Summer 2016 - Creative Nonfiction

S. Isabel Choi

 

Her Prayer

“You two, and my time with God, are the only things that keep me,” said a mother to her daughters. She focused on the square brass clock mounted on the wall ahead of her: 2:43 p.m. It was Wednesday, October 28, 1992. The day we waited, waited for God to lift us up into heaven at 3 p.m., Eastern Standard Time.

We lived in a Tudor-style house on a sloping street, where arborvitae shrubs lined the property and were trimmed once a week. A towering conifer guarded the front bay window. Fir trees dotted the sidewalk every twenty feet, inhaled wind and rustled free their brittle leaves that flared when a lone car whizzed down the hill. The lawn surrounding the New Jersey home welcomed the castaways onto its enduring evergreen.

The house contained four bedrooms on the upper floor, one for every person who lived there: this mother, her husband, their two children. On this day, in the family room downstairs, three of us sat on a leather couch.

My mother, slender, sat poised on its edge. In her embrace, my younger sister, age twelve and round-faced. On the opposite leg of the L-shaped sofa: the other daughter, me, sixteen and bony; my downward gaze anchored. Mom had notified our schools that we would not be attending today. On this day, the world would collapse, beginning with the Rapture.

The Mission for the Coming Days Church proclaimed it. The church’s founder, Lee Jang-Rim, attracted some 20,000 devotees in Korea and in the United States, with some reports increasing this number to 144,000 around the world. My mother, who had belonged to this church for about a year, was not alone in yearning for a release.

All morning Mom’s pale skin had gleamed. Her large lidded eyes wider than usual, she peered out with anticipation. 2:44 p.m.

“What if God doesn’t take us?” my sister asked.

“I got you,” Mom said into her younger daughter’s hair, avoiding the question. “It will be over soon. We’ll know whether we are righteous and clean enough in spirit to join God in heaven.”

Mom glanced at me. I had not spoken for most of the day. “You seem so calm,” she said. “You must have prepared yourself well.”

2:45 p.m. My gaze swiveled from the clock to my sister enjoying our mother’s touch, the source of comfort in this house. Three years ago, this touch had perplexed me.

In a fetal position on this same couch, I had been mewling in distress for several hours from a tetanus-vaccine shot. It felt as if a marble had squirreled itself directly underneath the injection site on my arm, as pulsing pain radiated up and down, shooting into my neck and back.

My mother had shuffled over to my side. “I’m going to try something, all right?”

“Okay,” I whispered.

She lay her palm where the needle had entered, bowed her head and closed her eyes. Said nothing. She stayed in this position for several minutes, during which her hand emanated heat into my arm.

Her eyes opened and she lifted her hand, rushing in a coolness to my skin. “Do you feel better?” she asked.

I stared at her. The pain abated noticeably, to a negligible throbbing. A number of logical factors could have effected this acute shift but the irrational one had lodged inside my head, creating question after question: Did God exist? How about Jesus? Did either listen? And most curious of all—did Mom have a direct line to them?

“I’m so proud of you,” Mom said to me now. My eyes followed the meandering creases in the leather sofa, reminding me of love- and life-lines on skin, like the ones my friends and I would lightly trace on each other’s palms as we imagined the future.

God would see right through me. The end of the world was coming in minutes and I was thinking about the boy who didn’t like me back, the husband I would never meet, the career I would not pursue. During the past year I had tried to throw out all secular music, denounced by the church as an infection to the spirit, music by Depeche Mode, Erasure, and Madonna that sometimes soothed and invigorated me more than heavenly love. But those cassette tapes remained stashed in the back of my nightstand drawer.

2:50 p.m. Matthew 24:40-41 vaulted to my mind. “Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left.” What if God took Mom, my sister, leaving me behind? According to Mom’s church, incredible torture awaited those who remained after the Rapture—their eyes would be plucked out; hands, feet, ears, and nose would be sawed off before they’d be dumped into boiling oil.

Wipe the mind clean, wipe it clean.

Dead in heaven or alive here, minus a few limbs. No job or kids or a house, things that my parents had told us we could have, if we worked hard enough. Contentment would follow.

Dad still told us this. Dad was a nonbeliever, his convictions borne from a security that only money could deliver. He sneered at Mom, at the idea of someone having risen from the dead as part of a divine sacrifice. But he hadn’t objected when Mom began reading the Bible four or five years before. Because millions of Koreans had ascribed to Christianity since the early 1900s, it seemed normal, integrated into their culture. The church’s lordship of the husband over the wife agreed with him.

When Mom joined the Mission for the Coming Days Church, her beseeching of him to Believe intensified. His eyes narrowed when she said that a bunch of “chosen” people would disappear a year later.

“Don’t be crazy,” he scoffed, returning to his newspaper.

Mom snatched the paper from his hands. “Listen to me! Don’t you understand? Your daughters and I will be gone! You will be left behind, you will have to endure the Seven Years of Tribulation before He will consider again accepting you into heaven!”

“Woman, I see and therefore I believe. You believe, therefore you see.” He timed a business trip to occur the week of the Rapture.

2:53 p.m. Mom’s eyes were closed, lips moving, most likely reciting Psalm 31, one of her favorites—a prayer from David for deliverance from suffering, which ends with “Be strong and take heart, all you who hope in the Lord.”

In my head I sang my own psalm:

 

Show me the way

They say safety in numbers

I lift up my eyes to the sky

And imagine a crowd

Of hearts that surround me

That give the me courage to die

 

From “Spiralling” by Erasure, sung by a gay man. Could this surreal scene unwind like a movie? Violins crescendo, a light sears our house into whiteness and fades, only we are gone.

2:55 p.m. Sunlight rippled through the blinds across the hardwood floor, guiding my gaze to the far end of the room where Mom and Dad would secure the Christmas tree. I recalled Dad excited and smiling at their domestic project, his thread of joy failing to wrap around Mom. My young sister dazzled by shiny presents, unaware they meant little to our mother with the tired smile—for my sister the smile alone assured her of a safe childhood, whereas the fatigue in that smile disquieted me. For Mom, Christmas passed into the slipstream like any other day.

What if—I looked at my mother on the sofa—what if He doesn’t take anyone today? Mom, what would that do to you?

_____

 

Since I was small Mom and Dad had fought, as two people who endured their inherent incompatibility; their wounds sometimes physical, but most of the time verbal, reverberating beyond the slap. Mom grew up in a well-to-do house in Seoul where her father was a judge. When Mom was ten, she and her older sister saw their mother succumb to a stroke, maybe an aneurysm; no one could be certain as healthcare remained guesswork a few years after the Korean War. To cover the lesions in their hearts their father encouraged them to read, to excel in education. Both girls graduated from the top women’s university in Korea, with Mom earning a master’s degree in French literature.

Mom watched her sister marry into a wealthy family. A wife’s level of “devotion” to her in-laws corresponded in proportion to their means and prestige. Her sister was to clean and cook for them, as well as for her husband. My mother held off on marriage as long as she could, but her father pushed along the wheels of marriage by contacting matchmakers.

Enter my father. His family had a good name. Unfortunately, someone had embezzled the prosperous family business into ruin, forcing the ten children to earn money for food and education on their own. My father tutored rich sons, hid in schools when he couldn’t afford cheap housing, and paid his way through school. After he secured a job at Samsung, he caught the attention of matchmakers, who proposed his candidacy to my mother’s father.

Mom agreed to the match, finding Dad’s energy and chatter refreshing from the silence that resided in her home after her mother’s death. She told me she found the lack of money in his family a reason not to fulfill the slavish wife and daughter-in-law duties. Dad’s family demanded them regardless—she was a woman after all—and called her standoffishness “cold.” When Dad suggested moving to the States, Mom said yes, trusting in the physical distance from cultural constraints in Korea. After Mom married Dad and moved halfway across the world, her sister collapsed like their mother—an aneurysm left her paralyzed, and she died several years later at the age of forty-one.

Meanwhile, in New Jersey, Dad insulted Mom’s substandard cooking, throwing it into the trash, and raged at her for shouting back at him. The virginal wallflower he had courted could roar. Even my father did not anticipate the severity with which he would try to enforce the societal, marital norms my mother hoped she had escaped.

Mom had no employable skills here, and she hesitated before speaking in English, even though her level was quite proficient. Independence from my father was imaginable, but not achievable because there was another truth, more painful for her, and to me as well: she lacked the grit to succeed. Leaving her husband meant physical disorientation and hardship. The courage to leap from her current plane of existence lay buried in her, deep and desiccated as a fossil. My father knew this.

Fourteen or fifteen years old, I had spent many nights sleeping next to my mother, sometimes to soak in her maternal warmth, other times to shield her with my presence from my father’s short-fuse fury. The day she came into contact with the church, I imagine her day opened like her other mornings.

_____

 

Mom’s internal clock nudged her awake. Alone in her queen-size bed, she lay unmoving. There was much to do today, as there was every day, and also nothing to do.

She shifted onto her left side to look at the windows that flanked her double vanity. She listened to the quiet, perhaps wondering if she was being heard. What would this life look like if she had not married? Would she be lying here? Would she miss her daughters?

It was still dark outside. She rose gradually to allow the blood in her head to percolate through her body, and placed her feet into house slippers. Shadows of spirits she kept at bay but never dismissed, watched as she washed her face, changed clothing, and settled back in bed. As she had done every day for the past five years, she picked up her Bible from the nightstand and read. Putting the Bible down she paused to pray, words she often shared with me:

Dear Lord, thank you for the good life you have given us. I ask that you keep my husband safe. He is not a man of faith. His love and determination to provide for our children, however, are firm, and for this I am grateful. My daughters, please keep them in good health and show them the way.

While my sister and I prepared for school, my mother sliced two bagels, spread cream cheese on them, wrapped them in foil and dropped them in paper brown bags along with silver juice pouches and bananas. After a quick breakfast of corn flakes, we tossed our leaden backpacks into our sedan.

As my sister hopped out at the middle school, my mother observed the other housewives pulling up in their pricier cars. She spent the monthly cash allotment Dad gave her on house bills, and used the substantial remainder to spoil her daughters with the latest fashions while enjoying little for herself. “Why buy this? I have no occasion to wear it,” she said when I encouraged her to purchase something pretty. Sometimes high-end costume jewelry, usually wrought floral designs or pearly beads, piqued her interest enough to cause her to open her purse, jewelry that stayed in their cushioned cardboard boxes in her vanity dresser.

In the passenger seat I turned to her. “Mom, remember my dance classes start tonight.”

With a blank look, she nodded.

“Helloooo, Mom, did you hear me?” She cared for us like someone distracted, sometimes afflicted.

“I have it on the calendar. Study hard,” she said, stopping the car at the high school.

What happened then? She drove home and pressed the remote to open the door to the two-car garage. She slid out of her pumps, rolled off her knee-highs and placed her feet into slippers again. Snapped on a metallic hair clip and walked to the laundry room. Scooped the last load from the dryer into the basket—always towels, bed sheets and clothes to clean, dry, iron, fold. Up and down the stairs she climbed to stow each pile in its proper place.

Almost every day, my mother visited two supermarkets, a large Korean one about thirty minutes away and then the A&P back in our hometown. In the Korean market as she was wheeling out her bags of silken tofu, green onions, bean sprouts, and spicy radishes, did she by chance turn her gaze to the bulletin board and stop?

Thumbtacked to the wall, what words dug at her heart? Jesus is coming! Have you been searching all your life to fill a void in your heart? To find a purpose for living? Did my mother dislodge the tack and take a leaflet?

Or did a witness from the church observe my mother at the checkout lane, and register how she fixated on the conveyor belt as if she saw something through it? Did this witness accost her as she bustled out the door, did she explain how the revelation of God’s return came to Lee Jang-Rim’s children in a dream, and sensing a fever rooting in my mother, promise to send her more information?

No matter how the message greeted my mother, it had stayed with her, enveloped her, made her future promised and special.

When Mom first “witnessed” the upcoming Rapture to my sister and me, I didn’t quite know how to react. We couldn’t read the Korean missives sent by her new church. The timing of Christ’s Second Coming had been revealed! She went into some complicated calculation about the date making sense according to how years were defined in the Bible, an argument I didn’t believe she truly understood herself.

“But Mom,” I said, “what about Matthew 24:36? ‘Of that day and hour no one knows’?”

With a glow, she continued as if reciting memorized lines. “God has presented us with His divine calendar and fulfills it. The awful news we are seeing around the world, the earthquakes, famine, nuclear threats, terrorism—now they make sense! They are signs of the end.”

She stabbed her Bible with a finger, and cited passages from Revelations relating to the Great Tribulation, prophecies from the Book of Daniel, the scary parts of the Good Book that I had chosen to skip.

She showed us pictures from a Friday night revival at the church: red and blue neon-like lights flashed in curves around a dark room. “The Holy Spirit,” she announced. Doubt crept in. Couldn’t human-made explanations, manipulations, account for the swirly lights? Could the Holy Spirit be this visible? But the chisel of Mom’s jaw as she tucked away the pictures, her hunger to believe that the Spirit visited this congregation—this special, persecuted congregation—zipped my lips shut.

“If we prepare ourselves, and He takes us, it will be a wonderful, wonderful new world. This life will be nothing.”

Mom was ready to fly. My sister and I, we could not bear a world without her. “All right,” I said; “Ok,” my sister said. We stepped into our mother’s palm of faith, and hoped it would carry us to the end.

_____

 

2:59 p.m. My sister squinted her eyes shut.

Mom said, “Hold on, hold on.”

A leaf blower buzzed somewhere outside. My mind pounded, sought neutral ground.

The second hand of the brass clock ticked past the twelve.

My mother twitched her head no, still staring at the clock. “One more minute,” she said.

The second hand rounded the clock, ticked past the twelve again.

“Oh,” Mom said, her eyebrows close together, “I guess He didn’t come.”

Her choice of words—“He didn’t come,” not “He didn’t take us.”

Her arms around my sister slackened. She didn’t move for some time. I waited for someone to speak.

“What does this mean?” my sister moaned.

Mom turned on the television. On the screen we saw survivors from an earthquake that had struck Nicaragua a month before … angry reactions to Sinead O’Connor’s ripping of the Pope’s photo on Saturday Night Live.…

No news of the Rapture.

The remote slipped from Mom’s hand and clattered onto the stone coffee table.

“I see,” she said. Her head still, she moved her eyes in my direction. “You don’t seem surprised. Or upset.”

How to tell her I was never ready to let go, that I did not lament and loathe each day the way she did? That I was young enough to feel like life was ahead of me and not behind?

“I am surprised, Mom, very surprised … but it’s kind of like another chance, isn’t it?” My thawing mind searched for something to say. “I’d like to try new things, learn new skills—like the cello, I’ve always thought it was a beautiful instrument, can I learn the cello?” I waited for her response, aware for the first time of my sweaty armpits.

My mother’s chest caved inward the tiniest distance. “Your outlook is wonderful,” she finally said. “Yes, learn how to play the cello.”

“How about me?” my sister cried.

“What would you like to learn?” Mom asked her.

The role that had sustained her, that of God’s chosen and saved, vanished. Soon she would resume the pose of suburban housewife and caretaker. Soon she would have to seed her faith anew, on earth. My sister talked about the violin. A barrier ballooned around Mom, one that my sister and I too easily decided not to question or pierce.

3:10 p.m. We left the couch and climbed the stairs to recover in our separate bedrooms. My sister and I took out the cassette tapes and CDs we had hidden away and listened to them as if for the first time, as if we had just ripped off their unyielding plastic wrap.

_____

 

Lee Jang-Rim was jailed for swindling over $4 million out of his believers, a good portion of which he had placed into bonds that were to mature well after the 1992 Rapture. Mom had given money to this church, we did not ask how much. She never discussed this period of her life after that October date. The church missives disappeared from our house. On my own, later, I’d find some of the church’s assurances: Those of us who have waited patiently for His return will have all the glory in the world, and those who aren’t prepared will have all the sorrow and fear in the world. Maybe Mom had to admit she harbored only sorrow, not fear, for fear would have indicated an interest in the future.

After the Rapture, however, my mother’s faith did not ebb like mine. Her prayers focused back on her daughters, wishing for their prosperity. But overlaying and underlying those prayers I believe one request thundered, without words, without sound.

God heard.

Over the next six years he thinned the blood vessels in her brain, stretching their lining until one April dawn, her final prayer broke through, and she was gone.

 

*

Dartmouth alum and ex-attorney S. Isabel Choi received an MFA from the University of San Francisco. She has attended Bread Loaf and Lit Camp, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Rumpus and Slice magazine. Co-editor of an upcoming anthology of essays titled Wither, she is completing a family memoir based on the suicide of her grandfather, a former Chief Justice of South Korea’s Supreme Court.

  © Ninth Letter, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.