Where Angels Sleep and Spirits Sing

July 7, 2021 / Eunjae Kim

They say I will end up in one of two ways: I’ll either find eternal bliss in a golden city, or tongues of fire and brimstone will forever devour me.

My grandpa sleeps in the 고기리 mountain where the breaths of still-living creatures fog the sky. Here, you can hear the old frog’s final, heavy croak, and maybe, if you listen closely enough, the bubbles in the stream where tadpoles break the surface of the water for their very first gulp of air. Here, laughter bubbles up in children’s throats and floats into the heavens as they chase butterflies across hills with their nets.

Not the white ones, though. The children know that the white butterflies are reincarnations of their loved ones who have already crossed into the afterlife. They see them fluttering from house to house and know that they do so in hopes of catching a glimpse of the people they’ve left behind. My grandpa sleeps forever in the mountain, but sometimes, I see white wings delicately perched on my windowsill and wonder if he has come to visit me.

An unopened pack of pretty stationery. A crumpled book on traditional Korean rituals that I pored throughout the years in my late attempt to connect with him. Those are all the things that I have left of him. I wish I could say that he lives forever in my memories and heart, but I never had much of him to keep. He was hard of hearing; our attempts at conversation often ended with me screaming in his ear in frustration. Even then, he just smiled and nodded at me with a blank smile, and I knew that he had not heard me after all.

We spoke in different tongues — he pronounced “earthquake” like “earthcake,” and I made fun of him for it. He saw the name of an author stamped onto the book cover, written in fancy cursive script, and read it as “Jail.” Perhaps it was his attempt at relating to his granddaughter, but I screamed that it was “Gail.” Every time I tried to get to know him, to close the gap between us that was as wide as the Pacific itself, I made it worse. Every word that escaped my mouth was accompanied by frustrated stomps and irritated huffs. Our conversations, which were scarce to begin with, eventually ceased to exist.

There was a time in my life when I was unfamiliar with the concept of death. The shape of the word in my mouth felt familiar — I knew of it, had heard about it in the news, saw it in movies, passed by hushed whispers that so-and-so had passed. But I had not truly known It. I did not know of the regret of not doing more. The guilt plagues you in the aftermath and shoves your head underwater until you’re choking and drowning in it, and it feels as if it’s everywhere, that guilt-water. The emptiness of knowing that you will never see them, hear them, grow with them again. The dread and fear that came with wondering, what is waiting for me after this life, if at all?

I’d seen it coming for years. He had been sick for as long as I could remember. His hair turned white and fell out too quickly, like dandelion seeds carried away by a gust of wind before you were ready to blow. I’d seen how he carried around his insulin shots in a small pouch around his stomach like it was his own flesh. I used to cringe whenever he plunged the needle into his stomach every time the timer went off, alerting him that it was time to take the shots. The alarms seemed like ticking time bombs. Tick. Tick. Tick.


I missed the one plane ride that I should not have missed. I had been on many before and many after, and I never missed any of them. But I missed the one that mattered most. I missed my only chance to turn our doomed relationship around ⁠— to give him the first and last hug we’d ever share, to be there with him, for him, hands wound tightly together when he crossed into the unknown. It was an honest mistake; I had not yet known death and how quickly it could strike. I gambled with death, bet against my grandpa’s death day, doubted that it would be so soon … and I lost.

And then, fear was all I knew about death.

I saw the way human skin breaks so easily, like how the flesh of a ripe persimmon tears at the gentlest touch. The ground that children were standing on, laughing on, chasing butterflies on could be the very site where, centuries ago, a family laid their loved one to rest. Now they were forgotten, their gravesite choking on cement buildings and smothered by the heavy footsteps of kids who simply didn’t care. Regret ate me up whole. From then on, I spent every night ruminating about everything I’d done that day that I could have done differently.

I remember we got on the next available flight as soon as we heard of his passing. I held his cold hands at his funeral and told him how much we loved him. I searched his face for something — a sign that would give away where he was, now that he was no longer with us. He seemed … gone. Not in pain, but not necessarily in peace. As if his spirit had simply gotten up and left his body.

Yes, I’d like to believe in Heaven. But how will I know until my feet have floated above Heaven’s clouds, until my ears have been blessed with angels’ songs and my eyes have been blinded by gleaming, golden gates? How do I know that the Great Promise will be fulfilled and I will be able to see my grandpa once again?

Perhaps we hide under the guise of stories of nirvana and holy promises, wearing them like talismans to ward off the fear that comes with encountering the unknown. Or maybe Heaven is real after all, and that’s where my grandpa’s spirit has gone. I plead to the sky for confirmation, but the sky remains silent. My questions will remain unanswered — at least while I am living. Nothing is for certain except one truth: At the end of my life, there will be a plane ride waiting for me. I do not know where it will take me.

But isn’t the fun of the journey the plane ride itself, as well? Before you reach the end, chase your dreams, collect them into your jar like fireflies so that, if this is all we’re granted, you know you’ve lived. Throw all caution to the wind, live in the chaos without being trapped by your fears, feel alive in the fury of the most destructive of storms, then find peace in its eye. The unknown doesn’t have to be fearful — it can be an incentive to find meaning and joy in what we are given.

My grandpa sleeps forever where the sun shines and the moon sings; where grandmothers gently press the petals of touch-me-nots onto their granddaughters’ fingernails until they are the color of sticky persimmons that, come autumn, droop low from their backyard trees. Or maybe he’s watching from above in an eternal Heaven, where he is no longer constrained by the physical limitations of his body, smiling at my needless worries. Whatever the answer may be, it brings me peace to believe that there will be a place with clouds and angels’ songs and golden gates, where all the people that I love and have loved will be waiting for me with open arms. My grandpa, telling me, We’ve missed you. Welcome home. Me, saying the words I have held close to my heart, waiting my whole life for the day I can finally set them free like butterflies into the heavens:

I’ve missed you so much, 할아버지. I love you.

By: Eunjae Kim

Layout: Juleanna Culilap

Photographer: Rachel Aquino

Stylist: David Garcia

HMUA: Zimei Chen

Model: Mikaela Medina
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