Love is Never a Stranger

by Y. Kim

The first time I ran away from home was in fifth grade after getting my first detention because of sneaking a study guide up my sleeve during a test. Honestly, it was my fault for not studying, but given how important cinder cone volcanoes were for my science grade, I’d made up my mind. I pulled the old “can I go to the bathroom?” card on my teacher to look at my study guide (he wouldn’t suspect a thing). But when he hit me with the “Why did I just see a flash of white in your sleeve as you raised your hand?” I knew it was over. 

The walk home that afternoon was excruciatingly long. In one of my hands I held a double detention, and in my other, I held a zero. Now, it would’ve been fine if I could have somehow convinced my mom to drop me off at school 20 minutes early for ‘unknown reasons,’ but this type of detention required a signature on both the paper itself and the test. This is exactly why I made the second-best decision of my life that day: I would run away from home. 

I’d do it just like I’d seen in the movies. I fashioned my makeshift bundle with the sweater I had on that day, packed my leftover lunch in it, and headed ho—no, the bushes next to my house. I proceeded to camp out for another few hours until sunset, which was when I saw a police car pull up on my driveway. Panicking, I ran home, blurting everything out while expecting to get yelled at, but only three words came out of my mom’s mouth. The most unexpected response, given how a few seconds earlier I’d been praying that she hold off about what a disgrace it was to get a deten–I dare not say the word–until after the policeman left. 

“I love you.” 

I was no stranger to Love. It was present in everything my mom did, from the way she spent hours laboring in the kitchen to perfect a dish I asked for to smothering my forehead with kisses.

Love, it seemed, was someone I knew inside and out, but when It knocked on my door years later, I could barely recognize It. This time, Love arrived shrouded in a deep fear that would embitter me for the next four years. 

My dad came home. 

My dad, who’d missed my entire childhood working overseas and visited once a year, if I was lucky. My dad, who’d quit his work in Korea to be with us. My dad, a stranger, through whom Love was seemingly reminding me that sometimes, It could be obligatory. 

It was ironic. While Love was painting a self-portrait with affectionate red and tender orange through my mom, it seemed to paint the exact opposite through my dad, with harsh black and indifferent grey. It drew parallels between my parents throughout my childhood: my dad, who’d yell at me “in the name of Love,” and my mom, a few moments later, who’d Lovingly wipe the tears from my face. Growing up, my father had always taught me to be selfless to others, but when ‘others’ involved family, it seemed this rule didn’t apply. Unless I was speaking in Korean, his first (my last) language, I couldn’t talk at all. The kitchen table was reserved only for eating with necessary discussion, not casual banter that differentiated every other family from ours. Eventually, “Ddok bbaro hae” [behave yourself] became his catchphrase when I failed to obey these unspoken rules, but what really magnified his antagonism was his voice — a thunderously loud voice that instilled mounting uneasiness, and at times, fear. 

The only thing that vaguely resembled Love’s last ditch effort to cling on to me was in my dad’s favorite question: 

“Did you eat yet?” 

But just when things couldn’t seem to get worse, they did. 

During my junior year, my dad visited Korea for a short while for undisclosed reasons in fear of “interfering with my academics.” His return, however, convinced me that Love, finally, had left. For him, Korea was the beginning of a downward spiral of depression that seemed to peak at self-isolation but would later deteriorate to an erratic and bipolar personality whom I no longer knew belonged to my father but a stranger. As an array of antidepressants began to replace what was once a rainbow of vitamins in the medication cabinet, my father would pop open the cap of an orange prescription bottle every morning, trying to find a concoction of pills that would rival the dopamine and serotonin that had once coursed through his body.

Love was a cruel joke. 

So perhaps it was due time when Love paid me a visit two years later when I returned to Korea myself. For the first time in four years, I’d be seeing all of my relatives from an entirely new perspective (quite literally, being half a foot taller than my eighth grade self). Thus, it was ironic, as I thought I would be the only one who was different. 

So when I saw my grandmother for the first time in four years, I was shocked. Age had taken everything I remembered of her; gone was the vibrant aura of hospitality and unconditional selflessness and in its place stood a stranger with one familiar feature—her eyes. Eyes that seemed to both disappear—the same ones that produced the ever-so-familiar wrinkles when hugged—and bled tears as I promised to return the next year.

My grandmother, halmoni, for whom Love appeared as in the form of a timer. A weak but constant ticking of breaths reminding me that this time, Love wasn’t here to stay. 

And suddenly, my dad, whose footsteps I’d once memorized in fear of the coming ‘discipline,’ became a dad whom I’d misunderstood. 

I saw my dad. I saw my dad not through the lenses of what I hated him for, but for who he was, and why he treated me the way he did. I recognized that I first met Love through my mom, which was probably how he met Love for the first time too—his mom. But here she was, practically on her deathbed, ignorant to the struggles my dad faced back at home—no, my home. I realized that the same halls and bedrooms I call home isn’t home for my father—home, for him, is thousands of miles away. Home is what was once a vibrant woman, now bedridden and wearing the cloak of senility, the scars of heart surgery, and a hunched back.

And everything clicked. The gentle voice with which he narrated his story that evening over Facetime was the same thunderous voice I had once feared — the one that suffered thyroid cancer, taking the ability to gauge the dynamics of his own voice. That my dad had grown up in a culture and country where fathers assumed the authoritative and distanced role, never being taught how to love. In the end, it wasn’t my dad’s fault, for being unable to change. It was also mine, for being unable to change the way I saw him. It was times like at the dinner table, where frustration got the better of me and forced me to look down at my food, not wanting to talk, when my dad would awkwardly try to incite conversation, looking at the top of my head. He would demonstrate his love in ways I didn’t think of, or rather, didn’t want to think of.

⧫⧫⧫

Upon my return home, things weren’t perfect. Our relationship was healing, going back to what I once hoped it to be, but there are still moments where I don’t understand him. Moments where he hurts me and I hurt him; moments when I forget what he’s been through. But in the heat of the moment, the initial fury dissolves into shock, then to pain, incurable pain, and then, for just a fraction of a second, I swear I see Love.