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Flower of Sharon
I pick up the red phone in the vice principal’s office.
“I’m coming to pick you up at school now because we’re going to go see grandpa at the hospital so ...”
“What! Mom, is something wrong with Grandpa?”
“Well . . . I’ll explain to you in the car. Wait in front of the maple tree!”
A cold shiver goes down my spine. It’s July 20. In one week, Grandpa turns 78. He also celebrates the tenth anniversary of his diagnosis with Alzheimer’s disease. He will not recognize any of my family’s faces, not even mine, but he will celebrate it just the same. And we will hold back our tears and put on our happy faces, just the way we have done for the past nine years.
I walk down the crimson hallway to grab my bag. I forget my habit of counting each cracked brick in the gray pathway or fingering broken locks dangling from age-worn lockers. Today, there are just too many.
“I have to go to the hospital.”
Tears swell in my eyes as I interrupt class to speak to Mr.Walton.
“I’ll be missing the rest of school because . . .”
I blur the end of my sentence but something tells me he understands. 40 pairs of dry eyes stare at my pair of red, blurry eyes as I throw history textbooks in my bag. The silence is suffocating and I half-run out of the room, tears dropping on the threadbare carpet. Class resumes immediately.
I run past the chipped staircase next to the theater. Two posters hanging behind the theater yell, “Come watch Alice in Wonderland! A show you’ll never forget for the rest of your life!” Alice in Wonderland. The first play Grandpa ever came to watch me star in. It was only the beginning of his Alzheimer’s and he only forgot simple things like car keys and phone numbers. I remember playing the ten of Diamonds in Kindergarten and forgetting my only line “Why of course my Majesty!” and Grandpa laughing. It wasn’t a mean laugh; it was a beautiful ho-ho-ho that made you feel better about forgetting your only line and having several hundred parents laugh at you. And he gave me ten roses after my performance-“ten beauties for the ten of diamonds, cutey.” I wonder if he will ever forget that play for the rest of his life.
I dash in front of the science building, past the vending machine that sells Cheez-its, Goldfish, Cheetos, and apple-flavored chips. It’s the only vending machine at school that sells apple-flavored chips. Another childhood temptation crosses my mind. About as chewy, sweet, and pink as temptation can get, animal cracker after animal cracker stampeded endangered my nutritious diet in second grade. When Mom forgot to pack lunch before she left, ‘guess I’ll just have some more of these’ and when Dad came home with no dinner, ‘once again, animal crackers save the day’.
And then Grandpa started cutting green apples in the shape of animal crackers. I don’t know how he did it because it was the third year of his disease and he was starting to forget how to stop his Toyota at a red light and how to read fairy tales to my sister and me at bedtime. But he cut those apples into such thin slices of strange, exotic animals, ones he called ‘zebrelephants’ and ‘rhinostriches’, that I had to try at least two before giving in to junk food. And then three. And then twenty. And by the time I craved animal crackers again, there were too many different animals that I had to try, and strangely, they all tasted much more delicious.
Quarter in, chips out. I stuff apple chips into my backpack, hoping maybe he’ll remember me now, just maybe.
The hundred year-old maple tree stands next to Greg Cops Street, named after the first principal at the high school. When Grandpa and I lived next to the “big red school that someday you’ll go to, cutey”, our childhood games often revolved around that majestic tree. There was Arirang, a Korean version of the game green-light-red-light, where a Chanter would sing a short song facing a large tree and turn around immediately to catch anyone who was not frozen still. But when the Chanter was singing, everyone else would sprint to touch the maple tree first and win. If you fell, or even twitched your pinky after each song, a mean Chanter could always call you out. Grandpa was a very mean Chanter.
Until one day when he stood facing the maple tree and started singing “The flower of Sharon is . . . the flower of Sharon is” and kept repeating the line when five of my fifth grade friends and I stood desperate for him to finish the verse so one of us could tag the tree and win. Finally, sticky sweat dripping and stinging my eyes under the scorching sun, I ran up to him, ignoring the stifled giggling of my friends.
“I don’t remember the song, cutey. I don’t remember what comes after ‘the flower of Sharon is’. I used to know this, cutey, I used to.”
“Grandpa, why can’t you just sing the song? I just wanted to have some fun with my closest friends and you can’t remember two lines!”
“Was it ‘the flower of Sharon is withering’? No, I think it was ‘drooping’? Am I right, cutey?”
“Grandpa, why can’t you just sing the stupid song?”
Then, I did something I regret until today. I started sobbing loudly to ‘punish’ my inconsiderate Grandpa who had damaged my preteen reputation in front of my friends. Of course I knew why he could not finish the Arirang song. He was entering his sixth year of Alzheimer’s and losing his memory so quickly like a cascade of snapshots pouring out of his mind. I could no longer expect him to remember our house number or even the lyrics his favorite song. But at least for that moment, I wanted to be a normal girl with a Grandpa who mostly remembered things, not one with a Grandpa who rarely remembered anything.
My embarrassment escaped when my startled friends muttered good-byes and headed home but even years after, my guilt from watching Grandpa apologize too many times that day and seeing him struggle to remember the last words of the song has scarred my heart, a punishment I wholly deserve.
“Your eyes are red,” is the first thing my sister says to me when I ride my mom’s car in front of the maple tree. “Did you cry? What a crybaby.”
Her words only bounce off my ears and I hastily wipe off some tears.
“Mom, what’s wrong with Grandpa? Is he having problems with medication? Is he getting surgery today? Is he all cured now and . . .”
“Grandpa’s lung is faltering and the doctors are worrying he’ll be gone in a day or two.”
She spits out the sentence like a cobra stabbing venom into its prey. Dark red poison penetrates my skin and strangles my heart.
“Does that mean . . . will grandpa . . . but it’s only been ten years . . . that’s not really going to happen, right Mom?”
“I don’t know but I hope not, honey. I’m praying and praying.”
Mom drops us off in front of the hospital to go park and my sister and I run across the scarlet-colored corridor to a room sporting a sign that reads Grandpa’s name: Kim Ki-Yong. Grandpa is tucked under soft white blankets my relatives have brought, but his bewildered eyes are blood shot and lifeless as they stare into open space. Aunts and uncles dressed in traditional, black hanbok crowd his bed holding hands and praying. Grandma is clutching tissues soaked with mascara-stained tears but more tears run down her wrinkled peach-color skin, dropping on to Grandpa’s snowy blanket.
I tiptoe into the silent room. My hands are quivering as I approach the bed, a bag of apple-flavored chips clenched in my left fist. An inconsistent beep-beep-beep is coming from the stethograph connected to Grandpa’s emaciated wrist. I squirm between my relatives to the front of the bed and the rustle of my bag of chips attracts Grandpa’s weary eyes.
“You are here,” Grandpa murmurs. “You are here to play with me.”
“Grandpa, can you tell who I am?” I wave the rose-colored bag of chips in front of his face. The nostalgic scent of apple hovers in the air.
“Do you remember when you cut apples into animal shapes for me when I was in second grade and when you sang the ‘flower of Sharon’ song and I got so mad at you and I’m so sorry for yelling at you when it wasn’t your fault. Please don’t die, Grandpa, please don’t die.”
“You are here,” Grandpa repeats. He’s not looking at me and then I realize he doesn’t recognize who I am. He doesn’t recognize any of us. The bag of apple chips falls to the floor and bursts.
The stethograph starts blinking uncontrollably and the beep-beep-beep sound slows.
“No, Grandpa, you were wrong.” His blurry eyes meet mine but I am no longer crying. “The flower of Sharon is not withering. It’s blooming.”
Trying to ignore the darkening stethograph and Grandpa’s heavy eyes, I start to sing.
“The flower of Sharon is in full bloom.” Grandma, with one hand resting on my shoulder, joins in. “Summer is here and the lilacs and lilies are flowering at last! What a beautiful sunny day!”
The song ends in a high note. And with a final shrill ‘BEEP’, Grandpa succumbs to the forces of nature on a sunny day, his hand tightly wrapped around mine.