A story of how to deal with loss and grief starts with my grandmother as she tells me stories of a chicken she lived with throughout the Korean War. Amid the blood, guns, and hunger of the 1950s, a seven-year-old Moon Hua Ji found a way to smile through chicken whispering: the tongue she used when playing with her favorite feathered friend.
“She’d always march around the shack, pecking everyone’s faces,” she said. “Like this!” A 77-year-old Moon Hua Ji proceeded to bend her knees, flap her arms, and pace around the dining table. I was dazed; it didn’t add up with any of the other details.
For three years, life for my grandmother was living in a 10-square-foot hut, squished with nine other runaways, 240 kilometers away from her hometown, and no certainty of when she’d eat, go back home or die.
But a hen waddled into her shack one day, and she says there was a reason to wake up in the morning again. They danced, sang, cooed, chirped, and giggled throughout the war — and for a confused little girl with no other friends, it was the only thing in the world that could save her.
“Despite what everyone else may say, I don’t think there’s anything more important than smiling. No matter how broken things may seem,” she said.
I never asked about the war until a few months ago, fearing I’d bring up the pain she may have buried decades ago.
But when I did, I was left with a most unusual answer.
She grew up around unimaginable cruelty — and a mischievous chicken was what she held dearest.
A mother who talks to plants to deal with the loss
Her daughter, my mother, is even more unusual. Since August of last year my mother has had a proclivity for talking to plants. It is an extraordinary habit. I was awakened by The Beatles playing from the living room speakers one morning. I got out of my bed and dragged myself outside — cranky, confused, and looking for an explanation.
There was no one. No human being, that is; there was, instead, a potted basil plant, sitting in the middle of our living room, staring back at me. I think I stood off with the thing for ten seconds before it registered. “Om-ma…?”
I started hearing tippy-taps from the storage room. My Om-ma, Korean for ‘mother,’ came prancing into the open space, performing a ballet routine. I asked, “What the hell are you doing?”
While still dancing, she said, “If you play nice music for the basil, it will feel happy and want to spread its arms out and dance, so it will grow better.” My body groaned. “Look! It’s dancing too!” I said nothing and went back to my room. She had an unshakeable smile on her face, which I remember finding just as unbelievable.
There was a disparity between my mother’s plant whispering and what was going on outside at that point of the year. I graduated from high school on a computer screen and left my home country of 14 years in 2020. Also, it was the year when I saw the world in flames for the first time in my life. My social media feeds made it feel like, at times, hope wasn’t real — on both on a global and personal level. I had so many questions: How broken is the world? Was I really that happy in high school? Am I ready to be an adult? Where is my home? Do I deserve to smile?
But my mother lived through the same circumstances, she also lived through COVID-19, and she found a way to smile. My grandmother lived through the darkest period of Korean history, and she found a way to smile. To love life in a time when the world seems unlovable: I think this kind of affection holds a unique felicity, because it would have been inconceivable had the world been perfect.
And isn’t that how we’ve conceived the rest of our greatest inventions? Hasn’t adversity been humanity’s wellspring for innovation? Consider our most primitive struggles: from our misunderstandings of one another, we created language. Loneliness birthed the musicians, dancers, and painters of our time. And the most profound of all: had we never been starved by hatred, we would have never grown our capacities for love.
So I think back to that morning in August, and maybe there was something I missed. Since then my mother has grown a little garden in the living room; it’s the first place she goes to in the morning and the last place she looks at before going to bed. She was sitting on the floor one night, her temple against her knees, marveling at the olive tree. A tear hung at the edge of her eye. I asked her, “Why are you so interested in those plants?”
“Because — it’s exciting to watch something spread its arms,” she said. “These guys rely on me. And that makes me forget about money, or the pandemic, or anything else I have lost, even if it’s for a few moments a day. I sing for them, I put them in nice pots, I care for them — and by the next day they’ve grown a little taller. Don’t you think it’s beautiful? That you can grow something, even when the world is on fire?”
And I realized what I want ‘loss’ to mean to me. The idea that the death of something we held dear can give life to another: isn’t that what nourishes hope through our nadirs? If we could embrace loss, as fully as our ever-broken hearts will allow, can you imagine what we could create?
Let gumption be what defines us, not adversity. I wish not for a future without suffering — but a future where suffering has made us more fearless and loving of life than we were yesteryear.