A writing mentor once asked, “What is the question you struggle with in life?”
I hesitated, puttered and stalled. I am not used to probing questions–in my hours everyday in my HR career, my focus is to smooth things over, continuously, creating a perfect frosting on cake. Keep everyone happy. Energized. Synchronized towards a singular goal. Ask questions of others, not myself. Keep things moving, keep things pleasant. I am good at that job, both to my benefit and detriment. It also makes me a good Korean girl (the real reason I’m good at the HR job), good under crisis…not so good to myself, not great for my relationships.
When I got sick almost two years ago, I quickly learned that many of my friends did not know how to care for me, because they did not know who I was/am. I could rack it up to them not giving enough of a shit about me to try to get to know me (for a few cases this was clearly very true)…but part of reality is that I don’t make it easy for people to get to know me, either.
What IS it that I ask myself?
It took me a little while to switch my mind to the dark place, where my daylight distractions do not enter, to the place deep inside myself. To where I have hidden the parts of myself that I feel aren’t safe or don’t belong in the world, at least in my everyday.
Death is not a new topic for me–I have spent a number of years wishing for death, and have more than once done more than wish for an early exit from life. I have wondered what if I had died on all those occasions. I have turned my back on death more than once, and finally embraced life.
My parents, having survived war, made it abundantly clear to us as children that life was not permanent, that death always hovered nearby and could make a surprise appearance (this still did not prepare me for my mother-in-law’s death, something that broke my heart and will leave it broken forever). We grew up knowing that mom and dad could die anyday, and to brace ourselves for–death. It was nearby. Don’t be surprised.
But I do wonder now, as to HOW I will die. With dignity? With great fear? With peace? With panic? With anger? Will it be quick? Will it be slow? Painful? Will I have time to prepare? Will I have time to hug my husband goodbye? Who will I leave behind? Will I be alone? Or surrounded by those who love me? Will I disappear? Will it be bloody? Be full of sleep and tenderness? Will I fight? Or will I resign? Will it be a heart attack? Another stroke? Cancer? A car accident? A plane crash?
For death is a certainty.
Will I be the first one to go, abandoning my husband? Or will I be last? If I never have children, who will bury me? Who will hold my hand? Who will claim my body? Who will pray for me?
I have many more questions over which I obsess. But that is the newest addition. And when I provided “I wonder how I will die,” as an answer. My mentor said, “That explains a lot about your writing.”
What are the questions that can inform an entire novel, an entire life?