The realization comes in small increments, passing moments in which a presence is felt despite the absence.
Edward Hong was having a light lunch at home in La Canada Flintridge, the day after his mother was shot and killed outside the family's grocery store in South-Central Los Angeles. As he dipped into ojing-oh muchim, a Korean side dish of seasoned squid he had found in the refrigerator, the thought flashed that this had been made by his mother, one of the small expressions of familial love that can go unnoticed in the normal flow of daily life.
FOR THE RECORD - Clarification
Los Angeles Times Sunday February 21, 1999 Home Edition Part A Page 2 Metro Desk 1 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
Southern California Living--A suspect has been arrested in the killing of a popular grocer in South-Central Los Angeles. The slain grocer's family is featured in today's cover story, which was printed before the arrest was made.E1
He felt his stomach flip.
"I know she's gone," Hong, 25, says a few days later. "I used to stay up late, and now I'm staying up even later, hoping she'll come home, knowing she's gone but still hoping. Then I just sigh and go to sleep."
This is the nature of sudden loss and sudden grief. It is knitted together from scraps of reality. Hong's mother's body lying in state, hands crossed on her chest in the custom of the dead, is one. The drowning emptiness that comes with sifting through her clothes to pick the burial suit is another.
The pragmatic need to fill a sudden void is a third.
In the days since Chung-bok Hong's killing Feb. 3, spasms of anger, outrage and loss have flashed through her family and the people who rely on the 54th Street Van Ness Store, a corner grocery where the Hong family's mix of business and compassion made them part of the predominately African American and Latino neighborhood.
The bonds forged in life continued into death. Chung's funeral on Feb. 11 was held at St. Brigid's Catholic Church a few blocks from the store, even though the Hongs live 25 miles away and attend the Korean Protestant Light of Love Mission Church in Glendale.
"I decided to share my sad with them," explains Jong-pyo Hong, Chung's husband. Family members also are considering creating a scholarship fund in Chung's name for neighborhood students. Because sharing and devotion to family was Chung-bok Hong's focus.
"She lived and died for the family," the son says.
And now the family lives without her.
"It's just not going to be the same," says Janet, Chung's 14-year-old daughter. "Life is going to keep going on, just sadder. A lot sadder. Mom used to take care of everything, all the little simple things. Now we'll have to."
Chung handled the customers at the grocery store; Jong handled the general operations.
The son has stepped into the mother's role at the shop. The transition at home is less certain. Jong did most of the cooking, but Chung was the engine that kept the household running. Now, the family routine is wobbling with the sudden imbalance. They were four; now they are three.
Death, for all the trappings of ritual and public goodbyes, is an intensely personal thing. It's an excision, one that puts the world on a permanent tilt. The comprehension of death's permanency comes as an echo in the soul, soundless but deafening. It takes shape in confused, mundane acts.
"When I call the store, I always have a first line," the son says. "We have a guy who works for us named Tino, and I say, 'Tino, Mama o Papa.' I still haven't left off my mother. I have to concentrate at leaving it out."
They Didn't See a Future in Korea
Chung was born in 1946 in northern Korea and was a toddler when her family slipped south to Seoul before the border became a barrier. Jong, six years older than Chung, was born and raised in Seoul, where the war that separated the country also ravaged his life--his father was killed in the fighting.
Neither saw Korea as the key to their own futures and left as young adults for Germany. Chung landed a job as a nursing supervisor in a West Berlin hospital. They met when Jong visited the city during a week off from his job working construction in a coal mine outside Hanover.
The couple spent hours together at a nearby park, watching peacocks strut beneath the changing leaves of November.
"It was beautiful, but I didn't want to get close to any woman," Jong, 58, says. "I had plans. But when I saw her, she was so innocent, the eyes, all the time smiling."
They married June 3, 1971, and within a year made their way to Los Angeles, where a friend of Chung's lived--the only person either of them knew in North America.
Immigrant life rarely is easy, and it was no different for the Hongs. Chung, trained as a nurse but without California credentials, worked as a nurse's aide; Jong, who had studied drama in Seoul, pumped gasoline. Slowly they worked toward the future. Chung earned her license as a registered nurse. Jong progressed through jobs at a wallpaper factory, a carwash, as a welder and then as an ironworker. They scrimped and saved and planned.