Saying goodbye [and hello] to my father
by Jay Kim
A few weeks ago, on Wednesday, April 11, I received a phone call from my mother at 6:30am. She never calls that early so when I saw her name on the caller ID, I figured it was important. Groggy and still half asleep, I picked up. She said my name, slowly and deliberately. I could tell something was wrong. Tension and anxiety were on the rise. As though the cadence and tone of each word mattered more than anything else in the world at that moment, my mother said to me, “Your father died.”
You must know a bit about my history to understand why my father’s passing was an odd and confusing situation for me. I was born in 1979 in a city called Incheon, South Korea to a man named Won Sik Kim and his wife Young Soon. Won Sik was a kind man whose weaknesses were alcohol and gambling. His weaknesses became demons right around the time I was born and my mother struggled to fight them for her husband but sadly he chose not to fight and eventually crumbled beneath the weight of his vices. After a few destructive years of major dysfunction and pain, my mother packed our bags and we moved to California. While I don’t remember leaving, the move left me with an impression of my father. All my life, I’ve thought of him as an absent, negligent, selfish man who didn’t care enough to be present as a dad or husband.
I’ve heard that we often learn more about a person in their dying than in their living. This has been completely true for me regarding my father. Just 24 hours after learning that he had passed, my mother and I were on a plane to Korea. For the next two days we spent time with family we hadn’t seen in years, most of whom I didn’t recognize at all. I listened as they shared stories of my father. They painted a picture of him that was vastly different than the one I’ve carried around in my head all these years. They talked about how compassionate and gentle he was, how he’d always laugh the loudest when something was funny and cry the hardest when something was sad. I saw old pictures of much happier times. For the first time I saw pictures of my parents’ wedding day and pictures of my father as a young man, free spirited, goofy, handsome, and optimistic. I found notes he’d written on the back of old baby pictures of me that he’d kept. One of my aunts told me about a running joke in the family that my father was constantly ruining wedding pictures because of his love of photography. He’d always get in the way of the professional photographers with his own camera, fighting for a better angle. I learned that my father was a fiercely loyal friend, always happy to be a listening ear over a few beers and grilled meat. I found out that a number of years ago he battled and beat stomach cancer only to be met with the news a short while later that he was suffering from lung cancer. Years of abuse to his body took their toll and he couldn’t fight any longer.
It’s a strange thing, meeting your father for the first time in his passing. But that’s exactly how I feel. In his dying, I was introduced to a man I never knew before. And in some ways, I was introduced to myself. I am more like my father than I ever realized. We share the same personality and the same artistic tendencies. For a short while I wanted to become a filmmaker. So did he. Eventually I dove into music and guitars. He dove into photography. We are both avid readers, content to lose ourselves for hours in the pages of an interesting story. We are both fanatical sports fans. I know now why the combination of good beer and grilled meat is the best way to win me over. I am indeed my father’s son.
I was surprised when a pastor from a local church, along with about twenty congregants, came to my father’s memorial service. My mother and I weren’t aware that he had any connection to a church, much less that he was a Christian. The pastor told us that my father had been diligently attending his church, each and every Sunday, sitting quietly in the front pew, for the past five years. When he first started attending the church, he told his pastor, “My son’s a pastor too. In America, actually. So I figured, if my son’s a pastor, I should start attending church.” Shortly after that, my father encountered Jesus and spent the final years of his life discovering God’s love for him, praying diligently for me, and giving himself to the local church.
It’s difficult to describe in words how shaken and moved I am by this part of my father’s story. I am grateful that God would weave his grace and love into a story as tattered and torn as that of my father and me. But this is how our God works. He takes the most broken, mends things together, and redeems the rubble into the most beautiful mosaic. And so today I remember that my father, despite the mess he made of life, was a good man, kind and compassionate, loved by God and family and friends. I remember that in spite of his absence, he has been and will continue to be a massive part of who I am, a backdrop against which to color the story of my own life, within the lines of his successes and outside the lines of his failures. Most importantly, I remember that he is my father, I am his son, and we are both children of the Most High, rescued by love, redeemed by grace, remade into the sons of God neither of us could ever become on our own.