Father's Day

By Jaehoon Ahn
Sunday, June 17, 2007

Ten years ago this month, a few days before Father's Day, my 87-year-old father, frail and fragile, slowly died of heart failure.

His passing was peaceful and painless. He was holding my mother's hands, lying in his own bed. He wanted to die a good death, and he did.

My brother and I did not cry much at his funeral, trying to make it as dignified as possible. Everything seemed perfect.

But something was missing when he was buried on a gentle hillside in Glendale, Calif. Although he loved his adopted country, I knew he wanted to be near his ancestors' tomb in North Korea.

Some years earlier, perhaps in a moment of nostalgia, my father had told me how he remembered the fragrance of soil from his home town.

When I heard this, I thought that any memories of sweet-smelling hometown dirt must be imagined, if not hallucinated.

Years later an American aid worker visited my office. The man had just returned from North Korea, where his organization delivered medicine and food to the poor, and he had brought me a gift.

He gave me a small plastic cup. Inside was a spoonful of dark brown North Korean dirt.

The aid worker told me that he and his North Korean handler had collected the soil along the Daedong River basin in Pyongyang, not far from the house I was born in, because he had heard stories of my family.

We became refugees at the end of the World War II, when our family fled North Korea to escape communism. I left my home town in the middle of the night when I was 5. None of us has managed to visit our homeland even once in the past 61 years.

When the man left, I called my elder brother and told him about this priceless gift. He was quiet on the other end of the phone line. I repeated with excitement, "I got it. I have it right here in my hand!"

After a long pause my brother said softly, "Let me know when is your flight. I will come out to the airport." He picked me up from Los Angeles International Airport, and we drove in silence to the cemetery in Glendale. I reminisced during the ride, busily sorting through fond memories of my father.

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