Estimated reading time — 18 minutes
Returning from the vending machine, I would often linger outside of my grandmother’s hospital room and watch my family before joining them. Dad usually stood by the window silently looking out past the treeline. My younger brother, Son-Ook would read a weathered comic book in a chair by the partition curtain. Mom sat on the edge of the bed crying and watching my grandmother make strange hand gestures in the air and mutter garbled words under her breath. Every so often, Mom would lean towards her and say in a broken voice “Hey, 어마. It’s me. Your Han-Eul. Remember me?” But each time, my grandmother’s stare remained drugged, glassy, and fixed on her withered hands that danced above the sheets.
From where I stood, I’d ponder This is what Alzheimer’s looks like. After a certain age, a grandmother’s mind starts lying to her. It pulls the worst sort of trick, swapping out the faces and voices of everyone she ever loved for those of strangers. The trick doesn’t stop at the grandmother, though. It’s also felt by those closest to her (stoic son-in-law, ambivalent grandson, devastated daughter). With the onset of the paranoia, the bed-wetting, and the hallucinations, the helpless bystanders also begin to forget the sort of woman that the grandmother was before the disease. She too becomes a stranger.
The task, then, becomes a kind of mental surgery, a separation of the gentle pre-Alzheimer’s grandmother from her diseased counterpart or, as I like to call it, “the monster.” Only after eight long years was I able to separate the two. Until recently, I would get just close enough to remember the way she smelled or how her cheek felt against mine before memories of the monster invariably muscled their way back to the front. I blame most of these intrusions on one particular memory from a night many Octobers ago. It was the night when I first met the monster face to face.
I grew up in a small fishing village in South Korea called Jinhae. The town is currently undergoing a building boom as contractors look to accommodate growing numbers of men commuting to neighboring Busan for work. However, as a child, I remember Jinhae for it’s narrow shadowy streets cluttered with fishing nets, barrels, and dirty dogs. Brightly-dressed grandmothers chattered at the thresholds of corner stores, waving their arms with hands full of roots and herbs freshly-picked from the mountainsides; withered old grandfathers peeked from dark windows and smoked forlornly; and brown young men squished over the docks in pink galoshes with cigarettes between their cracked lips, sloshing sea water from buckets to wash away the fish guts. The whole village was hunkered down before an emerald curtain of misty mountains that sent regular gusts of wind groundward, relieving residents of the lingering stench of squid and mackerel.
It may all sound picturesque on paper. But when I was young, I hated it. It was boring. I often begged my mother and father to move somewhere less rustic, to a town that had an arcade or, at the very least, a movie screen. Before even opening my mouth, though, I always knew what answer I’d get: We’ve been over this Eun-Young! Your grandmother doesn’t want to move. We can’t very well leave her here alone, can we? This, in turn, would send me running over to my “halmoni’s” (Korean for “grandmother”) house where I’d ask for perhaps the hundredth time why she wouldn’t consider living in a newer nicer place. As I saw it, the case practically made itself. My halmoni’s house was tiny. It was a one story concrete tin-roofed edifice with a sliding glass door and a bank of weathered windows along the front and side. She often spent her nights in one of the three rooms huddled by a smoky old charcoal heater changing out buckets that caught leaks in the ceiling. It was a dive and I couldn’t see why she wouldn’t want to live somewhere more comfortable. But, like my parents, halmoni always gave the same answer: “Eun-Young, you know that I want you to move to a place that will make you happy. I have told your mother and father so. But I cannot come with you.” When I asked her why, she would mutter some platitudes about old people being stubborn before scuttling into the kitchen. Even at a young age, I sensed that she was deliberately hiding her true reasons for not wanting to leave Jinhae. But in Korean culture, it’s disrespectful to question an elder’s wishes beyond a certain point.
Eventually, I just stopped asking. I resolved myself to the inevitable and buckled down for a tedious life that would likely culminate with a marriage to some sad forlorn fisherman. Ok. So, I could be a little melodramatic, but from the mind of a 10-year-old, this was honestly what my prospects looked like. Day and night I thought about little else besides getting out of Jinhae, getting to that place beyond the horizon where everyone was a stranger and the neon lights buzzed ’til dawn, where women wore dresses and men smoked European cigarettes. The city. That’s where I wanted to go. Seoul. Not Busan, the closer and smaller of the two. Seoul. That was the one. The Holy Grail, the full house, and the hole-in-one all wrapped up in a million dollar bow.
I had never been to Seoul. Only seen photos. That was one of the main reasons I liked to visit my halmoni’s house, for the “Photo of Seoul.” Despite becoming a borderline recluse later in life, as a young adult, she had done a fair share of traveling. This was largely thanks to a traditional Korean musical instrument called the “gayageum.” From a young age, she had excelled at this large wooden instrument played by plucking 12 thick strings. By middle school, she was one of the top players in the region. By high school, she was one of the best in the country. It was during her junior year of high school that she won top prize in a regional contest, thereby making her eligible to compete in the national competition held in Seoul each year. In the end, my halmoni didn’t place in the contest. Yet, that didn’t stop her from becoming a sort of celebrity both within the family and around town. So proud were Jinhae residents of little Eee Seul Bee’s trip to Seoul that blown up photos of her performing on stage were plastered all over town, everywhere from the post office to the sashimi restaurants down by the docks.
This is the same photo that I’d pore over for hours whenever I’d visit my halmoni’s house. Although framed and covered in glass, she always kept it in the lowest cabinet of a large dresser in her living room. I’d pull it out and hold it up to my face, centimeters from my nose. I’d note every detail. The V-shaped cut in the end of her “hanbok” (traditional Korean dress) ribbon. The ripples, shadows, and edges of the heavy gold curtain behind her on the stage. Her fingers forming cryptic signs, captured in mid strum by the camera lens. The fragile but set and certain eyes cast downwards towards the strings. More than anything else, though, I’d focus on a hidden look of pure joy in her face. She looked nervous, yes. Excited and confident, too. But there was also the unhindered starstruck joy of a country girl who had finally made it to the city. The photo itself was taken inside a large auditorium. It could have been anywhere. But what made it a “photo of Seoul” was that look on my grandmother’s face of being young and out of her element. I’d stare into the fragmented photographic grain of her eyes and share in her joy of escape from wind and salt and mackerel guts.
From the photo, I’d wander over to a tall dark wardrobe on the other side of halmoni’s living room and squeak the ancient doors open. Pushing past the blouses, coats, and slacks, I’d come to one garment wrapped in plastic. Her hanbok. The same one she’d worn at the concert some 40 years before. The skirt was rose pink. Iridescent gusts of wind swirled across its folds. The sleeves were of soft ivory and the vest and ribbon were a milky blue adorned with geometric symbols the meanings of which I’d never know. At that age, it was the most beautiful piece of clothing I had ever seen. I was convinced that it held magic powers. Were I to put it on, I somehow knew that it would transport me out of Jinhae back to the stage in Seoul where it had made its grand debut so many years before. I never never seemed to have the chance, though. My halmoni was a generous woman, but for whatever reason, she was particularly protective towards her hanbok. I could look at it all I wanted. But like the prized figure of a toy collector, it never left its package. Still, I often dreamed about wearing that hanbok. Luckily (or so I thought at the time), I got my chance a few months later.
It was around this time when halmoni began displaying some of the early signs of what everyone thought was run-of-the-mill dementia. She’d forget the names of ingredients while cooking, wear different colored socks, and confuse relatives with one another at Chuseok (Korea’s equivalent to Thanksgiving). Nothing all that uncommon for a woman in her 60s, we thought. But then the memory loss got worse. For instance, upon visiting her one evening, my mother found halmoni sitting in a dark kitchen with the table set for two. In a dazed way, she asked “언제 우리 아빠 가 집에 올거예요?” which in English translates to “When is your father coming home?” Not such a strange question, right? The problem was that my mother’s father (halmoni’s husband) had been dead for ten years. When my mother explained this to her, halmoni’s eyes contorted in disbelief. Her head drifted downward like a birthday balloon short on air, until she glared lost and bewildered into her lap. Within a month, she couldn’t be left alone for fear that she’d set fire to the house or wander off during the night. My younger brother and I gradually took over more chores at home as my mother started living at halmoni’s place. I would still see hamoni every now and then. Only now, those eyes that had once been so pleased by my presence had grown glazed, indifferent, and at the worst moments, even suspicious. My “hi, grandma” would be answered with a prying and guarded “너누군니?” (“Who are you?”). Eventually, I started going over to her house only when my mother needed me to bring something. And even on those occasions, I wouldn’t see my grandmother. My
mother said that it was for the best until my halmoni “got better.”
It was on one such visit to halmoni’s house (delivering eggs) when my mother met me at the door, clutching a bloodied dishtowel to her thumb. She had cut it while preparing dinner and needed to run to the doctor’s house to have it stitched. Looking pale but calm, she explained that my halmoni had taken her nightly sleep aid and was now sleeping deeply in her room. “Sit in the living room,” she said. “Color or listen to the radio. Just keep watch over the house and I’ll come back very soon, ok?” Before I could say anything, she was already around the corner, clopping down the street in her house shoes.
Inside, I did as my mother had told me. I sat down in the living room and tuned the transistor to a music station. There was a creased coloring book and a rusted coffee can full of crayon stubs on the bookshelf. I pulled them down and started coloring in the the few remaining patches of white. But after about 20 minutes, I got bored. My mind drifted to the “Photo of Seoul” over in the bottom cabinet of the dresser. I took it out and inspected it as I always did, noting the long lacquered plank of the gayageum, my halmoni’s lustrous eyes, and the hanbok, that dazzling gown of pink and blue.
It was while looking at the photo that a truly blasphemous idea popped into my little 10-year-old brain. Chalk it up to all children (even the best-behaved ones) being opportunists at heart. But by combining the two factors of my mother’s wounded thumb and the sleeping pills that my halmoni had taken, I, little Eun-Young, made a startling discovery. I was alone. I mean really alone. At that moment, there were technically no adults in the house. In other words, there was no one to stop me from engaging in the one activity that was strictly forbidden in my halmoni’s house, namely, the wearing of her hanbok. Upon having this epiphany, I sat motionless for a few moments just staring in the direction of the tall dark wardrobe. It seemed to stare down at me, judging me for the crime that I was yet to commit. I switched off the radio, got up, crossed the room slowly and silently like a tight-rope walker and pulled the doors open. And there it was, already separated from the other garments, down at the end of the closet rod, in full sight, as if it had been waiting for me. After taking one long look at the door of my grandmother’s room, after listening harder than I ever had in my life for a footstep or a rustle of sheets, I unhooked the dress from the rod, pulled the plastic up over the top and slid it from its hanger. I got undressed and stepped into the hole of floor surrounded by the skirt, splayed out in rosy ripples across the vinyl floor. I pulled it up, resting the straps on my shoulders, then adorned the ivory blouse, and finally the blue vest. I tied the ceremonial knot in the ribbon on the front, then rustled over to open the bathroom door, the other side of which had a full-length mirror.
My initial reaction upon seeing myself in the glass was mixed. It didn’t fit perfectly as it had in all of my dreams. The sleeves were too long. I couldn’t even see my fingers. And the dress was pooled all around my ankles. Yet, there was still a sense of magic in wearing something so precious, so charged with memories. It had been to Seoul. The city lights had shone upon it; perhaps taxis had splashed puddle-water on its skirt. Dropping my nose to its hem, I imagined that I could even smell the steam and grime of the subway. What I’d give to go where you’ve been, I thought as I nuzzled the giant collar with my chin. With eyes closed, I swayed there before the mirror, lost in my daydreams and the –
“너누군니?” (“Who are you?”)
I spun around to find someone (or something) standing in the doorway of my grandmother’s bedroom. It wore no pants or shoes. Only a large baggy diaper and a floral shirt with stains all across the front of it. Its arms and legs looked to be nothing but bone, covered in thin layers of bruised sagging skin. And the face. My God. The bottom row of gray crooked teeth jutted out from between two cracked and scowling lips. Red scratches and brown scabs covered its cheeks and forehead. One of the eyes was blackened, making the great staring orb in the center all the more piercing. Tilting its head back, it stared down the length of its prominent nose at me with that one large eye. My breath caught in my throat. I remember thinking that it was the most frightening creature I had ever seen.
“What are you doing in my HOUSE?!”, it wailed. The final word crackled with spit. It lisped as if there was something wrong with its tongue.
My house? I thought. What does it mean by my house? At the time, I was too frightened and shocked to put the pieces together (the diaper, the familiar shirt, the past month of not seeing my halmoni even once), to realize that the thing I was staring at was none other than my own grandmother. Because I couldn’t make the connection, my young mind came to the quick conclusion that this “kway mool” (and, indeed it was a “monster”) had broken into the house. What’s more, it seemed convinced that it belonged there. Not only was it a monster. It was also insane.
It took one step over the threshold of the bedroom, never taking its eyes from mine. “What do you want?!,” it hissed. “Money?! Jewelry?!” It dragged its bare feet forward another step. Instinctively, I backed up, but the bathroom door was still open behind me. I couldn’t go any further. Another step. “My dress?!,” it screeched. “Is that what you want?!” Its large wrathful eyes drifted down and ran greedily along every line and fold of the hanbok. Long ragged breaths broke from its chest. The smell of urine and decay wafted across the room from where it stood.
It stopped for a moment under the fluorescent light in the middle of the ceiling. The electric glare lit its withered limbs, but a wild nest of hair atop its head kept any light from reaching its face. Mouth, nose, cheeks, and chin seemed to disappear, leaving only the eyes…eyes that I’ll never forget until the day I die. They were the eyes of a creature that had strayed beyond the boarders of reason, sanity, and hope. Eyes that had seen hell and wanted nothing more than to do harm, to share the pain that was too great for them to carry alone.
“That dress,” it said, pointing a twitching finger at me. “TAKE OFF THAT DRESS!!!,” it roared. Mechanically, my fingers shot down to my chest and began fumbling with the knot on the front. But having never worn a hanbok before, I had tied the knot incorrectly. I couldn’t get it undone. No matter how I burrowed my fingernails under the folds, it wouldn’t loosen.
I looked down for just a second. When I looked back up, the thing had started to charge. With both arms outstretched, it ran towards me screaming. But at the last instant, I ducked to one side. The thing crashed full force into the mirror, hitting its head and shattering the glass. It bent forward, clutching its face and whining. When it took its hands away, I saw that the mirror had sliced it across the forehead. Blood dribbled down, covering its eyes, nose, and cheeks. It looked around for a moment, dazed. But when it caught sight of me, cowering in the opposite corner of the room, its bloodied face curled into a grotesque scowl. With another scream, it ran at me. Fortunately, a door leading to the back yard was just to my left. I flung it open and ran out behind the house. A path lead off into the woods to a square of cement where my halmoni kept rows of “onggis,” large earthen pots used for storing kimchi, daenjang, and other types of food. Having played among the pots for years, I knew that most of them were full. But a few particularly large ones near the back were empty. My halmoni kept gardening supplies in those.
I heard a snap of branches and a thud somewhere behind me. Looking over my shoulder as I ran, I saw that the kway mool had tripped and fallen, likely from blood running into its eyes. That gave me time to run to one of the three largest onggis, remove the heavy ceramic lid, pull out all of the shovels and gloves, and lower myself into a crouched position inside before replacing the top. From a chipped section in the lid, I was able to see out onto the path and the rows of pots in front of mine. Within a few seconds, the thing stumbled into view there on the path, in front of the onggis. Its face, hands, and shirt were covered in blood. After making a tentative glance further down the path, it turned its attention to the pots. Growling and breathing hoarsely, it began lifting lids from atop the onggis and tossing them onto the ground. There were about 20 pots altogether and I knew that it wouldn’t be long before it reached the back row and discovered me. I clasped a hand to my mouth to stifle the sobs that broke from me uncontrollably. Another lid crashed onto the concrete. And another. Wiping blood from its face, the kway mool grunted, lifted the top of another pot, and checked
inside. Crash! Then another. Crash! Another. Crash! Another.
Then there were only the three large pots remaining. I reached down near my ankles, feeling for any object that I had missed while clearing out the onggi, anything that could be used as a weapon. But my fingers came up with only dirt and sand. I prepared to spring out as soon as the lid was lifted off.
Then, just as the kway mool prepared to lift the lid of the onggi beside mine, a cry came from down the path, near the house. “어마!” (“mother!”), it screamed. It was my mother’s voice. “Eun-Young!,” it cried again. Footsteps thudded down the path. My mother arrived at the pots and screamed when she saw the filthy bloodied creature. But to my surprise, she cried out “어마!” again and ran to it. She embraced it, stroked its face with her bandaged hand, and checked the wound on its forehead. And all at once, the kway-mool that had shown such ferocity and rage moments before became dazed, bewildered, and docile. Its thin mud-spattered legs shook as if they’d give out at any moment. The diaper it wore was sagging and over-saturated. Its cold white feet matched the color of the concrete upon which it stood. Suddenly, it became the most pathetic thing that I had ever seen.
Stumbling towards my mother like a child wanting to be held, it suddenly sobbed “My hanbok! How can I compete without my hanbok?” It reached my mother and the two held one another. A cold wind whistled around them through the tall moaning trees. The orange sun dipped behind the treeline and the forest darkened. “Please!,” it begged my mother. “Bring back my hanbok! How can I win the competition without it? How can I win and get out of this horrible town?!”
At that point, in a state of exhausted confusion, I straightened up inside the pot and lifted the lid off of the onggi. My mother caught sight of me. When she saw the soiled hanbok, her teary befuddled eyes settled into a troubled stare of realization. Without being told, she seemed to know what had happened. “Are you alright?,” she asked over the creature’s shoulder. I nodded. “Then run to the house and call an ambulance for your halmoni.” And at that moment, as I clambered out of the pot, my young mind made the connection, arrived at the realization that had been blooming since my mother had called the kway mool “어마.” Before running to make the call, I stopped in front of my mother and the “kway mool.” Our eyes met. Mine and those of that shivering injured beautiful woman whom I’d known my entire life. My halmoni. My very sick halmoni. When she saw the hanbok, she crumbled into fresh sobs and pointed towards the garment with folded hands as if begging. Fingering the now dirty dress, I looked up at her. “I…I’ll wash it for you,” I said, “and return it in the morning. I know that you need it for the competition.” She nodded. Sobbing, she whispered “내”(“Yes”). And with that promise, I dashed down the path, letting the tears come as I ran.
My grandmother would never return home from the ambulance ride that evening. After having her forehead stitched up at the hospital, she was placed in a special facility where she’d be less likely to harm herself as per the doctor’s recommendation. She stayed there for three months. Often she’d be in a medicated state of sedation, usually following a particularly violent episode. When she wasn’t sedated, her moods would shift between two extremes. There were the fits of rage and bouts of agitation, sure. But as she approached death, her disposition during the final month became characterized more by a heavy look of loss and sadness. She’d spend hours by the window, her watery eyes squinted and darting about as if trying to piece something together. Speech eventually left her. When she did speak, it often came out as a jumble of incoherent sounds. We looked to the tone of what she said to determine its meaning. Most of the time, it was sad or inquiring. Asking a question or commenting on something or someone long since gone.
There was, however, one thing that was always sure to raise her spirits. Her hanbok. From the morning when I first brought it freshly-cleaned to the facility, until the day she died, just looking at that dress put a smile on her face. All of the anger, sadness, or bewilderment that she might have been feeling would melt away at the sight of it. Even after she lost her grasp on the names of people and things, my halmoni’s broken mind showed enough mercy to afford her one memory…her trip to Seoul. Even a week before her death, you could lean close to her lips and distinguish single soft words whispered on the air of her breath: “가야금”(“gayageum”). “대회”(“contest”) “이길요”(“win”). And as she spoke, her small thin fingers would strum invisible strings in the air over her hospital bed.
Upon halmoni’s death, my mother let me in on a secret that my grandmother had told very few people during her life: She had never really gotten over losing that contest in Seoul. She had seen it as her ticket out of Jinhae, a town which (like me), she had found a bit too small for her dreams. Placing in that contest would have meant automatic acceptance into one of the top traditional music conservatories in Seoul. It would have meant escape from the life of a fisherman’s wife, a fate that was likely to befall her were she to stay in Jinhae. She may have held her head high upon returning to Jinhae after losing the contest. But she cried at night for months afterwards over her perceived failure. With her parents having no money to pay for a university education, my halmoni did end up staying in Jinhae where she married my grandfather, a kind but close-mouthed fisherman. She gave birth to four children and, over the years, she seemed to obtain what some might call a sense of happiness or at least contentment.
But with the onset of the Alzheimer’s, my mother in particular discovered how haunted my halmoni had been most of her life by that missed chance in Seoul so many years before. “That’s why she’d never move out of Jinhae,” my mother told me, looking down. “After losing that contest, she became terrified of failure to the point where she refused to try anything new. Although you never saw that side of her, Eun-Young, she was a hardened pessimist at heart.” At that point, my mother walked over to the closet in our house and unhooked my halmoni’s hanbok from within. It had been kept there since her passing. My mother brought it over to me and laid it in my lap. “Your halmoni and I both know how much you loved it,” she said. “I think she would have wanted you to have it, Eun-Young.” It felt so heavy sitting there on my legs, so full, thick, and charged with memories and meaning.
I won’t lie. The dress also inspired a degree of fear in me. At that young age, I couldn’t help but continually associate the dress with that night, the night I had seen my halmoni deranged and deformed into something ugly and unrecognizable. Seeing the hanbok, I invariably saw the “thing” that had taken the form of my beloved grandmother. Though the memories grew duller over time, my dreams were haunted well into my teenage years by the “kway mool” and the wide watery hate of its eyes. I’d dream that it was hunkered in a dark corner of my bedroom at night, mumbling something as it slid blood clots and strands of hair between its dirty fingers. Suddenly, it would grunt and shoot a glance over at me. As it started to stand up, I’d try to squirm out of bed and realize that I was wearing the hanbok. And for some reason, the hanbok was heavy, so heavy that I couldn’t move with it on. Once it had reached its full height, the kway mool would just stand there for a moment, looking at me with those big mean eyes ringed in bruises and blood. A bestial screech would break from its lungs and it would stomp across the room at me. And just before it reached my bed, I’d wake. I never told my family about the nightmares. But for eight years, I never took the hanbok out of my closet…never even looked at it for fear that it would bring back memories of the monster.
Then, during my senior year of high school, I received a letter offering me a large scholarship to a prestigious university in Seoul. For some reason, the moment I opened the letter, my halmoni’s hanbok came to mind. And all at once, I knew what needed to be done with it. I packed the dress and brought it to Seoul with me when I moved into my dorm. On the night when my final exams ended for the semester, I took the subway out to Bukhansan National Park. There, among the pines, I gathered some stones into a circle and filled the center with leaves and branches. From a duffle bag, I pulled out my halmoni’s hanbok and placed it there in the middle. Within two minutes of lighting the kindling underneath, the ivory sleeves of the dress were winged with flame. After the gauzy undergarment of the skirt caught, the fire poured up over the vest and engulfed the entire dress.
As it hissed and cracked, I looked up above the smoke, above the treetops, and imagined a young woman starstruck and giddy, thrumming the heavy strings of a gaygeum before a stern city audience. I saw her years later as a sad gentle woman with graying hair who stole glances at a photo kept in the bottom cabinet of a dresser once her children had gone to bed. Then came a spindly old woman warped and contorted by disease and age. So mangled became she by her own mind that her own granddaughter didn’t recognize her and mistook her for a monster. Finally, I saw her withered and dying in a hospital bed with the garbled remnants of a dream murmured on her breath. To all of these women, I said, “I’ve brought your hanbok home, Halmoni. Jinhae is far behind. I have escaped that dirty old town for the two of us. And here I will live for you and me both.”
And with these words, the monster died.
Credit: Daniel DuBois