I'd just stepped out of the bathroom when my phone rang. With my robe barely tied around me, I ran to get it just in case it was from the hospital. When I looked at the caller-id and saw Ji Tae's number, my heart started beating at triple rate. "Hello? What happened?"
"Hey, nothing happened. Nothing's changed, okay?" he said in a soothing voice. "Calm down."
I let out a sigh of relief. I picked up my towel and dried my hair. "So what's going on? Why did you call?"
"I just wanted to make sure that everything was fine over there. Is your brother okay?"
I looked in the direction of his room. "He's asleep. I think he got exhausted at the hospital."
"Okay. Good," he said, meaning it. "And what about you? Are you okay?"
"I'm fine." Did he want something or was he just calling for calling's sake?
"Good. Your sister's going to stay at the hospital with your Appa. She says she doesn't have any classes tomorrow but I think she's lying but it'll be fine. Ehm... they looked fine when I left them so don't worry too much. I guess I'll see you tomorrow."
But why? "Ji Tae, there's no need to come tomorrow," I said in the sweetest tone I could manage. "Thanks for everything but we'll be okay without you, alright?"
He paused for a few moments then said, "Okay, Hee Soo, it looks like there's some kind of misunderstanding here."
I rolled my eyes. "About what?"
"I get the impression that you think that I was at the hospital because of you or something like that."
"When did I say that? It's just that--"
"You may not believe me," he interrupted, "and frankly speaking, I couldn't care less if you did but I do care about your mother and I have for a long time."
So what? That wasn't exactly the point. "I'm ju—"
"I know she's your mother," he continued not waiting for my response, "but you really don't have any right to tell me where I can or cannot be. Your father is the only person who matters and I've spoken to him and he says it's okay for me to visit her so you really need to get off my case." The edge in his voice was practically palpable.
"It's really not about you and has never been," he contined, "and how I feel about your mother has absolutely nothing to do with you so stop trying to interfere. Okay?"
I didn't say anything but I couldn't ignore the fact that I'd suddenly felt a tad smaller.
"Okay?" he repeated.
I hung up the phone and tried to fall asleep but the more I tossed and turned, the more awake I became. My heart was completely unsettled and I was on alert like someone waiting to hear the other shoe drop. But in reality, I really wasn't because I believed what the doctor had said. I just knew that my mother was going to get better but strangely, that didn't ease the tension brewing in me. The house felt strange but not because it had been a while since I'd slept in it. No. It felt so cold, so lifeless, so empty and so different from what I'd been used to, almost as if the air, walls, furniture, and everything around me missed my mother.
And then to compound the external conflict, the more I laid down and reflected on the day's happenings, the more disgusted I felt about the way I'd screamed and yelled like a mad woman. Was I really that shameless? And why Park Ji Tae? Why had I suddenly lost the ability to think straight? How could I keep letting something that had happened so long ago cloud my judgment? And there I was actually letting it affect my life. My head was spinning and I didn't know what to do. I didn't want to imagine what would have happened if it had been something that needed my immediate attention like a blood transfusion or something critical like that and I wouldn't have been there because I didn't have the common sense to just answer a simple phone call. I tried not to think about it but I couldn't help myself. Gosh, was I really that stupid? I put my pillow over my head to try to block the thoughts from running through it but it didn't help. I felt more and more ridiculous with every passing second. What the hell was wrong with me?
The next morning, I returned to the hospital as soon as I dropped Jin Soo off at school. I'd expected him to be chatty or at least, ask why our parents weren't home but he had been pretty quiet for the entire ride and when I tried to engage him in conversation, he indulged me the best he could.
The mood at the hospital wasn't any better and my father's and sister's eyes were red and swollen and it looked like they'd managed to get even less sleep than I had.
I looked around and couldn't believe that I was actually the most optimistic person around. Maybe it was because I was certain that all the madness would soon blow over. I just knew that before we realized it, Umma would be out and about yelling about something or other. She was a fighter and I knew that she'd want to get well just so that she could have a few choice words with the car rental company. So there really wasn't anything to be so worried about.
The three of us hung around the hospital till around 1 pm when they went home to get some rest while I went out for some lunch. The doctor was quite optimistic about my mother's recovery so we all walked with slightly lighter hearts.
The sight and smell of the hospital had begun to make me nauseous so I had my lunch at a restaurant and made a few phone calls and when I returned about 30 minutes later, I found Ji Tae sitting down and staring into space. I could tell he was nervous even though he tried to appear calm but from the way he occasionally tapped his foot, it was quite obvious how he felt. Seeing him that way made me feel a little guiltier about the way I'd treated him after all, it was quite obvious that loving my mother was something we had in common.
I rubbed my dry palms against my jeans then took a deep breath in and walked up to him.
"Hey," he said shortly after I sat in the seat next to his.
I held out the bag of grapes I'd returned with. They were my mother's favorite kind and I wanted to put some in her room. "Would you like some?" I asked.
"No, thanks," he said, shaking his head.
I dropped the bag next to my foot and looked at him. Just like the rest of us, his eyes were also swollen and red but for some reason, he still looked like he'd managed to get some rest.
I glanced at my watch. "Is it okay for you to be here now? It's not affecting your work?"
He shook his head but instead of responding, he bent over and looked at the floor. From what I remembered, he got quiet when his brain was working in overdrive and seeing that made me feel a little sad. He seemed even more affected by more mother's condition than I was. I cleared my throat and decided to say what was needed to be said.
"Ji Tae, about yesterday…," I started with my eyes focused on the terrazzo beneath my feet. "I really shouldn't have said the things I did. My head was all screwed up and I really shouldn't have run my mouth like that. It wasn't fair to you." I almost wanted to blame it on PMS but it felt beneath me. "You didn't deserve that," I continued. "I know you wasted your time looking for me and I really wish you didn't have to since it was just a colossal waste of time."
He shook his head. "It's okay."
"And to think that it all could have been avoided if I'd just answered my phone," I said, laughing without humor. "I really wish I'd taken your call."
He linked his fingers together and sat up. "Hee Soo, forget it. It's not important now."
"No, it is." He had a faraway look in his eyes so I wasn't even sure he was paying attention to me but I wanted to continue. "Please, let me finish. Even though it's been a while, I know you cared about my mother." I smiled. "There were some times that I even thought that she preferred you to me."
He rolled his eyes. "Don't be absurd."
Seeing that encouraged me to continued. "Gosh, I remember that one time… we were on the bus or train," I said, racking my brain to remember. "Yes, the day you got us lost. And after she spoke to me for like 1 minute, she asked me to hand the phone to you and you guys spoke for like forever. What did you even have to talk about?"
He turned to me and squinted. "Really? I can't even remember that," he said.
"The point is, no matter what, I know that you care about her and you have every right to be here. I know you said you don't care what I believed—"
"Hey," he interrupted. "Your apology is getting really long… it's starting to weird me out. You can stop now."
I laughed. "Well, I just wanted you to know that. And I'm sure my father and sister are glad you're here, so thank you."
He shook his head. "You know I love your family so don't thank me. Truth be told, I'm here more for myself than anything else. Your mom might not realize this but it would have been so much more difficult for me to get through my parents' divorce without her. She kind of made me forget it for a few hours each day and made me feel so welcome and loved. And you know what?"
"I don't think I've ever really told her how much that meant to me. At least not as much as I should have," he said regretfully.
I reached across and patted his hand. "I'm sure she knows. But don't worry about it - you'll soon get the chance to tell her."
I was awoken from sleep by all sorts of noise and chaos. The room seemed to be filled with figures in white running helter skelter. The doctor had allowed me to see my mother and somehow, I'd nodded off in her room. I blinked a few times and tried to figure out what was going on but before I could reorient myself with my surroundings, I felt some hands pull me from the chair and drag me away.
Only a few hours earlier, I'd walked into the room to find my mother lying in bed with what seemed like a million tubes going in and out of her. Her face looked pretty untouched except for a few scratches and it was hard to believe that she'd been in a serious accident but the doctor had said that most of the injuries she's incurred had been internal. Even though there was an oxygen mask on her face, to me, she looked like she was breathing normally and the person I saw looked peaceful, just like my mother did on those nights she fell asleep on the couch watching dramas. So I just knew that she'd be okay because my mother was always okay.
But right then, instead of feeling like I was with my mother watching a corny drama, it felt like I was in the middle of a melodramatic hospital drama with people yelling and screaming things and all sorts of machines being pushed and prodded and when I saw them pull out the defibrillator and press it on my mother's chest, it felt entirely surreal. It was amazing how much smaller the machine looked in person.
I felt my body being dragged backwards till I was out of the room and I half expected them to draw the curtains or shut the door so that we wouldn't see what they were doing but it looked like they were too busy to think of that tiny detail. Was that something that only ever happened on dramas?
I stood and watched as someone pumped air into my mother's lungs while another passed current through her heart. The entire thing looked so painful and I was annoyed that they hadn't even bothered to give her something to manage the pain. There was no way her chest wasn't going to bruise.
I watched as each time they put the machine on her, her body would jerk up and down and they'd look to see if her heart rate had picked up. But I wasn't worried – it was inconceivable for my mother's heart to really stop working. It made no sense.
But up and down her body jerked and time after time the machine didn't pick up her heartbeat. But I knew she was still there, she looked like she was still there. Every muscle on her face was still intact and every inch of her skin still sparkled. But suddenly, her body stopped jerking and everyone got quiet and when I looked at her face, I could almost pinpoint the second she stopped being my mother and simply became flesh and blood.
I stared at her face expecting it to change back to what it had been a few seconds earlier because it just had to. I knew it just had to be a trick or some kind of fake-out and a few seconds later, she'd start coughing and everyone would start laughing.
I stood and waited for the next act but suddenly, I heard people yelling and screaming around me. I turned to look at them but they all seemed like strangers, like people I'd never met so I looked back at the bed and waited for the body to turn back to my mother. But it didn't. Instead, the medical staff turned off the machine and filed out the room with somber looks on their faces. But wait a minute, shouldn't they have shut her eyes and covered her with a white cloth? And since they didn't do that, did that mean that the face on the bed would change?
I was still staring when the attendants returned and shut the door behind them. Even though I was staring at a brown door, all I could see was the face on the bed with the body jerking up and down. I'd shut my eyes in an attempt to clear the image that I was sure was a complete fabrication when I felt someone turn me around and pull me in an embrace. I couldn't even be bothered to see who it was because all I could think about was my mother's face. My eyes had become useless and it was almost like everything in front of me had turned white and I just stood there till I felt some moisture on my shoulder. I looked up and above me was Ji Tae's face dripping with tears. Even though he was trying his best to control it, his lips were quivering.
What was he crying about? Umma hadn't gone anywhere. As soon as I reached up to wipe his cheek, he pulled me in tighter. He was saying something but I couldn't hear it because I was still thinking about my mother's face. All she had were a few scratches so there was no way she wouldn't recover from that. The doctors had returned to my mother's room so they were fixing something, right? There was no way they weren't going to put the life back in her face. I was still standing there with his arms wrapped around me when I suddenly heard a scream. I turned to see my sister sobbing in a clump on the floor. I went to pull her up and it was almost like she'd suddenly gained like 100lbs because she didn't even budge. So I went down to the floor and held her in my arms as she sobbed. "Umma!" she shrieked. "Umma!"
"There's no need to cry, Mi Soo, Umma is fine."