Content Warnings (Click to Expand)
death; loss of a grandparent; cancer; terminal illness; mentioned miscarriages; food; the diaspora
Six months before my grandmother died, she and my father visited every restaurant in Tempe, Arizona that claimed to serve a real au jus French dip.
She was still healthy, then. Or—no, but she felt it. Or—she didn’t, but she hid the wound well, like a cat that wobbles when it walks but only when you aren’t looking. So it was there but not there, tucked carefully away beneath her faux-silk shirts while we sat at McAlister’s Deli, where my father had dragged the five of us—him, his wife, me, my sister, and Halmeoni—for his last and most thorough attempt.
“The reviews said this is authentic,” he assured her.
“Okay, okay,” she laughed. “I try it.”
I don’t remember what I bought for lunch; it doesn’t matter what I bought for lunch. She looked impressed, when the sandwich came. We were all hopeful about the endeavor, though none of us had ever been to McAlister’s and likely never would again. One thing they got right, for all their claims of faithful recreation, was the claustrophobic nature of a true city diner. My father, left-handed, had to sit on the edge of the booth to avoid crashing elbows with the person beside him.
“How is it, Harmony?” he asked, after she had taken an ambitious bite and before she even was done chewing. Sixteen years after divorcing her daughter, he called her Harmony still—a Korean word bent and shaped to fit into American mouths. He never called her by her name; I didn’t hear anyone, even myself, call her by her name until she was in hospice, where they marked the jelly cups in the fridge with the first syllable, In.
“Mm,” she said. “It’s fine.” She took another bite. “Is not right, but it’s good.”
We laughed, then. We didn’t know what else to do but to laugh.
“That’s all I’ve got,” my father told her. He was leaving tomorrow, to fly back across the country. He hadn’t been to Arizona since I left to live with him in high school, nine years ago; he hasn’t been back since. He takes few vacations; he took five days off for my college graduation and three to see my sister and I around Boston together for the first time in half a decade. But for Harmony he took a week, and he spent five of those seven days taking her out to lunch in pursuit of a sandwich she described to him.
“Very thin,” she explained. There is no v and no r in Korean; belly thin, it sounded like. “Very, very thin. Meat cut very thin. And sauce, you dip it into. I like that sandwich. I want eat that sandwich.”
This was the quest she had given him a week prior. At each successive restaurant, we got closer; the first one was a resounding no, and she barely finished what she was eating. By the time we arrived at that booth in McAlister’s she had resigned herself to these sub-par French dips, and laughed along with us when we told her it was as close as she was going to get.
She didn’t want a French dip, after all. She wanted the French dip.
“In Chicago,” she told my father, “I eat this sandwich all the time. Little shop by my house, I walk there and I get this sandwich and eat it all the time.”
This is what she wanted: the French dip that they made at a hole in the wall place in Chicago in 1970-something. Before my mother was born; before my grandfather died; before Arizona and California and North Carolina and before the miscarriages she spoke of sometimes only to explain that our mother’s name meant hope and life and love and before the cancer that was eating her left breast from the inside out while we sat in the booth of an authentic Chicago diner. She wanted that sandwich. And the thing was, I think if my father had had even a hunch of where she lived back then—if she’d known herself, around the mesh sieve that formed her memories after growing up tending to the wounded in wartime Korea—I think he would have flown to Illinois himself to get it for her.
My father said his goodbyes the next day; she gave him a hug and told him what she always told him, which was be good. I left too, a few days after, to return to school with a promise to come back. My father never saw her again, but I would; by the next summer I would be changing her dressings in her home bed between hospice nurse shifts; I would be sitting cross-legged on the floor of her room charting her medication schedule on a whiteboard so that I wouldn’t miss a dose of the Dilaudid they gave her to distract her body from the fact that it was dying. At the time, though, she was happy; she was healthy-not-healthy. She was still laughing about the sandwich.
“Maybe we try again,” she told him.
“Maybe we do,” he said.
It wasn’t about the sandwich, my father would tell me later. It was about spending time with him—her first son-in-law, the father of her oldest grandchildren, the man who she taught to crush milk cartons and screw the cap back on so they’d stay pressed down in the recycling bin. And he was right, mostly. That was it, kind of.
But sometimes I think about this: when she left our house for the very last time after her pain management became too hard to manage at home, they wheeled her out on her back staring up at the bright and cloud-streaked sky of suburban Arizona. She mumbled something in Korean; to me, maybe—she had started to forget that I had never learned it.
“What did she say?” I asked my mother, who spoke it only in broken fragments.
“She asked why it looks so strange outside,” my mother told me, and then her face turned into something soft, like grief without the sadness in it. “I think she thinks she’s in Korea.”
So I wish, sometimes, that we could have given her her last meal in the city where she was a young bride, a new immigrant, a nexus of possibility.
But if we couldn’t give her that, I’m glad she got to die at home.