A meadow of roses glints plastically from the top of the reception desk. The yellow dots of petals litter the page while my mom drums her fingers beside me. Tap, tap, tap. Suddenly, the woman shuffling paper behind the desk nods to us, and my mother scoops up her book and my hand. Her fingers are resignedly stormy-gray and they seem to disappear into the sterile walls of the hallway closing in around us. As we walk towards the elevator, white coats and clipboards traipse past us and study the papers that, in a few single-spaced paragraphs, encapsulate a person.
We pass through four doorways and sink deeper into a clean world of white. I don’t recall coming here for the first time. I only know that when my grandmother first slipped away, my mother slipped away for a while too. My mother went to see her in Korea for two months, and I think that was when she spent all her tears, because when she came back, I only saw a slow tremble in her hands. I could hear her shuffle through the house at night, clutching at the wall to find a light switch. Her nails would desperately grope at the wall and the shadows around my bed would grow so loud. I can only imagine how deafening the dark must have been for my mother, who searched and searched for a light that had faded.
I cannot remember a time when I knew my grandmother. I know the woman who smiled in pictures and loved her children. I can recognize her from a crowd, separate her because I’ve grown to love her. I do not know the woman lying in a coma in front of me. Movies describe “open eyes” as the moment someone wakes up and falls in love. She almost never blinks, and her eyes resemble the smooth, black pebbles stored at the bottom of the glass vase beside her. The monitor looming at her head beeps to the tapping of my mother’s fingers. The emptiest harmony in the world rings through the quiet hospital room and winds its way through us.
A blank Berklee College application form sits quietly in my bag as I argue with the melody around me. I had just wanted to see my family’s reaction to the idea of studying music. I had sat in front of my computer screen for hours until my eyes rang with the image. Finally, I had printed the form, and then the papers had stayed in my hiding places for most of the summer. Now, my eyes focus on my mother, who blinks at her own, who, in turn, maintains a steady gaze with the white ceiling above her. I cannot reject my grandmother’s single wish. Her wish that I grow up to be a doctor is the only difference I know between the person and her picture. Could I really take this hope away from my mother? “Could you?” question the blank black lines of the admission form.
My grandmother had grown up poor in a time when that was the standard. As governments grappled over a war-torn Korea, she grappled with the pain of life continuing around her. All she had ever wanted was to travel the world, to find someplace better to hold in her mind as her home recuperated. She grew older, and she wanted the world to forget the sorrows she had seen. She had not been able to go to college, but she had hoped her children could learn and help heal the world. Her country prospered, and her life was happy. Years passed before the world reminded her again of pain, but this time, she could not feel it. She fell into a coma, leaving herself with an endless dream and her family with the pain.
I really do wonder if it would be best to clear away this part of me, this place of music, and to use that empty space for something else. I know that it would still be just an empty space filled with an excuse. Oh, but this excuse, this perfect little escape, could make so many people so happy… My family might finally be granted some closure. But I know that the empty space would just expand, consuming my life and leaving more of me empty. This hollowness only further reminds me of grandmother and her echoing gaze. I wonder if she can see anything or feel any emotion. Perhaps, somewhere between her impassive eyes and beating heart, she is still searching for someplace better.
I still hear the tap of my fingers across the piano as they glanced and twirled across the surface. My teacher had been so angry about the added staccato notes of my injured finger. I can’t recall how I bruised it, but I still remember being okay, because I had my music, and I knew that was enough. Looking back to a past of sunny days spent with those black-white keys, I cannot understand how late I realized my future. There had never been a choice besides music, but now there would have to be one. How else would I finally feel like I contributed something, anything at all, to my grandmother’s life?
The rain slaps against the window while the trail of headlights swimming in front of the building flashes. My mother sits at the head of the hospital bed, gripping her mother’s hands and staring at the vase of orchids standing on the bedside table. She had bought it a few hours earlier on the way to the hospital, and now the veins of the petals match those showing so clearly on her papery hands. My own hands finger my bag and avoid the papers inside. Even if my grandmother cannot hear me, I want her to be present when I tell my mother about Berklee. My fingers wind around the form, and I take eleven steps from my chair before I reach my mother.
I have to shake her shoulder before she finally looks up from the flowers, shuddering with the shock of someone who woke up during a nightmare. Her eyes are wide and distant as they look over the admission form. They shut for a while, so long that I am sure she has been pulled back into the nightmare. Her eyes are still closed when she says, “You know, your grandmother has been to every continent on this earth, and she used to talk about how someone can look for a better place for an entire lifetime. In the end, though, your home is where you belong. If music really gives you joy, then you should not spend your life trying to evade it.”
“Are you sure? I know she wanted me to become a doctor to help other people,” I say, as I stare at my grandmother and look for any confirmation. But she remains as silent and detached as the clouded sun outside.
“She always regretted that she could not follow her passion and make a difference in this world. You might actually give her some peace by pursuing your own hopes,” my mother whispers. Her eyes are open and she is staring at my grandmother again. This moment seemed to stretch for infinity as my mother memorized my grandmother’s features. And in the next minute, something was missing.
Tap, tap, tap. The heart monitor’s automated beat had settled into my mind and had been forgotten. Now I can only hear a steady beep. The monitor’s screen only shows a straight green line, but my mother is still fixated on her mother. The line stretches on and the sky outside rains. The orchids seem to bow their heads and lean toward us. I can only hope that my grandmother will find her way, not to a better place, but to home.
Hyunsun (Heidi) Kim, Age 13, Grade 8, Trinity School, Gold Key