On our drive home from the dentist’s office, Mom and I took an ironic turn into a McDonald’s drive-thru to get ice cream sundaes. They consist of simple vanilla soft serve topped with a generous amount of hot fudge. This trashy, dense taste is not replicated anywhere else in Korea. It was a typical moment in our relationship, in which we justify each other’s unhealthy cravings by satiating them together.
I polished mine off in a matter of minutes, and when we arrived home, I climbed into bed with my computer to get some emails out of the way. Mom soon wandered casually into my room, still finishing her sundae, and sat next to my bed.
“This is so good,” she said. “The chocolate fudge… you can’t beat it.”
“Mhm,” I responded, eyes glued to my screen, typing away.
“I think the best part is when the fudge hardens and you scrape it up with your spoon.”
“Yeah, that is really good.”
“This is what life’s all about, isn’t it? The small pleasures.” Her tone shifted into one of meaningful reflection. Trust my mom to turn anything into a grand conversation.
“Yeah,” I said, still focused on writing my email. This was a familiar pattern by now; our relationship had shifted in the past year into something more closely resembling a friendship. Faded were the patronizing arguments and my rebellious-teen thoughts, and in their place emerged more frequent serious conversations, during which Mom opened up more deeply about her thoughts and engagements with the world. This made her a more fleshed-out and real individual in my mind, rather than simply knowing her as my mother.
“I’m saying this because— because one of my fellow professors this year—” then her voice caught in her throat, and I looked up in alarm as her eyes filled with tears. “She lost her son.”
Mom described how her colleague’s son did not show up to work one day, and that he was simply found dead in bed. “She told me, ‘he came and went like a comet. I think he was meant to borrow my body to come into this world, spend time with me for 28 years, then leave.’ I cried so much when I heard that,” she said, “that he just came and went like a comet.”
I didn’t know how to react for a moment, in the face of a tragedy thrown into my day like a wrench into a machine. Then Mom looked into my eyes.
“I can’t imagine,” she said, and as she started crying harder, I couldn’t help but wipe the tears from my own eyes. In that moment, as she made eye contact with me, I felt in an intense jolt the attachment a parent has for their child, and the magnitude of potential loss that such a relationship created. The eighteen years I had spent with her felt so fragile, like they could be knocked to the ground in an instant.
The professor, Mom went on to explain, was soon diagnosed with a form of cancer after her son’s death and was now facing mortality herself. She had moved out from her home because the memories attached to the space were too powerful.
But what really made me cry, I think, was not the stark reality of pain that this story beat into my bones, but an instant flash-forward of how I would be moving away to college this year, find a job, find a husband, and go on fighting my own battles until I realized all of my relationships were eventually finite, and that some of them were destined to end abruptly.
I placed my hand on Mom’s. The remainder of her ice cream melted into a creamy pool at her side. The transition from McDonald’s appreciation to this emotional outpour had at first seemed sudden, but in retrospect, it was natural. It is the small, mundane things that end up mattering most and causing the most pain. No number of sweet treats can fight death, but they are among the things that make everything worth it.