The Korean Dermatologist (On Crying Again)

It just so happened the Kleenex box matched the book cover.

My professor made me cry again.

Discussing Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, a classmate asked, “Why do you think certain books make us cry?”My professor leaned back and looked around the room.

“Who cried reading this book?” she asked, and when several of us raised our hands, asked us at what parts and why. She heard someone sniffling and turned to look at me.

“Oh Betty.”

I didn’t have to raise my hand because I was already crying. I’m terrible at summaries and with this particular book, it wouldn’t work. There’s a chimpanzee involved. Animal cruelty. But that’s not what made me cry. There’s also a broken family and –
“That yearning,” my professor said, “That desire to restore. Make reparations.” (This doesn’t give away any part of the novel.) A classmate took pity on my inadequate shirtsleeves and tossed a travel pack of Kleenex on the table in front of me.
“I’ll tell you a story that always gets me,” my professor said, trying not to look in my direction.
My professor had a friend, a Korean dermatologist who while still in training as a medical resident, was stuck one Fourth of July weekend on a cancer ward rotation.

She made the rounds, visiting briefly with an elderly man dying of stomach cancer. In a scratchy, barely there voice he told her that as a soldier stationed in Korea, he had fallen in love with a Korean girl. But after his return to the US he never saw her again and could never find her. He had loved her so much, he said, and she, the pretty young Korean doctor, reminded him of her.

She felt a little uncomfortable, but professionalism and his decrepit state made her nod and smile. He never had visitors and there was something hopeless about his eyes. She walked away. He didn’t have long.
A few hours later she walked by his bed again to check his vitals. She wondered what her friends were doing at various barbecues. His hand raised up a little, his fingers wavered a few inches above the thin, rough hospital sheets. His lips moved weakly.
“Sorry?” she said; she didn’t hear.
His fingers waved again, then fell to the bed. She came to the edge of the bed near his arm and bent down close to his face.
“Can you say it again?”
He repeated his words. This time the young Korean doctor stiffened. She stood up, eyes wide and thought how strange her profession was and how his request might be viewed as inappropriate. But she saw too, that the dying man before her wanted, in the grand scheme of things, a very small thing.
“Please,” the man said. Her eyes welled up. She wondered if anyone would go to his funeral. She could not cure his disease, but she could help him with this very small thing.
She nodded and without saying a word, bent down again close to his face. She kissed him on the lips, just as he had asked.
“Thank you,” he said. A few minutes later he was dead.
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