A Familiar Love Letter: A Personal Essay
Content Warning: Discussion of Suicide and Mental Health
II’ve never been the type of person to remember my childhood fondly. Truth be told, there’s not much to look back fondly on. My parents divorced when I was 4 and I had moved three times before I was 9. They both worked long hours to the point that I barely saw them, and by the time I went to college I had gotten used to spending most of my time alone. Of course, I could probably turn things around by saying they taught me something about resilience and the idea that hard work pays off, but the less appealing truth is that I just didn’t have a happy childhood, in the traditional sense.
Growing up, however, I was lucky for a reason. When my eldest sister was born, my maternal grandparents somewhat harassed my mother to let them help raise her from the next house. Reluctantly, my mother agreed, and they became a fixture in our lives from then on. They followed us from Toledo; in Denver; in Washington, D.C.; and finally, to Nashville, where we stayed until I graduated from high school. Around the age of 8, they had decided to sell their house and move into ours, changing our family forever.
My grandfather, a retired doctor and self-taught Buddhist, always did something adventurous inappropriate, considering his age. Well into his 70s, he took a two-week vacation to India with old friends, returning with his arms laden with bread smuggled from roadside markets and the flowing cloth trousers he actually wore. On his 80th birthday, he embarked on a rafting trip through the Rocky Mountains, where he hit his head on a rock. He later remarked that he probably got “70% dumber”.
As close as I was to my grandfather, my grandmother was my best friend. When I was young, she loved me way more than my behavior deserved, peeling the skin off my apples and taking me to the nearby toy store. I slept in her arms every night as I begged her to tell me stories about her own upbringing in Seoul. The day my family left Denver, two years before she and my grandfather followed us there, we clung to each other on the way to the airport, tears streaming down our faces. She has always been the most important part of my life.
At the time, I was too young to recognize the behaviors that constantly worried the rest of my family. I did not see the days she spent in bed, motionless, and the sleepless nights that followed marked by crazy purchases and renovation projects. I didn’t notice when she lost all of my grandfather’s savings in the stock market crash of 2008, making them completely dependent on my mother. I was blind to everything beyond my almost reverent love for her.
The thing with my grandparents is that even after 50 years together, they were still totally in love. They held hands on the sofa like teenagers and even kissed in front of their grandchildren, much to our horror. My infinitely calm grandfather balanced my grandmother perfectly, speaking softly to her through depressive episodes and willingly enduring her mania. For a child who couldn’t remember a happy wedding day between my own parents, I collected a perfect picture of love through my grandparents.
Together, my grandparents gave me the childhood memories that I will always remember, the ones that give me a sense of nostalgia. Lying between them in bed, watching “The Land Before Time”. Eat waxy Korean corn together, little by little; buying secret Coca-Cola ice cream on the way home from school; watching my grandmother wash my kimchi until it’s soft enough for me to eat. These are the things I cling to when I listen to my peers talk about years on swings, playing on neighborhood football teams.
The older I got, the more I distanced myself from them. I stopped sleeping in their bed, finding it infinitely embarrassing. I rejected the food they were cooking for dinner, begging them to make something my friends could eat. I resented it every time they picked me up from school, hoping no one would see me get in their car and realize that I was raised not by a typical nuclear family, but by a couple. old korean.
In my early teens, my deteriorated mental health began to creep up on me, recognizable only when it was too advanced. I found myself unable to hold a conversation with a stranger, my palms getting more sweaty with each interaction, and I struggled to get out of bed each day. In my own helplessness, I wrote long suicide notes and researched the most painless ways to die. My parents eventually started noticing my actions, but at that point, I didn’t care; their efforts to stop me only fueled me more. I cut the screaming matches and ignored their pleas to help myself. There was no way, I thought, to end the cycle I had entered.
I finally hit rock bottom when I stole a bottle of pills from my grandfather’s medicine cabinet, less than a month after being hospitalized in a mental institution. My parents found out before I could take them, and in their desperation to stop me they punished me, hoping that some time at home would force me to reflect on who I was. become. I only sank deeper into my isolation. I pretended not to notice my grandparents’ all-consuming guilt and refused to tell my parents or my sister about my feelings. I assumed that I was going through something that no one in my family could understand.
Like most things, however, my mental health improved over time. I started to find things that I was passionate about and leaned into them. My grandparents were there for every phase of my recovery. Their support was discreet, but always present. It appeared as sweet white peaches and sweet grapes on a flowery tray as I studied for my exams. They came to every one of my mock tryouts, and even though they never really knew what was going on, they glared at my opponents and patted me on the back after each performance. They came with me on hikes around the nearby lake, always careful to walk a few steps behind me. Even though they never said much, I knew they were there, and I knew they cared just as much as they did when I was a young kid happily watching their Korean dramas.
I didn’t find out my grandmother had bipolar disorder until my senior year of high school. When I finally did, the pieces started to fall into place. I was angry that no one ever told me. At the same time, I was relieved. I came to realize that my depression, even though I hated it, came from her. I thought I had suffered alone, but all this time my grandmother had been there with me. I was not an enigma in the context of my family; I was a reflection of the woman who raised me.
I thought I had suffered alone, but all this time my grandmother had been there with me.
Even as I struggled through the process of recovery, I was comforted to know that my grandmother had been through something so similar and had come out the other side. Despite her difficulties, she had created a family. She had graduated from college and held a job while raising three children in a country that was not her own. She had married a man who truly loved her, even with aspects of his life that I had always thought impossible to accept. It gave me lasting hope.
Last August, I finally found the courage to come out to my grandparents. I knew I was queer from my early teens, but even after coming to terms with my own identity, I struggled to share that aspect of my life with them. They had been raised traditionally in South Korea in the post-war period, and my grandmother was deeply connected to her Christian faith. For years I harbored the fear that the people who had always loved me so much would not accept me if they knew the truth.
I was walking through Stern Grove in San Francisco when I decided it was time. Fresh out of my freshman year at UC Berkeley, I had spent a lot of time connecting with my gayness, and realized how important it was for me to open up to my grandparents in all the senses. My hands were shaking when I finally called my grandmother.
“I’m gay,” I hesitantly tell him on the phone, “I’ve been into girls for a long time. And I wanted to tell you because it’s important to me, and I want you to know who I am.
My grandmother did not hesitate. Maybe my mom warned her about the phone call, but for a woman known in our family for always saying the wrong things at the worst times, she knew exactly what to say.
“I know,” she told me, “I’ve known that for a long time. I want you to keep telling me things, and I don’t want you to hide anything from me. And I don’t want you to worry about me, because I’ll be fine.
Before hanging up, she gave me words that carried me through the past few months. “I love you more than anything,” she said.
I don’t let my emotions rise easily, but it made me cry like a little child. My mother told me that when she and her brothers were growing up, my grandmother had a hard time expressing her love in words. But she found this ability for me just when I needed it, and it meant more to me than anything I had ever been told in my life.
But she found this ability for me just when I needed it, and it meant more to me than anything I had ever been told in my life.
My grandfather’s response was less emotional, but perfectly appropriate. I got a single text from him the next morning that said, “When you were younger, you asked me who my favorite grandchild was. My answer was that you were number two. The present and the future will remain the same, number one is Mimi. Too bad.” Mimi, their beloved goldendoodle, goes with them on way more walks than I’ve ever taken, so I couldn’t be mad.
I always wanted to write a love letter to my grandparents, to thank them for everything they gave me. Instead, I’ve tried to come home once in a while and try my grandmother’s new recipes, or accompany my grandfather on strenuous hikes that he thinks will be easy. but always leave me much more out of breath than him. The older I got, however, the more the words seemed to matter. My grandparents found the words for me, and I want to do the same for them. Now, from someone who never had the language to sum up the love my grandparents always provided for me, I hope that’s enough.
Contact Olivia Rhee at [email protected].