The lion

The sweater seemed misplaced. Funky patterns. Earthy colors. Big buttons.

The rest of the bag was filled with suits and overcoats — the kind of thing you’d see on someone who takes himself seriously. But then there was this sweater.

I pulled it over my head.

Grandma laughed.

“Your grandpa bought that a long time ago, but he never wore it. He didn’t like the colors.”

Seemed like something he would do. But the sweater didn’t seem something he would buy. It was a whimsical piece.

The rest of his clothes were solid colors or a herringbone weave — the kinds of clothes I’d expect him to have.

But I wasn’t sure, because I only knew him as grandpa. And we didn’t share a language. We had few intimate moments. Conversations were minimal.

But I did know a few things. He instilled fear in people. He was painfully stubborn. He was occasionally prickly. And he was fiercely territorial.

A lion.

He attacked the food on his chopsticks. He fought with neighbors about land. He killed a snake that crept into his backyard.

And his voice was sharp and loud. When I heard it, I wondered if I even liked the man. It reminded me of a predator ready to pounce on weaker prey.

But what made it really difficult was that he was never sharp or fierce toward me. He was only protective.

When my parents geared up to spank me, my first instinct was to run to my grandfather. He would cradle me in his arms to block any incoming blows, even if I fully deserved them.

And that snake he killed? It’s because it came too close to his grandchildren.

But I learned he wasn’t just nurturing toward us.

I met a retired schoolteacher at the wake, who said my grandpa sent her through school — paid for it all. I met nieces and nephews, who said the same thing. And what he did for his own children is even greater.

This week, I dug through his old stuff. I walked through his countryside property. I listened to stories from relatives. And I got the sneaking suspicion that the man was whimsical.

He wanted to build a pond on his land. Completely impractical — but it’s a freaking pond! He founded a clothing company, and he had a monopoly on winter coats — because they were prettier than the rest. At the end of his life, he ran a hostel. Twenty rooms, each 8-by-8 feet, in the middle of Seoul — for people who are at the crossroads of life.

And he wanted to wear hippy sweaters with funky patterns and big buttons.

We could never communicate clearly. But if we could talk, I am sure we would’ve fought endlessly.

But I’m also sure I would’ve understood just how poetic he was. Perhaps I would’ve understood the part of me that wants to take his funky sweater to wear for myself.

If we could talk, perhaps I would’ve understood how compassionate he was.

If we could talk, perhaps he would’ve more easily expressed his love for me. He tried so desperately over the phone. He would ask about my eating habits, my girlfriend, my job — and only hear the same empty response: “Good.”

I felt utterly compelled to attend his funeral, despite being halfway around the world. It wasn’t to say goodbye, but to say thank you. He was a lion who spent his life protecting and providing. Gratitude is the least the lion deserves.

So I just hope he knows that those frustrating conversations and awkward hellos meant the world to me — and that I never, ever doubted how much he cared for me.

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