we got a real feel
for the people and the country. One night, a friend's
father actually took the day off work so that he could
buy ingredients, and then he (a sushi chef), prepared
sushi for us like you wouldn't believe. It didn't
stop coming, and there were so many different tastes
and textures. He spoke barely any English -- "You
like me sushi. I happy," but we had a great time, and
Matt's friend Kuru translated. Matt got out Kuru's
guitar, and sang a song by a Canadian folk singer
named Stan Rogers, and he and I sang a song we've done
together a few times, with harmonies. Then Kuru's
father said, in Japanese, "I'm not a good singer, but
you shared Canadian songs with us, so I want to sing a
Japanese song to you."

The man -- my father's age, and unable to speak
directly to us -- sang a song to us, and opened a part
of his heart, in the ragged voice of a man unfamiliar
with singing. It was one of those moments of
understanding that can't quite be conveyed. Then he
sang a second song, called "Sukiyaki" which some of
you might recognize; it was a hit song in the 1960s in
America, and a version, translated into English, got a
lot of radio play in the mid nineties, enough that I
knew the words. I sang the song back to Kuru's father
in English, and he was totally amazed and surprised.

All this to say I had some really cool connections,
and made some friends that I hope I will see and hear
from again.

Japan was great. Expensive, and too many coins
(everything up to 500 yen ($5 equivalent) was a coin
-- start lobbying NOT to get a $5 coin in Canada. So
many coins is just maddening), but beautiful in a way
that Korea isn't, because Korea was so busy trying to
grow faster that they didn't take as much planning or
aesthetics into account. Tokyo is a very carefully,
thoughtfully, and beautifully designed city. I
enjoyed that part a lot.

But, coming back to Korea has only reminded me how
much I love Korea. Koreans are warm and expressive in
a way Japanese aren't; just seeing a mother give her
daughter a hug on a street corner here was something I
didn't/wouldn't see in Japan. It's quiet and peaceful
there, but Korea is just plain fun, and more exciting.

So I loved Japan, but it reminded me how much I love
Korea in the same stroke. I'm glad I went to Japan
though.

The students, as always, are hilarious -- one girl,
because she didn't know the word "garlic" when I told
her about eating garlic spaghetti, immediately accused
me of eating "garbage spaghetti", and you know you're
with kids when you hear somebody singing classical
music with weird voices, culminating in one of my boys
doing Beethoven's piano piece "Fur Elise" in a roaring
monster voice -- his voice and the melody being about
as opposite as a message and its mode can be.

Work has been a soap-opera involving backtalking,
gossip, miscommunications, accusations, couples on the
rocks, supervisors who feel "uncomfortable" talking to
the people they supervise, and directors who talk to
everyone else on staff instead of the one with whom
they have a problem. It's been interesting. I'm
getting along better with the staff these days, and a
few of the other wrinkles (a co-worker's constant
complaining, and a few other kinks) are getting worked
out -- to the extent that I'm enjoying the staff room
more that I have. . . since my last workplace, really.
The mix of personalities is just starting to mellow
and gel.

At my church now, I'm teaching Sunday School for the
younger kids -- four Koreans with low degrees of
English, and two native English speakers from South
Africa (one of whom has on occasion corrected details
in my stories, and has also made requests: "Why don't
you tell us about David and Goliath?" I have a man
who's volunteered to help me with interpretation when
I need it, but they want me to do most of the sunday
school in English -- English Sunday School would be
quite a draw for a certain kind of parent to bring
their kid to our church.

I'm going back to Canada for Christmas to be with my
family. I will be spending most of that time with
family, though -- this just seems to be a Christmas to
be home. I'm glad about that -- the jetlag will be a
stinker, but having just had my parents in Korea, and
remembering what it's like to be around the family,
there's no place I'd rather be.

Autumn in Korea is the most beautiful time of year --
Mom and Dad managed to come at the perfect time; the
two best times are during cherry blossom season in
April, and autumn leaves week in October, and Mom and
Dad hit the Autumn leaves square on the nose. It's
light jacket weather with cold evenings, cool enough
to enjoy a warm drink for a little more than just the
taste. I managed to bring them around, thanks to the
Seoul City Tour Bus, to a lot of different areas of
Seoul, and they saw one of the major markets, some old
stuff (palaces and a folk village) some pretty stuff
(some walking trails near my place and the Han River
at night on a cruise), and some fun stuff (middle-aged
ladies dancing along with the stage shows at the
sauna, kids staring). We wore our Korean style
clothes around a number of times (especially mom), and
it was amazing how many smiles and approving looks we
got from Koreans (especially older ones). Ask me to
show you my outfit when you see me next.

Having Mom here's been an interesting perspective --
she has a remarkable peace about her cancer, and
seeing her courage, and her trust in God, has really
given me a lot more peace about the whole matter as
well. It's started a lot of conversations with my
friends about her faith and her trust in God, as well
as the hope of heaven, and helped a lot of my friends
to understand what I believe. On the bus home from
the airport to drop my Mom and Dad off, I explained to
the now, retroactively renamed for privacy, Exgirlfriendoseyo, my girlfriend, what that hope of Heaven means
for my family, and even my Buddhist-raised girlfriend
agreed that the idea of going to heaven to be with a
creator who knows and loves you sounds more pleasant
than ceasing to exist and eventually having your
memory die as well, only to reincarnate and go through
the grinding-wheel of a flawed world where sorrow is a
necessary counterpoint to joy, again. Maybe the best
perspective I've heard yet -- and Mom, sorry for
stealing your story -- was from a conversation my mom
told me about having with my nephew Matthias, the
five-year old who's been diagnosed with Duchenne
Muscular Dystrophy and who isn't expected to live past
age 25.

Matthias asked my mom,

-Oma, is it true you have cancer?
-Yes, it is.
-Why do you have cancer?
-I don't know why. Only God knows why.
-So you might die, right?
-Yes, I might die. And then your mom and dad, and
your Opa (Opa and Oma are the dutch words for
grandfather and grandmother), and your uncles and
aunts will be very sad.
-But I won't be sad if you die, Oma.
-Why not, Matthias?
-Because then you will go to heaven and be with Jesus,
and one day I will go there too, and then God will
give us bodies that don't have a problem.
-That's true. And in Heaven, we can praise God
forever.
-But Oma, we praise him already!

Way to go Matthias. I'll be so glad to see you one
day in a body without a problem.

If I haven't learned anything else from such a trying
time, I've learned how deep my own roots go in the
Church -- to my church, my bible, and my Lord were the
first places I went (along with my best friends, in
Korea and in Canada) when I heard the news, and that's
where I've found the most peace. I apologise to any
readers of this letter -- some of you aren't
churchgoers and aren't down with the things that have
brought me comfort -- who might feel preached at by
all the "religiousity" of this letter, and I hope I
didn't beat you over the head, but if you take nothing
else from all this God talk, at read it and know that
you've learned something about your friend Rob and
what things, deep down, form the bedrock of his
character and his family. It's steadied me in this
time, and whether you believe it or not
philosophically, it's a part of my story personally,
so I guess it was bound to find its way into these
letters eventually.

To everyone on this list: thanks for being an
important enough part of my life, in whatever respect,
that I felt like you ought to be part of this news and
these events in my life. I'm glad to be so surrounded
by people who know, care for, and understand me in all
the different ways you do.

So thanks again for your care, prayers, and concern.
I'm glad to know you all, and to have you around at a
time like this.

Much love

Rob