Sunday, July 24, 2011
Medicine for Melancholy
I had imagined writing about this. This very moment.
I had imagined writing about a beautiful day, with beautiful weather, the warm sunshine coating us with its warmth, filling us with the kind of happiness that would temper the feelings of nostalgia, melancholy, perhaps even sadness, that resides in our heart.
Whether I would indeed write about it is probably another thing. That had depended on how brave and how willing I was in opening up things that I did not necessarily want to open.
“Well, here we are.”
Her mother, Kyung-nam, had brought us, me and Dahei's friend Set-byul, to the place. It had been a short little hike from my old university, which I was glad about; I have come to consider that area to be my home turf, and anytime I want to visit her, it would not be too far.
We stood near the place, silently. “It’s where the sunshine is,” her mother said. It’s true; the formation of the branches and leaves had parted enough to allow a very strong ray of light to land there.
Her mother greeted her. “Dahei, we’ve come here for you,” she said silently. “Fikri and Set-byul is here as well. Fikri came all the way for you and for me." She turned to the both of us, suggesting that we should greet her as well. Set-byul took the mother’s place, and did exactly that, speaking to her in a friendly manner. It was quick, a little too quick, I had thought, because then it was my turn.
I suddenly realised that all my preparations, mentally, spiritually and emotionally, did not prepare me for this. For a long time, I did not say anything, for there was a swirl of emotions that moved through my mind and heart. There were so many things I wanted to say, so many things I wanted to know, but can’t because of the circumstances.
Mengiris hati, the Malays would say. One literal translation would be ‘scratching the heart’, but it is not just any kind of scratching. Imagine, if you will, the kind of fingernail scratching on a blackboard. That would be a fair description of the kind of hurt I felt at that time, and still do feel even now. However, it doesn’t really come close to the signified itself. How ironic: all the beautiful idioms, sentences and words of the Malay, English, Korean and French languages could not come to my rescue now.
I felt someone’s arm around my shoulder. It was her mothers, and it was then that I realise that I had been crying. The tears had been coming without me knowing about it. Immediately, I felt very conscious of myself, and shifted my gaze away, looking at something else, anything else to give me some kind of focus. Something I could focus on while trying to forget all these feelings.
I failed miserably. My tears flowed ever faster, and there was even some snot that started to dangle from my nose. I wiped them away with my sleeve, but it did nothing, for the flood did not stop. My body started shaking, and I started to moan in pain with my tears. I could not control it now; the more I tried to exert my will over it, the harder my body, my emotions and my heart resisted. The mind can only do so much.
It was only now, at this point, that I started to let go of the pressure, the strain and the hurt that had been building up since Set-byul herself told me of Dahei’s passing. All the sleepless nights, the sense of waking up and thinking that it must have been nothing more than just a dream, has been building up to this.
My lover, my friend, one of the few who truly know me inside out, have left us.
“It’s OK, Fikri,” said her mother. I don’t believe that description fit the role she has in my life, for in many respects, she is my omma. It is the informal Korean term for mother, and I am, in many ways, her son. She had treated me as such during my relationship with Dahei, and even beyond that. She had helped me grow, helped to care for me, guided my in my Korean studies, and I would not have been here without Dahei or her mother, my omma.
I had arrived a few nights earlier, at around midnight. The first thing I did was to hug her; my trip here is just as much about her as it is about me. I did not know what to say before, and I didn’t know what to say now. She told me how they found out about her death; Dahei lived alone in Seoul, while her parents are away in the countryside, helping to manage an apple farm. They only knew of it after the fact.
I had not known of what had happened exactly, but it wasn’t something I wished to explore during a phone conversation. I did not want to put her through that pain, and neither do I want to do it now. I could not, however, stop her from talking about that fateful night. She sat across from me, leaning against a wall I had painted when Dahei first moved in here. When she started to cry, I went to her and hugged her, but I could not stop her from crying. I could not give comfort to her. She opened up her heart, and gave me everything, but I could give nothing in return.
What do you give to someone who had lost their only child? It served as a timely reminder that I am nothing more than just a speck in the lives of others. I may have lost a friend, but her parents lost a child. Dahei was their only child, and now there is no one else left to carry on their family’s legacy. They have no grandchildren to speak of, no son-in-law who could continue living the family’s way of life. And yet here they are, still living their life. For all of the strength I could muster for myself, it pales in comparison to the courage and bravery shown by my omma and appa.
It was this very woman who brought me back to reality. Now we're back at the hill, and I realise I have soaked her shoulder. I pulled away, gradually letting go of her grip, assuring her that I was OK. Set-byul stood silently some feet apart from us. I had practically shouted at her on the line, when I called her after she texted me about Dahei’s passing; though I had apologised later, perhaps she feared a similar rebuke.
We cleared a small area for ourselves, and started to unpack our foods. Omma had made some of Dahei’s favourite foods, which happened to be some of mine as well. I had helped to make them earlier that morning. “Thank you for helping me,” she had said. “No, it’s OK,” I had started, before she cut me off. “No, I mean, thank you for coming. You have helped me just by coming. Just by seeing you, you made me feel better.” That wasn’t the direct translation, but it was the gist, enough for you, dear reader, to understand.
“You’re doing the right thing, man,” said Jack. It was late in Australia, but I had to call him. I needed to hear a voice, a familiar voice, one who would understand me. “Not many people would have done what you did. Not many would have spent so much money, so much time, so much effort to do what you did. I think Dahei’s mom appreciated that.” I did not realise I needed to hear it until I heard it.
“You could make a movie, out of this.” My omma said that, while lying in bed. I slept on the floor in Dahei's bedroom, while her mother slept on the bed. The TV droned silently in the background, a device I had turned on for the sake of adding life to the room at night. I could not sleep well, and so the TV became my savior. She suggested a title: “3 Days and 3 Nights With My Girlfriend’s Mother.” She then chuckled to herself, and so did I. Dahei was no longer my girlfriend, but the fact that her mother, a Christian Korean, still see me, a Muslim foreigner, as her daughter’s boyfriend means a lot to me. I suppose only someone who is somewhat familiar with the social, national, cultural and religious complexities of such relationships could appreciate that sense of acceptance.
We had come back from a movie that night, a horror movie called The Cat, out of all the things. After that, we went to shop for some food, and stopped by the Paris Baguette near their house. I stepped into it, and realised that the layout had changed. I had stopped by every time I went to Dahei’s house. It’s slightly out of the way from my dormitory, but it was worth it. Dahei had liked some of the buns and breads available; perhaps it was a relic of her living experience in France. At that time, Kim Yu-na had just won the Olympic gold in Vancouver, and they had named a bun after her.
Now, however, the shop has changed. The position of the door remained, but the interior design and the positioning of the breads and buns are no longer the same. A reminder, perhaps, that over time, things will always change.
Hearts, minds, souls.
I still wonder what went through her mind during her last moments. I wondered whether she had thought of me. In my darker, idler moments, I wondered whether there was something I could and probably should have done. Was I somehow a part of the cause? Our separation was not one that happened easily. As I searched my heart, I identified feelings of sadness, but surprisingly, I found anger as well. Not at her, but at my father. I realise that on some level, though I had accepted the situation as it is, I am still angry at him for lying to me about his film.
Back then, I had several different choices. I could stay on in Seoul, working on a friend’s film, a Korean-American co-production called Hype Nation, either as an assistant producer or assistant director. My friend was the producer, but he had wanted someone who he can trust to serve as a kind of liaison between the Korean and American sides of the production. With my level of skill and experience, and relative fluency in both Korean and English, I was a perfect fit. In addition, UNESCO also strongly encouraged me to apply for a job there. Their head even sat down with me, and talked to me face-to-face about it.
It was a difficult decision, but I turned all of that down, because I wanted to work with my father on his film, which promised to be an interesting period tale of a mak yong dancer. Furthermore, I don’t when else the opportunity for my father to make a film would crop up; his last feature film was made when I was ten. It was only when I have arrived back in Malaysia that I realise it had turned into a lie. Now his ideas for me consist of working for UiTM and making films for David Teoh. In my heart, I laugh at the idea of making my first film for David Teoh. He is a man I respect, but I will not pop my feature film cherry with him.
I realise, however, that all of this is nothing more than mere nomenclature compared to this: regret. That is one word that would also come close to describing the mix of emotions in my heart. What would have happened if I had stayed? What if I had not come back? Would Dahei still be alive? Would she not be in the dark places she was in before her death? Did she think of me before she died? Was I ever as significant to her as she was and is to me?
I have tried to live my life with as little regret as possible, but this is one situation I cannot escape from. These are the questions that, until the day I die, I will never be able to answer.
I did not, however, regret coming here. I had shut myself off from the rest of the world, only to be here, at this moment, with my omma, Set-byul and Dahei. We ate, we reminisced, we talked, we laughed, and we remembered Dahei the way she deserved to be remembered.
There is so much more I want to write, so much more I want to share with you, but this is where it ends. I did not even know whether this was something I dared to write, but I know why I have written it: so that others may not share in my mistakes and regrets. I know now that I may also write, whatever the indescribable feelings in my heart, of the beautiful weather and sunshine, the happiness and sadness, the warmth of nature tempering our nostalgia and melancholy.
For it was indeed a beautiful day.