While he was alive, my husband had crowds of friends. He would sit happily with someone he had just met, repeating over and over again, “Yonoma, yonoma, you lovely fellow, you,” and he only had to set eyes on a pretty girl to fall in love on the spot.
Twice every week, on Wednesdays and Fridays, he used to come down into central Seoul. Dropping into Kwich’ŏn, the tea-shop that I run in the Insadong neighborhood, or into some other coffee-shop, he would meet old acquaintances or make new ones; those were the happiest moments in his weekly program. But now his “outing to this world”, as he called life in the poem “Kwich’ŏn” (Back to Heaven), is over.
Soon after his funeral, I began to get the impression that my husband, in going back to heaven, had transferred his affections from people to flowers. When I visited his hillside grave in the municipal cemetery in Uijongbu, just outside Seoul, I was amazed to see how many flowers were growing in the grass around it: humble, short-stemmed dandelions fluttering their yellow heads lightly in the early summer breeze, here and there a solitary purple thistle flourishing, while cosmos and balsam quietly awaited their turn to bloom. The sight of them, growing freely yet all in perfect harmony, reminded me of the tiny flower-bed in front of our house, they looked so homely.
True, on the day of the funeral the pear blossom in the orchard just below the cemetery was at its height and the sight of those trees all covered in white had impressed the mourners deeply, but the masses of flowers we found decorating the grass round the grave when we went there to mark the forty-ninth day after his death made everyone exclaim. Their beauty brought comfort to us, for our hearts had been saddened by the final departure of my husband, the poet Ch’ŏn Sang-pyŏng.
A little later I learned that all that abundance of wild flowers was not the result of mere chance. A few days after we had celebrated the forty-ninth day, when I went to visit the grave alone, I found a young man examining the ground. As we exchanged a few words, I discovered that the cosmos and balsam were gifts from him, a token of his sympathy. He explained that he was a university student living on Yoido Island, in the center of Seoul, and that he loved reading Ch’ŏn Sang-pyŏng’s poems. He had planted the seedlings a few days after the funeral and had come back today because he was curious to see how they were growing.
For a moment I was at a loss for words, overwhelmed with gratitude. I seemed to hear my husband’s happy voice ringing in my ears: “You see, wife. Just look how many people know me. It’s great to be a poet.”
While he was alive, people were drawn to him either because of the way his poems touched them, so simply and directly, or because they liked the perfect innocence of the man himself, the way he lived without any attachments or desires. Old friends and fellow writers, neighbors in Insadong where Kwich’ŏn is located, families and individuals living near our home in Uijongbu: there were so many people who were concerned about him and looked after him. The flowers blossoming around his grave seemed to show that the same affection would continue to surround him now he was dead, and I could not help feeling deeply moved.
He left this world on April 28, 1993. Since then time has flown like an arrow, as we say, rushing by like a stream, and I have had little chance to miss him. In fact I have deliberately tried not to miss him. In an effort to prevent there being any spare moments in which to feel the pain, I have kept myself as busy as before, trying to cope.
In the twenty-two years of our married life, there was never once an occasion when we spent any time apart. We were always side by side, at home or outside, and I never once felt that I was alone. Perhaps that is why now I often have the feeling that he is nearby. I still hear the raucous voice with which he invariably greeted every customer entering Kwich’ŏn if he happened to be sitting there: “Come on in! There’s room, there’s room.”
Late in the evening, after I have locked up and am sitting in the bus going home, I always have a feeling I must hurry, although there is no reason. It must be because I am thinking of how he was always waiting impatiently for me to arrive.
“Mundunga, how come you’re so late? Now tell me, who came today; how many customers did you have?” His eyes in the photo hanging in my room seem to be questioning me, and I find myself explaining that the bus was held up in the traffic, and telling how this and that person dropped in.
The man whose hair I combed and whose feet I washed every day has gone, and my sense of loss is greater than anyone can imagine. I only now realize how painful it is to miss someone, when you can no longer physically touch them to make sure they are there. When the photograph is not sufficient to quiet my heart, I go up to where he is buried. I try to comfort myself: “After all, he lived another five years. You ought to be grateful for that much”.
Back in 1988, my husband was at death’s door with acute cirrhosis of the liver. His stomach had swollen up until he looked like a pregnant mother at term, and the constant diarrhoea meant we had to change him dozens of times a day. The prognosis was grave, the doctor had told me that death was certain, and I was trembling before the impending blow.
The doctor cast apologetic looks at the people around: “It looks as if it’s the end.” He urged me to prepare for the worst, and comforted me. But then a doctor friend of ours arranged for him to be admitted to his clinic in the provincial city of Ch’unch’on and I began to think that we couldn’t just let him die like that. For the next five months I was at the mercy of his sickness as I made daily journeys from Seoul to Ch’unch’ŏn, then from Ch’unch’ŏn back to Seoul, not once missing a single day.
Going to and fro in the bus, and sitting late at night in the hospital room, I would secretly cry as I prayed: “God, please let our Ch’ŏn Sang-pyŏng live another five years! Only five more years!” I have no idea why I asked for five years. I simply said whatever came into my mind.
Perhaps that was what did it. Anyway, the day came when my husband, who had been given just a week to live, walked out of the hospital on his way home. On that day I felt that everything in the whole world was mine.
The years passed. 1993 was the fifth year. My husband entered the world beyond as if he had suddenly found himself out in the fields at nightfall and gone hurrying home. All through the previous winter he had stayed indoors, from October onwards. First he was too poorly, then the weather was too cold for him to venture out. He said he would start coming down to Kwich’ŏn again once the warm days of May arrived. But in the end he made his eternal journey Back to Heaven just a few days before May came. We who were left behind felt all the more regret on that account, but now I am sure that is not what he would have wanted:
I’ll go back to heaven again.
Hand in hand with the dew
that melts at a touch of the dawning day,
I’ll go back to heaven again.
With the dusk, together, just we two,
at a sign from a cloud after playing on the slopes
I’ll go back to heaven again.
At the end of my outing to this beautiful world,
I’ll go back and say: It was beautiful. . . .
I only have to read his poem “Kwich’ŏn” inscribed on the back of the stone beside his grave, and I feel comforted. My husband always considered life in this world as an outing from heaven. As he said, now he has finished his outing and, after staying here for a while, has gone back to heaven.
If people find that I provided him with at least a little chance to live freely and happily while he was here, then I will have no cause to be ashamed of my life either. Rather we comfort each other, when I consider how my outing was so satisfying because I spent my whole lifetime in the company of a man who lived in such utter authenticity.
The road we travelled in the course of our outing, with me supporting him as we advanced hand in hand, was not always so splendid and did not by any means lie smooth. There was a constant icy wind and sometimes it was like a winter road at sunset with flurries of sleet blowing across it. It was certainly no pretty, gently winding lane where you can always stop and quietly rest for a bit before going on, of the kind open to anyone with just a modicum of human affection.
I want to tell you about the many footprints that mark the road we took together. I will be talking about Ch’ŏn Sang-pyŏng the poet, certainly, but there will be footprints of mine too, as I tell you how I lived as the wife of Ch’ŏn Sang-pyŏng the man.