“Flight” by SueJeanne Koh
Almost a quarter-century ago, our dad became a “Gireogi appa.” Gireogi appas, or “wild goose fathers,” evoke both the migratory expanse of geographic distance and traversal of unknown emotional terrains that many Korean families experience. Fathers remain behind while mothers venture to the US or Canada to seek out educational opportunities for their children. But my father was a wild goose father in reverse—he was the one who flew back to Korea while we stayed behind in the States, in the wake
of a 1990s economic recession that left him without enough work. To be fair, our dad had taken shorter “flights” throughout our lives for contracting work in other states as a civil engineer. My memories of childhood are punctuated by that sense of anticipation my sister and I had when he came back from those trips—his hugs along with souvenirs of his travels and gifts; books for me, dolls for my sister. Perhaps those shorter flights were preparation for that longer and more lasting one, one that mirrored his first flight to America in 1969 when he left his entire family behind to pursue his educational dreams.
The last time I saw my father was in December in Seoul, while he was recovering from surgery for pancreatic cancer. He was immobilized by pain and took small bites of food to accommodate his altered digestive system, like a doubly cruel parody of a goose being prepared for foie gras. I couldn’t stay for long because of my own family I had left behind, my husband and small children. I promised that I would be there again soon. But with COVID cases breaking out in Korea, my mom pleaded that I cancel the flight I had booked for March, and so I did. Little did I know that the US would find itself gripped by the same virus, trapping time and movement as in amber. Now, with a mandatory two-week quarantine in place for travel to Korea, visiting my parents seems nearly impossible at this point. Instead, the kids and I catch moments with them over Kakao. Both of them have lost weight. With sixteen hours between us, pandemic time syncs more closely with chemo cycles. Even with my dad’s head wrapped in scarves as his hair has fallen out, the kids seem unfazed and ask him how he is. When he talks to them, we see glimpses of his smile, a smile that flashes me back to when I was a little girl and he smelled of Deep Magic. I long to massage his feet and help lift some of the weight from my mom’s shoulders. I hope it is soon — to squeeze his still strong and smooth hand, to tell him — thank you; to enjoy and stretch the time we all have together before he flies into the clouds one last time.
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