To most, Christmas represents a time at the end of the year to rekindle family ties by expressing affections and sharing stories in the midst of a bleak winter. As I was growing up, my family never made an effort to celebrate Christmas, so I was not strongly attached to the occasion. The holiday often passed us by like a distant light that lay beyond our reach, but we admired from afar. To me, the holiday did not have a special meaning until a particular Christmas experience came around.
I was around six years old when my parents told me that we were going to Korea for winter break. I remember how anxious I was, not knowing what to expect for my first visit to Korea. However, I soon realized that my initial unease was uncalled for, as my first few days there could not have been better. During those days of snowy weather, I bundled up in my favorite coats and spent time with my relatives. Because most of my mother’s side of the family lives in Korea, I had not been able to meet them until then. I stayed with my aunt and uncle, whose two daughters were much older than I was. Quite unexpectedly, I felt an instant connection with these two girls whom I had met for the first time. I was overwhelmed with joy and hoped that this circle of happiness would never break.
Unfortunately, this period of bliss was cut short by an unexpected turn of events. As I recall the experience, a foggy memory flickers; I visualize my six-year-old self dozing off in the living room of my aunt’s apartment. Whispers breezed on right over my head, but I was too tired to make out any of the adults’ conversations. Even so, I distinctly remember the faces of my relatives looking at me with stoic expressions. Before I could think much of the situation, I fell into a deep sleep.
It was not until a few days later that I finally found out what they had been gravely discussing. My uncle drove me and my mother to a hospital where we patiently waited. The spine-chilling atmosphere of the building and the foreign scent of desolation made me uncomfortable as I silently pleaded for an explanation. No sign came. No explanations. Just the lingering warmth of my mother’s hands gave me hope that comfort would return. Over the course of a few days, I spent quite a bit of time in a hospital room, receiving check-ups, getting shots and simply waiting. I was still confused, not knowing what was in store for me. Then, before I knew it, I was moved to another room where I was all alone, and the last thing I saw was my mother’s smile.
My eyes flickered open slowly, and it took me a while to focus as bright lights blinded me. The first thing I thought of was my mother, and I panicked that she wasn’t next to me. I screamed and yelled, but I felt sharp aches all over my body and I let sleep take over me once more. Apparently, I had undergone a surgery to cure a life threatening condition; my family had not told me the details earlier to spare my worries. Yet, I remember breaking down as soon as I heard my father’s voice over the phone. I had not known until then that he was back in America with my siblings. The tears wouldn’t stop, and all I wanted to do was leave. As I slowly recovered, I grew restless, and my insomnia worsened.
My mother often took me out of the room in the middle of the night so that we could talk and eat my favorite snacks. Spending time with my mom was the closest thing to peace I’d have, and to this day, her comforting presence remains etched into my heart. It was still wintertime and one morning, I watched as snow began to fall. Looking outside made me long for freedom, and I was hit with despair once again. I was on the verge of tears until a little girl who was a patient in the same room as me come in with a gigantic chocolate bar just for me. My face lit up immediately, and I learned how easily comfort can be exchanged between strangers. My aunt and uncle came to see me one day and did all sorts of things to make me laugh. Despite the pain, I couldn’t stop laughing and was finally able to gain some strength. Although I was not discharged as Christmas approached, the relatives and friends who came in to see me bestowed upon me their tokens of love. I realize that these recollections are some of my most valuable memories. Having recovered from such hardship during my trip to Korea, I like to believe that I was gifted with renewed appreciation for my loved ones that Christmas.
BY ESTHER KANG