Birthday Cake by Chere Taylor

My mother is dying.

I say these words to myself as I peel then halve the onions for my extremely simple version of a guk soup. My husband, who is white, wants to celebrate my Korean ancestry today, even though my culture is almost as foreign to him as it is to me. But this morning I play along. Rice, soup and eggs for breakfast. I hate myself for doing it.

My mother is dying of breast cancer.

After dropping Kimmy off at school, I drive to the local grocery store. Not to Woo Sung’s Bakery, the store my mother owns, but an everyday Walmart and buy the most ooey-gooey cake available. Something large and obscene and American. Something I know she would instinctively disprove of. Today is her sixty-eighth birthday. That combined with cancer diagnosis takes away all of my excuses not to see her.

You’re a bitch, Hana, I tell myself as I stack not one, but two separate cake boxes at the register. But if there is arrogance in my purchase, then there is also the need to re-assure too. I have enough money to buy birthday cakes now. Well, technically it’s my husband’s money. I could go back to work if I really wanted to. It’s my own laziness that prevents me.

My parents Kim-Ha-Eun and Kim-Young-Ho migrated from South Korea during the Gwangju Uprising. My father had a visa to work as a neurologist at the Los Angeles Memorial Hospital. My mother was already pregnant at the time. The plan was to have all their children born in California so that we would be legal Americans. Ha-Neul my sister was born only one month after their official arrival and then I came along two years later.

Even now I can remember the fear. It was something that lived in our spacious yet sterile high-rise condo, despite my father’s smiling face and my mother’s reassuring hugs. The unnamed fear choked the air, like a smothering blanket. My three year old self would often look for the source of that fear, imagining that it had to be a monster of some sort. A grinning lip-sticked clown perhaps or a half human, half animal creature, crouching, waiting outside our front door. Any moment it would bust through the door and eat us all up. We were all doomed.

In reality the fear was probably nothing more than my parents nervousness over adjusting to a new culture and a new language. They had no family in California. No friends waiting for them there, though they initially moved to Koreantown so there was the comfort of their native tongue. Even so the monster did strike. When I was four, my father died from a bullet wound during a convenience store robbery. Shortly afterwards Ha-Neul came down with meningitis and almost died.

***

I take the two clumsily stacked cake boxes to the information desk, waiting for someone to stop me. To explain that outside food loaded with diabetes inducing levels of sugar were forbidden. God forgive me, but part of me even wants to be stopped. See mom, I did try to visit. I could tell her on the phone. But they stopped me from entering your hospital room to celebrate your birthday. It’s not my fault.

The receptionist hardly notices me. Lousy security at hospitals these days. I use the elevator to reach the second floor and enter her room quietly in case she’s sleeping.

Her room is small and has that thick disinfectant/medicine odor that all hospitals seem to have. There is only one small bouquet of flowers on her table. I check to see if it is from Ha-Neul, knowing full well it wouldn’t be. Sure enough the label declares, Get Well Soon, from all of us at State Farm, her insurance company. I set the boxes on the table.

Next, I examine her sleeping body, something I wouldn’t dream of doing if she were awake. My husband told me that she had gotten a mastectomy, possibly on both breasts, and in horrid fascination I look for signs of their removal. What would that look like, feel like? A major source of your femininity gone forever? But heavy blankets cover her. I can’t tell what’s been done to her chest. The skin sags on her face and arms. Her hair is streaked with random strands of white. The woman who once told me to always keep an extra fifty in your bra and would often get wolf whistles as she walked down the street, has become this, a living skeleton.

I feel like shit. As if my refusal to see her in the last five years has made her sick, destroyed her body. You’re a lousy daughter, Hana. I bend over and wake her gently.

“Omma” I tell her, my hand on her knobby shoulder. “Omma, kkaeuda. Naya Hana. (Mama, wake up. It’s me Hana.)”

She wakes easily and smiles at me. It is the same strong smile I remember from my childhood. I’m glad her mind is still there.

However it was a mistake for me to speak to her in Korean. Now she wants to talk in her native tongue and I’m clumsy with the language. Answering in two word phrases and always translating her words first into English in my head. Eventually, she takes pity on me and we continue our conversations in English. Her questions are simple and safe. How was my family? How was Kimmy performing in school? None of us mention her health, how long she has to live or my sister Ha-Neul.

She turns towards the table. “Why bring two cakes?” Her voice is weak, non-accusing.

Guilt assaults me. My original plan was to build a two tier birthday cake out of the two individual slabs because I couldn’t find a pre-made one at Walmart. Korean cakes are small, less sweet and there is something distinctly private about them. I knew this excess of sugar, icing that could feed a crowd would be an insult to her frugal sensibilities. But I no longer want to hurt this broken woman who lies helplessly in a hospital bed. She isn’t a threat. I think of a clever lie.

“It’s to celebrate both your birthdays.”

“Both my birthdays?”

“Yes. January 25th and New Year’s.” The Korean tradition was that everyone ages one year on January 23rd, the Korean New Year. I remember the fantastic celebrations we had in the past with both Ha-Neul and myself receiving gifts.

My mother shakes her head. “Korean birthday, January 1st.”

“What?”

“You think of New Year, Seollal. Seollal not Korean birthday. Seollal starts on Lunar New Year, January 23rd.

Then I get it. I had the dates confused with the Seollal, a totally separate holiday then the traditional New Year/Birthday on January 1st. I see the disapproval in her downturned lips. She thinks I don’t care enough about my culture or her personally to make what to her is a ghastly mistake. Her feelings are hurt. And I’m hurt that she’s hurt. But I also feel something else come alive in me. A spark …

“Such a waste.” She continues to shake her head.

…that turns into a flame. The beginnings of anger.

“New Year. January 1st.” she repeats, as if I’m exceptionally slow.

“Okay. Don’t eat it then.” I take the second cake box and immediately dump it in the trash basket. Her eyes watch me, vulture-like.

“Such a waste.” she says yet again.

“I know. That’s why I threw it away. You said so yourself. It’s not January 1st. Today is January 25th.”

“How much it cost?”

“What does it matter? Leo makes over eighty thousand a year.” Leo is my husband.

“How much you make?”

My lips press tightly together on their own accord. “You know the answer to that.”

“Nothing. You make nothing.”

I turn around and busy myself with the paper plates and plastic utensils. She is dying. You don’t want to get into an argument with your dying mother. How could you ever forgive yourself for that?

“Do you want a piece of cake?” I ask brightly with my back facing her.

“You cannot afford to throw away birthday cakes.”

Oh, I know you can’t afford to mom, I reply in my head before the bitterness sinks in, consumes me. The deep seated memories rise in me like vomit.

After my father died, we moved away from Koreantown, and settled in a more affordable neighborhood near Compton. To my child mind, it was to get away from the monster. The same fear producing monster that caused my parents to flee their native country, and then force us out again from Koreantown. I was bussed to a mostly white school to help keep it desegregated while my mother found work in a Korean bakery. My sister who became mentally challenged from her bout with meningitis attended a private school.

I remember my classmates, both white and black, stretching their eyes with their fingertips in supposed imitation of me, the Oreo-ental girl. That was how they pronounced the word, as if I were some sort of cookie. I was Oreo-entaland Chinese. But the absolute worst were the birthdays. It was the custom for each child’s mother to bring a store bought cake, cut it up then serve it to all the students on their child’s birthday. We would all be required to sing Happy Birthday. It was a welcome celebration. Everyone joined in.

My mother’s cakes were beautiful, but so petite and polite. No cartoon characters adorned them, like a yellow frosted Pac-Man or Smurfs made from blue icing. There was only enough to serve two, maybe three people at most. The entire class would stare at me, as the teacher (never my mother, she had to work) cut one fat slice and then slid the plate in front of me for me and me alone. My cheeks would heat with shame as they sang Happy Birthday. The shame of being treated differently from everyone else. A freak. Sometimes, I cried, but I always choked down at least three bites so my classmates wouldn’t have more fuel to gossip about me with.

I would have preferred not to have a cake at all. But how could I explain this to my mother, that her sincere actions of love were unwanted? The monster had returned and now I was old enough to understand it’s whispered message. There’s not enough money. Not enough money. Store bought cakes were expensive while the ones she made by hand at the bakery were mostly free. Would I add to the voice of that monster, with my own selfish desires? Especially with the freshly cut wound of her dead husband and my father still festering inside the both of us? Not to mention the difficulties of raising two daughters as a single parent, the oldest who was mentally challenged?

“You did the same thing mom.” I remind her gently. “You married a man who financially supported you.”

“Yes, but I always have own money. Every time Young-Ho give me twenty-five dollar, I save five. When he give me ten dollar, I save two. For every dollar I save quarter. I never not save money. That’s how when your Appa died, I have money to buy Bakery Shop. That’s how I have money to take care of you and Ha-Neul.“

As opposed to the lush who depends solely on her husband for money, thereby rolling back women’s rights by seventy five years or so. Right ma?

“Oh really? You took care of Ha-Neul?” The words slip out as easily as a poison dripping from a dart.

“What you mean?”

“Nothing.” Shut up Hana! I scream inside. But I feel the rage in me, the flame quickly surpassing the campfire stage and becoming a fire forest of rage. I’m afraid of my own anger and my mothers too. Our combined bitterness could be disastrous for the both of us. Wake up the old monster, that had never quite left our family but fell into a fitful sleep after my mother inherited (not bought) the Korean bakery she used to work in, and I left to become an eventual dropout in college. So shut up Hana. Please eat your cake like a good Oreo-ental girl and shut the fuck up!

I cut two perfect geometric squares and leave hers on the table so she wouldn’t think I was being pushy. She seems to be lost in thought. Meanwhile I take a forkful of chocolate goodness and shove it in my mouth. It’s like eating a spoon of raw sugar. Possibly a side-effect from my raging emotions. I force a smile on my face.

“I did what was best for Ha-Neul,” my mother says at last, “Buddha takes care of Ha-Neul.”

“Look Mom, you’re not feeling well.” I’m sorry for the whole argument now. I want to apologize but my own stubborn pride won’t allow it.

“She was not thriving here,” my mother says.

Not thriving here? Was Ha-Neul a house plant?

“Are you sure it wasn’t so you could save more money?”

She sits up. “I jeoldaelo, I never,” she begins again, “-would send my daughter away to save money. If I want to save money, I send you away too.”

“Alright mom. Sorry I was born. Sorry I’m such an embarrassment to you.” I toss my cake into the wastebasket and pick up her slice wanting to throw it away too. I don’t quite have the nerve to do this though.

“Babojishajima Hana!”

This roughly translates into, Don’t be stupid, Hana.

I put her plate back down and sit on the side of her bed in an almost parody of affection. Our foreheads nearly touch. “You know what I think?” I whisper, “I think you were embarrassed at what your neighbors would say about you, having a grown child living at home. Never mind the fact she had the mind of a nine year old. You had this Americanized ideal of what was acceptable in your head, and you cared more about the opinions of strangers than your own daughter. So, you sent her away. Period.”

The fist comes, not a flat palm, but a fist that lands weakly against my cheek. There’s no pain. But the damage has been done. The symbolic cord that has tied us as mother and daughter is cut. She hit me!

My mother isn’t crying. Her eyes are as hard as obsidian stone. But I sense a horror lurking behind them, a kind of churning sorrow. The type of sad acceptance that occurs when you realize you have accidentally chopped off a piece of your own body and something crusty and unnatural has grown in it’s place.

“Okay, sorry I bothered you. I’m going now. You get some sleep.” I dump the rest of the food into the garbage including the slice I originally saved for her. She turns her head towards the wall as I move. There is no eye contact.

I escape the hospital as unobtrusively as I first entered.

***

Back inside of my parked car I scream. I yell so loud the veins stand out on my forehead. How can you treat your mother so horribly? Throwing Ha-Neul into her face? My self-hatred feels like some murderous, red bird pecking my insides raw.

Yet another tiny part of me cries in defiance. Have you forgotten what she did to Ha-Neul?

When Ha-Neul turned twenty-one, my mother told her she had a special present for her. She put a thousand dollars in a South Korean Citibank and then another two hundred American dollars directly into Ha-Neul’s hand. In her other hand, she placed a pre-packed suitcase and told her she would be living in Seoul from that point on. Once she arrived, Ha-Neal had strict instructions to contact her uncle on my father’s side who gave my mother vague promises about helping Ha-Neul secure her own apartment and a reasonable job despite her not having a work permit. My mother put Ha-Neul on an airplane with her passport and …

… And we never heard from her again. No phone calls, no letters. No email exchanges. The thousand dollars remained untouched. She went to Seoul when she was twenty-one and Seoul swallowed her whole.

Two years later my mother invited me to travel to South Korea to visit Ha-Neul. That was how she put it, but in reality it was to find her. We spent a week in a pleasant hotel, while hunting down said uncle who apparently moved away only weeks after Ha-Neul’s arrival. He said that his niece never contacted him and was rather resentful of our intrusive questions and indirect accusations.

The police weren’t much better as her disappearance happened over a year and a half ago and they had more pressing matters. Towards the end of the week, I saw this hardness grow inside my mother, something I admired as well as despised. It was the same firmness that tried to suppress the voice of all the monsters from my childhood and even reality itself. Ha-Neul was doing fine, she told me on the plane ride back home. Why? Because she said so.

We never visited South Korea again. Whenever anyone asked about my sister, my mother would quietly inform them that she was living a happy life in Seoul, married with two children. I never added my own doubts when my mother said these things. It was around this time I stopped visiting her, though we both would make the occasional phone call to each other on special occasions.

I rest my forehead against the steering wheel and sigh deeply, wishing I could fix everything. Wishing I could grow that same hardness in me, that lies within my mother, even though I know it has half destroyed her. After a couple of more deep breaths, I pull out of the parking lot. I’ll call her sometime tonight.

Chere Taylor lives in Orlando, Florida and shares her home with her teen daughter, two chihuahuas, five cats and one X-ray Tetra fish. She enjoys reading and writing and tends to have a sneaky respect for the inexplicable. She has been published in several magazines including A Thin Slice of Anxiety, The Chamber, Anotherealm and Granfalloon. One of her stories was nominated for the Pushcart Prize.