An old man, Mo-Sae, a Korean War survivor (he was 10 when it started) and dementia victim, left home alone his wife Young-ja who’s “coming up with errands that were really excuses to leave,” though she doesn’t need to: shes’s ill, too. He’s losing his memory, and she’d rather not always be near him to witness it. A young boy at his stoop, “appearing also in Mo-Sae’s cognition.” Not a very good sign, this Cognition. The boy is his grandson, Jonathan. Young-Ja has atrial fibrillation. Her husband was at that stage where he would come up “with likely versions of the past that became fixed in his memory.” But the story loses itself in memories of Young-ja, her violence toward her sister, “her need to connect again and again with something solid, resistant, and alive—shoulder, cheekbone, the open mouth that housed the teeth,” an image As convincing, poetic or otherwise, as a closed-mouthed metaphor. It’s about filling in the past in Korea, before hands-off America, where there was no hitting. Then back to facing a hisband’s dementia. Sundowning. And the bullshit of doctors’ advice: “She had been told to expect increased confusion, even agitation. She had been told that the only way to respond was with patience and kindness. Patience. Kindness. What did they really mean between husband and wife? Sometimes she felt that patience and kindness could be stretched so far in a marriage as to become their opposites.”
And this, of course:
Did he know?
She could never directly ask him, never actually say the word Alzheimer’s, chimae, in English or Korean. She would rather pacify, indulge, work around his nonsense. Perhaps this was patience and kindness. Or perhaps it was the worst possible way to be unkind.
Sometimes she wondered. Was it all an act? Would nothing really remain? In the middle of the night, did a dawning horror sometimes spread over his soul? Or did he really think, as it seemed when his defenses were up, that all the world was in error and he was its lone sentinel of truth and fact?
Those thoughts we’ve always had caring (if caring it was) for an Alzheimer’s torture victim. But now the church is asking his wife whether he’d consider returning to the church choir for a Messiah
Reformable after quitting out if dissatisfaction with the previous conductor. His wife would rather he not be found out. But he accepts. And makes a spectacle of himself, sidling up to the soloist’s part during the performance. The secret was out. “Thus she was free from the burden of his reputation.” But not the burden of responsibility. Her children broach the inevitable: “Something had to be done about Dad… but what?”
But this: the twist is that it’s young-ja whose illness collapses everything, herself included. Mo-Sae can only make sense of fragments, and not of her absence as he watches the boy, remembering memories near and far, keeping vigil over the sleeping boy, waiting for his wife to return, as she will not. It’s a searingly true story, calmly told, its tragedy a surprise, but not a surprise, unless you read it cynically, though no less realistically, if not justifiably: Young-Ja’s illness was not unwilled.
New England Review, vol. 38, Nr. 2, 2017.