“Why is it that, as we age, we have harrowing regrets that just keep coming back?” asks Y, 82, a high school alum (1956).
“Give me an example,” I press.
“In the spring of 1951 I shot a sparrow sitting on a persimmon tree at the boundary of my grandparents’ house,” he narrates. “I saw it shoot up, then drop like a stone into the back yard of the house next door, a dozen yards below the edge of the property, the grandest in the village in Haynam, the southwestern tip of the peninsula. Our family had just fled south during the Big One-Four [1- 4-1951] Bugout when the Red Chinese Volunteers entered the war on the side of North Korea, pushing back MacArthur’s forward deployments.
“Lest the bird should recover and fly away, I climbed down the rock retaining wall to the neighbor’s lot. A door opened from a room in the rear and a girl stepped out, pretty with bright shining eyes, but with a neck swollen bigger than her face. She smiled brightly and said Hi. Without even a glance at her, let alone a response, forgetting all about the sparrow, I skedaddled.”
“That’s natural, a reflexive reaction to disease, perhaps contagious. You weren’t mean like calling her names as you ran or did you?”
“No. Frankly I was scared as if I had seen a ghost. But what still gets me is that she had a pretty face with such bright shining eyes, very much like those of Miriam, my 9-year-old granddaughter. She must have been about that age but never let out of the house, segregated from society like a leper. My sudden appearance outside her door must have seemed like an angel descending from heaven to befriend her. But, a callous coward, I fled, crushing her little heart, dooming her to her fate, her disfigurement, incurable by primitive Korean medicine at the time, and ostracism, through no fault of hers, like race, genes, … Why couldn’t I have been more kind to the poor girl!”
“Don’t be too hard on yourself,” I comfort him. “We have all been little heartless monsters at some point, maybe we all still are, just older, better at pretense.”