The period of time from July 2016 – September 2017 is what I’ve been calling the “Best Year of My Life”. I traveled all over the world, I pushed myself to cross off bucket list experiences. I ate, climbed, dived, drank, meditated, practiced yoga, flew, trained, rode in buses, walked everywhere, laughed, cried and lived my life in a way that I did not know was possible. And then I returned back to the U.S. because it had been over a year of this journey and I thought it was a good time to evaluate my life from many angles, reconnecting with family and friends whom I missed so very much. There were so many reunion dinners, lunches, drinks and I loved it. I traveled from LA to San Fran, then Portland and eventually to DC and of course NYC, the place that was last “home”.
When I returned, many friends and family asked a few questions about my trip (usually “where is your favorite place?”), which is impossible to describe in a few sound bites, but even more wanted to know “so…what’s next?” What could possibly follow the Best Year of My Life and not feel like a major disappointment? Anticipating these questions, I decided prior to my return to the U.S. that I would head to South America, which for me was still unexplored territory. More exploration, adventure and new experiences and places? That sounds good to me. I decided all of this without having done that assessment part that I mentioned earlier.
I would go to South America after the holidays and after my cousin Grace’s wedding at the end of January. Grace is like a little sister and the only daughter to my beloved uncle and aunt so this was a major family event. I’ve witnessed her life from birth to becoming a successful doctor (every Korean family’s dream) and I knew I wouldn’t miss it even if it meant being in the intense judgmental glare of my entire extended Korean family. Do not underestimate the anxiety of being a single, unemployed and homeless woman in her 40’s who is about to step into the Gladiator’s Arena that is a big Korean family wedding. And to give up a big job where you made good money and had a big fancy title (Koreans love that too) and lived in NYC, “well that doesn’t make any sense” would be the prevailing sentiment in most of my relatives’ minds and being Korean, spoken directly out loud. I managed to avert most of the scorn and concern about my triple curse of being single, unemployed and without my own home by miraculously transforming myself from hideous beast to lovely swan (to translate the Korean response, I lost some weight).
Prior to the wedding, my time spent with friends and family was everything I hoped it would be. I met babies that were born during my absence, told of upcoming weddings, new jobs, new relationships and the many life events that I missed while away. But the euphoria of reunions and homecoming plunged into darkness in December when a series of unforeseen life events came crashing over me.
On December 21st, I was sitting outside on mom’s front stoop when I got a call from Ley, one of my closest friends. Our history is so long and deep that I knew from the moment I heard the first word out of her mouth that what would follow would change our lives forever. She told me that our friend, her best friend, Kristin (affectionately nicknamed “Pig” since our college days) passed away peacefully after a merciless eight year battle with cancer. I barely recall what words we exchanged because all of it was heavy with a devastating sadness that comes with the knowledge that we lost the best among us. She was the most beautiful, boldest, bravest, most loyal friend to all of us, our sister, our favorite belligerent warrior who fought cancer without complaint or self-pity, often being the one to console her loved ones as we were sometimes unable to mask our fear of losing her. There are too many memories of our decades-long friendship to list, but her presence could never be forgotten as her strength and hilarious laughter are like treasures we carry with us every single day. And when the GIRLS get together, we don’t talk about cancer, we talk about trips, dancing, wine, her gorgeous son, her stubbornness and the endless ways in which we love and remember her. We celebrated her life and said our goodbyes to her the days after Christmas finding brief moments of comfort in huddling together and shedding fountains of tears and howling over our favorite Piglet stories.
As if the trauma of losing one of your dearest friends wasn’t enough to endure, the days leading into Christmas, I developed a crazy infection on my leg that had me spending Christmas morning at Urgent Care. I’ll try to avoid the gory details, but what started as a seemingly innocuous pimple turned into a throbbing, angry and ever expanding mass on my thigh that kept me from being able to sit, lie down or do anything without intense pain. It’s not the most reassuring feeling when the doctor’s initial response to seeing something on your body is “UGH! That’s a bad one.” It turns out it was an aggressive bacterial infection that took two weeks of antibiotics that made me sicker than the infection and multiple visits to the clinic where the wound had to be treated. The only positive outcome of that infection was that it provided some comic relief to my friends to see me arriving to one of the saddest events of our lives with a small pillow featuring a beautiful angry elf character (it belongs to my gaming sister Sylvia).
And just when you think things couldn’t get worse and I prayed that 2018 would bring some positive news, I crashed. More accurately, a car came crashing into me. It was the first week of January and I was on my way to my friend Andy’s place when I decided being sad on his sofa sounded more comforting than being sad on my mom’s. I got into my car and braved the 12 degree day and appreciated seeing the sun. I was about to get onto the highway when at the last minute I decided to keep straight and treat myself to a car wash and take advantage of the sunshine and wash the salt off my Mini. Seconds later on this busy road where most drive 45-55 mph, the car in front me came to a sudden stop. I slammed on my brakes and by some miracle managed to avert hitting him and for a millisecond I celebrated my luck before the car behind me hit me so hard, my car spun, hit the car in front me and I experienced that thing people talk about during life threatening events. I had that moment of “God, please don’t let me die not this way” and thankfully I didn’t. But the impact was so forceful it moved my car seat off the rails so that I spun about 60 degrees to the right and the left side of my body slammed into the car door.
I sat in the car frozen with shock and confusion about what just happened when I saw for the first time the cause of the accident. A woman who looked about 30-40 yrs old was dancing around the carnage of cars and parts that flew all over the road and she was wearing what looked like pajamas. She was shouting, spinning and taking off her bra, which she then hung on the side mirror of the car in front of me. I later found out that she was yelling “I am going to kill all of the cars!” Mission accomplished lady.
The man who hit me from behind was the first to spring into action, getting out of his car to check on the man in front of us and me and he asked if I was OK. It’s a powerful and bizarre reflex to immediately respond “yes, I’m OK.” Truth was I was far from OK but I did not know that. I mean, I was “lucky” in that I was alive, my bones were not broken and thankfully no one else was obviously injured. When the police arrived, I was still in shock but started to get really upset and unfortunately encountered an inexperienced officer who missed the day in police training when they talk about showing any kind of sympathy for victims of trauma. When he asked me if I needed an ambulance I was quick to respond I didn’t, but as he was recording the details of the accident and the adrenaline started to diminish, I could feel increasing pain rising in my body. I started to cry and I asked him if I should go to the hospital when he replied with agitation “ma’am you need to calm down. I am not a doctor.” Luckily, Sylvia and her boyfriend Ervin came to pick me up and despite the fact that they also didn’t go to medical school, they insisted I go to the ER just to make sure I was really OK.
In the days and weeks that followed this accident, I’ve learned so much about the do’s and don’ts of post car accident decisions. The “I’m OK” reflex had me signing settlement claims with the insurance company within three days of the accident, which I later discovered was the not the smartest thing to do. I may not have broken bones, but I’ve needed a lot of physical therapy and treatments and I didn’t just lose a car in the whole mess. It was so emotionally traumatic and I replayed my last minute decision to go straight instead of turning and how that decision led to so much pain and negative consequences. And in this time post Best Year of My Life, I haven’t worked so the financial consequences have also been an unforeseen cause of stress as well. Insurance called it a “total loss” which felt like an accurate description of not just the accident, but life the past few weeks. Sadly, the value they placed on “total loss” was about $5000, which doesn’t quite seem commensurate with the phrase or the way I felt.
My friends have described this month of my life using biblical and literary references like the trials of Job or the Crucible. Initially, I was trying to not to slip into the whoa-is-me of it all because I did not have cancer, I did not lose my leg to infection and I did not die in an accident. However, finding the silver lining felt impossible when these things happened in rapid succession and before I knew it, I was drowning caught in the riptide of trauma, loss, grief and pain. I withdrew from friends and family and everything slowed to a pace of just existing and contemplating how to get through each day without freaking out my mom with my never before seen fragility.
I was listening to a podcast with Cheryl Strayed, the author of Wild and she quoted from her book Tiny Beautiful Things that gave me comfort and hope, two things I hadn’t felt in a while. I shared it with my friends that I knew were going through their own grief and pain.
“You let time pass. That’s the cure. You survive the days.
You float like a rabid ghost through the weeks. You cry
and wallow and lament and scratch your way back up
through the months. And then one day you find yourself
alone on a bench in the sun and you close your eyes and
lean your head back and realize you’re OK.”
Now back to the question so, what’s next? I know that I need to work and earn money, but I am not rushing to get the next big corporate job. I am fortunate enough to have friends reach out to me and talk about some professional opportunities, share their experiences in consulting/freelance work, which is something I am starting soon. I am channeling my attention back to writing and sharing my stories. I am taking the advice of a trusted advisor who told me to slow down and take the time I need to figure out what I want my life to be and not just my career. She knows that is not in keeping with how I normally operate because even in the Best Year of My Life, I rarely stayed still. I had to constantly remind myself to enjoy the slower pace of life. Being back in the reality of “real life” that is filled with so many things that can break my heart and make me feel small, I am also reminding myself of all of the reasons I feel lucky and grateful. I have friends and family who support and rally around me and show me all of the ways that I am loved. I am finding my voice again and starting to share my pain and vulnerability in ways that feels really uncomfortable, but I know that is also what will help me move past the smallness and shame of this period. I still want to go to South America, but not rushing there either. I look forward to the day I will be sitting on a bench and feel the sun on my face.