I’ll never forget the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend 2013. We had friends over our house for Thai food and a cookout. Around 6pm, as I was cooking noodles, my sister called. “Linda?” she said tentatively when I picked up the phone. Immediately I could tell that something was wrong from the hysteria and crying in her voice.
“Hi, what’s wrong?”
“Did you talk to Dad?” I automatically assumed something happened to my mother. My heart started to pound through my chest.
“No, what happened?!” I said, feeling panic and dread.
Those words would reverberate through my head for the next two weeks, and fresh tears shed as I recall the shock, despair, regret, disbelief, and overwhelming grief I felt at the sudden loss of my brother.
My brother Chris, 42 years old, was found in his apartment by a friend after he failed to respond to texts and phone calls. Apparently he died peacefully in his sleep on May 25, 2013 after a night out with friends. He had a host of health problems in the past few years, but his death was sudden and unexpected, and came as a shock to everyone who knew him.
As a way to memorialize my brother, I am posting the eulogy I wrote and read at his funeral:
Christopher Hong-Kyun Yoon, was born on April 14, 1971 in Seoul, South Korea to my parents, Choong Jin and Song Ja Yoon. He was born with congenital heart disease, which affected his health as a baby and small child. In 1975, when he was four years old, we immigrated to the United States, where he had open-heart surgery at the age of 5. Some of you may have seen the scar on his chest. When we were young, he used to lift up his shirt to try to scare my friends, or sometimes he would tell people that he was an alien from another planet. However, his operation didn’t stop him from being active. In his childhood, he earned a black belt in Tae Kwon Do, played Little League and was nicknamed Froggy by his teammates because he came to practice once with laryngitis, and played football in high school. I remember when he broke his pinky during football practice, which seemed to give him the permission to boss his two little sisters around.
Chris also had a lot of different interests. He liked Star Wars, playing video games on his Atari and Apple 2E computer, superheroes, WWF and Jimmy Superfly Snooka, the Dallas Cowboys, and Dungeons and Dragons. We spent hours together watching MTV when it first went on air, as well as cartoons. And like a lot of little girls with a big brother, I adored him and looked up to him. I have two children who are home now in Arizona – Chris’s nephew and niece. Alek is 4 and Aliya is 2. When I see them together, I often see how Chris and I must have been like when we were their age. Aliya loves her big brother and wants to be just like him. She’ll copy his actions, his words, and sometimes I’ll even catch her in the same pose as Alek. She would rather play with his cars and dinosaurs than with her dolls. Chris was also a role model for me when we were young and influenced my tastes – sometimes good, sometimes bad. He got me into Star Wars and other science-fiction and fantasy-type books and movies when we were kids, then in high school he got me into Whitesnake and other hair metal bands, and home from college in Chicago he got me interested in NBA basketball and the Bulls. He was interested in so many things and had such passion and enthusiasm for them, whether it was for photography or food or his hatred for Republicans. His most recent interest had been making pizzas. I came home to find that he had turned my parents’ kitchen into a mini-pizzeria. There were all sorts of pizza supplies everywhere including pans and pizza stones and big bags of flour. He was reading pizza-making blogs and practicing every week to perfect his pizza. He even wanted to build a brick oven in the backyard to make his pizzas. And he was very excited to make pizza for Alek and Aliya when they come for a visit this summer. If you were lucky enough to taste his pizza, you would know how delicious it was. He gave me the recipe in February – a lengthy e-mail detailing each step to making “Chris Yoon’s perfect pizza.” If you want the recipe, I’m willing to share it with you…for the right price.
Chris was non-traditional and unconventional, starting in high school when he grew out and permed his hair Tommy-Lee style. He had to wear a hairnet in his job at McDonald’s. My classmates teased me about it but also said he was the coolest guy ever. He definitely stood out in the crowd with his individuality. In his 20s when he moved to Chicago, he got into his goth stage. He dressed all in black, wore big combat boots and lots of leather and chains. We thought this was a temporary phase but he told me that this wasn’t a phase and that this is who he was. When I visited him in Chicago, I would go clubbing with him at Neo and Exit. At first I was a little intimidated to meet his crowd, but they ended up being the nicest, most open-minded and open-hearted people I’ve met in my life. As much as I thought I was open-minded and non-judgmental, it was actually Chris who was. I was glad that Chris found his niche and a group of friends who were kind and loyal. In turn, Chris treated his friends and family with kindness and loyalty. Although he dressed in black, he had a heart of gold. He was so generous and always willing to give me things or share his food. One time when he was home from college, he came into my room wearing a hooded sweatshirt with his college logo on it. When I told him I liked it, he took it off right then and there and gave it to me. I know he did the same for his friends as well. I read on his Facebook wall that he literally gave the shirt off his back to a friend. He was always helping his friends move, build closets; he gave them rides in his car even when it was way out of the way and gave his friends a place to stay when they were down on their luck. One of his friends in a message to me described him as a knight in shining armor. And in the end, it was his friends who made him happy.
A few years ago he went through a difficult time and was in a pretty bad place after a bad break-up. Around that time, he wrote me a note which I still have, thanking me for listening to him and reassuring me that he would be okay and will find happiness again. At the end of the note he wrote ‘Carpe Diem’ (Seize the Day). But soon afterwards he fell into a funk, lost his direction and entered a reclusive stage that lasted for a long time. We were all worried about him. Then about 4 years ago, things started to turn around for him. He told me that the birth of my son changed him and that he vowed to make a better life for himself. He began to exercise more, eat better, and reached out to his old friends while forging new friendships. And in the past four years, his attitude improved greatly. Somehow he developed an over-the-top zest for life in that time. He wanted to try new things and had a child-like enthusiasm about them. A few weeks ago we all went to Hawaii for my dad’s 70th birthday. In past family vacations, Chris didn’t really participate in activities that much. But on this trip, he went golfing with my parents and husband, snorkeling for the first time with my sister, and he drove in the middle of the night by himself to the volcano that he had visited earlier that day with my family to take pictures of the sunrise. Last Friday he went to Costco with my mom and bought swim trunks and goggles because he wanted to learn how to swim. My parents have had their swimming pool for over 15 years and just now he wanted to take advantage of it. And on our last night in Hawaii, he insisted that we go to the beach and take pictures of the sunset. Now we are so grateful he did, because we have so many beautiful pictures of our last time together as a family.
In the past couple of years and on that vacation in particular, Chris lived as if each day were his last. He had told me before that he thought he would die young. I don’t know if it was his declining health or an instinct he had. In Hawaii on our last day, he was looking out at the ocean and the uninhabited island in the distance. I jokingly said to him, “You’re so sentimental.” And then he said that if he died, he would want his ashes scattered on that island. We quickly dismissed it, saying, “Why are you saying that?” But in the past couple of years he did live as if he had a short time left on this earth, and with his carpe diem philosophy, enjoyed each day to its fullest. He tried new things, took on his interests with a fiery passion, ate with gusto, and spent quality time with his family and friends. He was fun-loving and full of life. Most important of all, he was HAPPY. In fact, in the past couple of years and the last time I saw him alive in Hawaii, he was the happiest I’d seen him. He always had a big smile and with his big presence and big booming voice expressed himself with drama and flair. It actually got to be a bit irritating. In Hawaii, he told me, “God, Linda, you’re so grumpy now. You used to be so happy. You should be happier.” At the time I got defensive, saying that having the responsibility of children makes it hard to be happy all the time. But then I got to thinking that he’s right. I have every reason to be happy and Chris made me realize this. Chris LIVED. And even in his death, Chris is my role model for how to be more like him and how to live my life. These are the lessons I will take and pass to my children: Try new things and have new experiences. Have many interests and hobbies. Be kind to everybody. Be a loyal and good friend. Treat each day as a special gift. Enjoy life. Laugh more. Appreciate what you have. Be grateful for second chances. Love fiercely your family and friends. And be happy.
I’m very sad that my children will grow up without knowing their Uncle Chris. But he will always be in my heart and I will continue to hear his voice inside my head guiding me throughout my life. I will do my best to pass his legacy and philosophy in life to my children. Chris, thank you for being you. I love you forever and will miss you very much.