A Korean poet wrote:
The wind blew down gingko leaves last night,
scattering them in the courtyard.
The errand boy emerged from the door with a broom.
No, I said, don’t sweep them away, no, no!
Are fallen leaves not leaves any more?
Autumn is around the corner.
Though I love the color and the cool, crisp air of the season, I’m not glad that another fall is approaching. When autumn ends, winter will follow, according to nature’s rule, and when that ends, too, a New Year will greet us with its own pomp and glory whether you like it or not, and then comes my birthday.
It’s been a few years since I dreaded my approaching birthday, but it doesn’t get easier with time. I wish I could pack and leave somewhere faraway but that’s not the solution because when the time comes, I will gain another year, rain or shine and no matter how far away I’m from home.
Looking back, my mother was more courageous than I am now; she had talked about dying and death while she was in her 50s, when I was still in Korea.
Influenced by Confucius’ “life-after-death” theory and the Christian doctrine of good vs. evil and heaven and purgatory, she had been particularly excited after acquiring two burial plots for herself and Father in the early 1960s in the Catholic cemetery surrounded by tall mountains. Before her 59th birthday, she had picked her burial dress; her tombstone and what should be written on it, and the priest who’d celebrate her funeral service — her first-born, my eldest brother, Father John, who still serves in the Diocese of Busan, Korea, as a retired shepherd.
Unlike Mom, I’ve not thought much about death and dying, because I’ve been too busy living. I still enjoy most of what I’ve been doing all these years — playing music, writing, doing crafts, bargain hunting, only to mention a few.
Yet, I do have a burial plot in South Kansas City that I bought a few years ago on sale — 50 percent off. At the time, I had suggested to my husband that we should get two adjoining plots, one for me, one for him, all for the price of one, but he had refused. He talked about cremation!
“You die only once,” he said as if dying is a privilege and he wanted best out of it. “I want to turn to ash and dissipate in the air — simple and clean! I can’t deal with the burial service, where people would squeeze tears!”
“What about me?” I said, feeling like an orphan. “I’ll lie all alone, in the dark, no one to talk to!”
“You’ll have neighbors,” he said without any signs of sympathy. “A cemetery is a large place filled with people gone before you, some gone hundreds years ago! You might find someone to talk to, I’m sure.”
“I’m not sociable, and I still speak with a Korean accent!”
“Well, people change after death,” he said. “You might finally get rid of your Korean accent and be sociable to people around you.”
Do I really want to? Our conversation ended there and I have not uttered another word about death and dying since. But now that I’m approaching another birthday, I find myself thinking about it again.
What’s it like, dying? What would it take to die peacefully and gracefully? I don’t want to die in a hospital. I want to die in my own sweet home, while listening to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony (the Chorale Symphony.)
Gingko leaves will soon turn lemony yellow and other leaves in their own given color, and you and I, too, will be gone someday, according to heaven’s rule.
When the wind drops leaves and scatter them everywhere, I’ll take a few snapshots before my husband clears them away with his leaf-blower, so that I can look at them later. For now, I want to focus on today, this moment, instead of worrying about my birthday six months away.
Retired musician and free- lance columnist Therese Park has written three novels about Korea’s modern history.