The moment I stood up I knew there was no going back. Any courage I had felt drained away and was instantly replaced by a myriad of fears. I stared at my feet, willing them to move. Heads began to turn from the front rows, like a wave of dominoes that came crashing towards me. Slowly, I slid past the strangers sitting with me in the last row. That walk to the front of the funeral home was the longest of my life.
The minister motioned to the podium and I found my place behind it. I began to study the wood grain in an attempt to avoid meeting the hard gazes of people I had never met. Silence only fed my fears, so I took a deep breath and looked up.
“Hello. My name is Eric Young. I know that most of you will not be able to understand what I am saying, but… Well, I guess I’ve just never said how I feel out loud and it’s too important to let it stay that way.”
The two hundred Korean faces staring at me held no expressions that I could interpret.
“I met Chung-Hee by accident. No. Accident is the wrong word. I think maybe it was a gift, like God was looking out for me. My life was in a bit of a rut. One night, I finally got sick of just sitting around my house being bored and decided I had to get out. I hadn’t played tennis in years, but there were courts within walking distance of my house and I thought it would be fun to see if I could still hit my spin serve.”
Not a soul stirred while I spoke, except for a young man in the second row. When I started, he leaned forward and began to whisper. I could only assume he was translating what I was saying to the family. Thoughts of ruining a funeral sapped the strength out of my legs. I held onto the podium with shaking hands and tried to go back to the memories.
“When I got there, Chung-Hee was playing on the other court with a couple friends. I guess they were waiting for someone who never showed. After I hit a few serves, he waived me over and gestured to see if I wanted to play with them. I was a little nervous, but he just nodded at me and pointed to himself to tell me I was on his team. It had been so long since I had played an actual match and it showed. Maybe it’s a culture thing, but I got the feeling the other guys were not exactly thrilled that I was a part of their game. I played terrible, but when I made stupid mistakes he just came over, patted me on the back, and smiled.”
I looked over to the minister, desperate to get some kind of encouragement to keep going. He just looked at me without blinking.
“Um… The next week I decided to go back at the same time, to see if they might be there again. There were more guys that night and they took up both courts. I had nothing else to do so I stuck around to watch for a bit. Anything was better than just sitting at home. When Chung-Hee saw me, he came over and pulled me right in. After that, I started meeting up with them every week.
Later, I found out that they were a Korean tennis club. I remember one night Chung-Hee was discussing something with the older guy who kind of organized the matches. They weren’t exactly arguing, but I could tell they didn’t agree and I got the feeling it was about me. When they were done, Chung-Hee was smiling. Through half English and half gestures, he got me to understand I was a member now and that it was $10 a month if I wanted to keep playing with them.”
The idea that I belonged to a Korean tennis club had always struck me as funny. When I laughed, a few people stirred in the audience and all the cultural fears sprung up inside me. The last thing I wanted to do was offend my best friend’s family at his own funeral.
“Anyway, there’s no way Chung-Hee could have known it, but I was in a hard place in my life at the time. I was all alone and struggling with questions about where my life was headed. I’ve never really had a lot of friends. When things got hard, I thought about tennis night. I love playing sports, but it was the the back pats and smiles that… I… It was just a simple thing, but somehow it gave me the strength to keep going.”
I paused and tried to gather my thoughts. No one knew what I was saying, but I could not stop until I said what I had come to say.
“Little things can mean so much, ya know? They had a tradition of bowing to your opponent before each match. I thought that was so cool; the way they showed respect for each other. And Chung-Hee could never quite get my name right. He used to call me ‘Hyoung’. I tried to explain a couple times that there was no ‘h’ sound, but after a while I just let it go. He knew a few words in English and I began to pick up a few in Korean, but the fact that couldn’t speak the same language never mattered. He became my best friend. We enjoyed all the things that never needed words, the thrill of competition, hanging out together, and laughter. I could have sworn that one time he told me ‘gracias’. I laughed so hard I had to sit down in the middle of the game. The other guys just looked at me confused, but Chung-Hee laughed right along with me.”
The threat of tears convinced me it was time to wrap it up.
“I will never forget him or the kindness he showed me. He rescued me from a dark place and showed me what true friendship is all about. We may have never been able to say it to each other, but I know I would have done anything for him and I know he would have done the same for me. I just wish I could have told him how much he meant to me. Somehow, in our own special way, I think he knew.”
My grip on the podium had turned my knuckles white. I peeled my hands off and made my way back to my seat. After I sat down a few more people spoke. I didn’t understand a single word. It made me wonder what all the people were thinking while I bumbled through what I had said.
The funeral went on for what seemed like hours and when everyone stood at the end I felt relieved to be able to move again. I waited patiently as row after row filed out the double doors at the rear of the building.
My row was the last to leave. I followed the line in silence. Once I reached the end of the aisle I saw that everyone leaving was offering their respects to Chung-Hee’s family who were standing just outside the doors. There was no podium to quell my shaking hands, so I quickly buried them in my pockets.
When it came my turn to face his parents I did not know what to say, so I simply bowed. Before I rose I felt a hand on my shoulder.
“My aunt says to tell you that Chung-Hee talked about you often. He always cherished the time you two spent together”
Words disappeared entirely as I looked from the young man to my best friend’s mother. She began speaking to the man beside her, but sideways glances told me that it was a message meant for me.
“She wants to know if you knew that Chung-Hee was an only child?”
I looked into her kind eyes and shook my head. She took my hands in hers and spoke again, but this time she looked straight at me the entire time.
“She says that her son considered you family and that means she does too. And she wants you to know that Chung-Hee knew your name. When he called you ‘Hyung’ it was not an accident. ‘Hyung’ is the Korean word for brother.”
Copyright © 2011 Adam Drake