If they look too somber for their wedding day, it's because this is Korea in 1973 when it was considered undignified to smile during such a serious rite of passage
If they look too somber for their wedding day, it’s because this is Korea in 1973 when it was considered undignified to smile during such a serious rite of passage

Monday was my parents’ 41st wedding anniversary. Today is my mother’s 65th birthday. I thought it was apropos to say a few things about my parents since they’ve figured so prominently in my blog posts over the last few months. I have complaints about my parents just like everybody else but I’m well aware of how completely lucky I am to have these two people who show me the closest model of unconditional love I will probably experience this side of heaven.

helenhjkim-momdadswedding-closeup

Ironically, their match was not one that seemed to be made in heaven at all. Sure, they were a handsome couple but they didn’t have a lot in common and had completely different temperaments, which often confounded and frustrated one another as a result. My dad was a hothead who yelled in his blood-curdling baritone voice. My mom was stubborn and imploded in impenetrable silence. Divorce crossed their minds on a few occasions. Even I wished as a little girl that they would get a divorce, imagining living with my mom and seeing my dad from time to time. Thankfully, they decided to stick it out. And sticking it out was the greatest gift they have given their kids aside from life itself. My sister, brother and I grew up under an umbrella of tenacious, albeit imperfect, love and learned what loyalty, dedication, patience, humility, grit, integrity, forgiveness and, yes, love really mean.

I know that sometimes love comes and goes in transient or at least finite ways, and there are gifts and lessons to be gleaned from those relationships too. The way I see it, though, you can’t get the kind of connection and mutual knowingness that coarses through the deepest magma of who you are without putting in the long days, weeks, months and years like my parents have. Some people would rather not experience this kind of love if it means that they can save themselves from the pain that comes with the territory. I understand. The heartaches, disappointments and injustices are many and seem debilitating, even soul-crushing, at times. Though I’ve only dipped the tip of my toe into these waters for a nano-second, it seems to me that this is no average undertaking and not for the faint of heart. But this isn’t about my conjectures on marriage. This is about my mom and dad, who have lived and breathed it for over four decades together.

Mom and dad on their honeymoon on Jeju Island, Korea.
Mom and dad on their honeymoon on Jeju Island, Korea.

I think it’s safe to say that my parents are BFFs. They work together 10-plus hours, five days a week, and they still have stuff to talk about and don’t mind spending time together. They have different types of humor but they’ve figured out a way to amuse each other. My mom sings all the time (usually hymns) and my dad will often belt them out right alongside her. The nagging and scolding, which goes both ways and can happen often, is taken without (too much) offense. Quarrels resolve themselves quickly and unceremoniously — there are no grudges, no tracking of points. Even after 41 years of togetherness, though, my parents are still two very different people.

 Mom, 33, and Dad, 40, are probably feeling pretty exhausted after a four-hour drive from LA to Sequoia National Park with the kiddos
Mom, 33, and Dad, 40, are probably feeling pretty exhausted after a four-hour drive from LA to Sequoia National Park with the kiddos

My dad is adventurous and curious by nature. I used to be mortified as child when my dad struck up random conversations in his broken English, too curious about the stranger’s fishing gear or truck or whatever not to say anything. Now, of course, this is one of my favorite things about him. My dad is also a night owl and is easily seduced by shiny, tech-y things. HE TYPES WITH THE CAP LOCK ON AT ALL TIMES and cannot stop himself from signing up on mailing lists. Oh, so many mailing lists! He ends phone conversations by simply hanging up. He likes to over-indulge and eats every edible item — from filet mignon to limp parsley garnish — with gusto. He never cries. In fact, he has to lubricate his eyes with fake tears because he can’t produce enough of them naturally. He is a man’s man from a bygone era whose word means everything. He is generous to a fault. He loves wistful music, staring out into the ocean and making grand gestures. It’s easy for him lose his temper but just as easy for him to apologize and take criticism. He happily doles out the I-love-you’s (even to other men), though his enthusiastically gruff hugs are reserved for family. His most proficient language of love is acts of service. He will show his undying love by fixing your toilet and screen door, and he will do this with immaculate perfection, even if it takes five tries. What I’m saying is that my dad’s stern, sometimes scary, exterior hides a soft, gooey center.

My mom, unlike my dad, prefers to stick close to home and the familiar. Her jokes are pretty corny but she enjoys them so whole-heartedly that you can’t help but laugh along. She knows all about health and healing through food — she single-handedly nursed my dad back to health from cancer with a juicer, a sickle and a backyard filled with vegetation that looked like they sprung up from the Jurassic Period. She is regimented about supplements and likes to eat clean, simple foods. She has a huge sweet tooth, though, and never met a cream puff or carton of ice cream she didn’t like. She gets confused easily by technology, but has finally figured out how text her kids or forward emails when necessary. She prefers the mountains to the ocean. She is a minimalist and has had it with a lifetime of discarded treasures (“I can fix it!” “It’s good as new!”) my dad has lugged home. She oozes love but has no patience for sentimentality. She wouldn’t shed a tear if family photos or heirlooms got lost in a natural disaster. She would only be concerned that people were out of harm’s way. Once, when my dad was apologizing to a live lobster in the kitchen, she shooed him aside, chopped it in half with a pragmatic flick of the wrist and stuffed it into a pot of boiling water. She ignored the kids as they screamed bloody murder because she knew that come dinnertime we’d all descend upon the cooked crustacean smacking our lips. She believes in the importance of beauty and takes time to nurture it, whether it be in herself, her surroundings or others. She shows her love through quality time and words of affirmation. In-depth conversations about matters of the heart are of the utmost importance and she will pursue those talks like a torpedo. If you are the target, trust me, there is no escape.

On our way back home from my treatment session the other day
On our way back home from my treatment session the other day

These past seven months, my parents have been pivotal in my journey from debilitating pain to near-health. They have prayed with me with a passion that would move a resolute atheist. They have cried with me (my mom with her eyes and my dad on the inside), snuggled with me and gone to doctor appointments with me. I can’t tell you how many times they got to work late, left work early or took extra time out during the work day, because they were coming over to take care of me somehow. My dad has massaged spasming muscles and fixed and jerry-rigged things around the house to accommodate my temporary handicap. My mom has fed me, bathed me and soothed aches away in the middle of the night. Some mornings, I will shuffle out to the kitchen and see that my parents had stopped by on their way to work. Like a couple of magic elves, they had washed the dirty dishes and taken out the trash. There is hot tea in the carafe and a hard boiled egg and freshly-picked tangerines from the garden. Lunch is waiting in the fridge in a single-serving tupperware. Tomorrow, my parents will sleep over. The following morning at 5:30, they will grab all the cushions and pillows I have to stuff the passenger seat and make my ride as pain-free as possible. My dad will daintily guide my head into the car and gingerly slip off my shoes so I can put my feet up on the dashboard. My mom will sit in the back seat and my dad will drive us to Hacienda Heights for my treatment session. What can I do in the boundless bigness of this kind of love? Nothing, except know that I could never repay it and simply receive.

My parents’ love makes me feel small. I see the expansiveness and depth of love itself in their love. Just as it is true with God himself, it’s not that I loved them but that my mother and father loved me first (1 John 4:10 and 19). I know for a fact that I don’t have what it takes to give this kind of love to a partner of my own someday. The silver lining within this stark truth is that I don’t think my parents did either when they first ventured on their life of togetherness. They gained it by deciding to stick it out, one day at a time. It has been an incredible amount of effort against insurmountable odds but my parents don’t seem to regret it one bit.

Happy anniversary, Mom and Dad. Happy birthday, Mom.

My mom's birthday dinner: the Kims are a casual bunch but we like to chow down together. Brother-in-law was at work, unfortunately.
My mom’s birthday dinner: the Kims are a casual bunch but we like to chow down together. Brother-in-law was at work, unfortunately.
Happy birthday, Mama Kim!
Happy birthday, Mama Kim!

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