Eulogy for My Brother, Chris Yoon

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.

“Chris died.”

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:

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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.

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Christmas in Mexico Part I

This past Christmas we celebrated the holidays in my parents’ typical fashion…at an all-inclusive beach resort in Mexico.

Since my siblings and I reached our mid-20s several years ago (yikes), my parents have completely given up celebrating Christmas in the traditional sense.  No more Christmas tree, no decorations hanging outside or around the house, no special Christmas dinner, no Christmas shopping.  Instead, they have come up with a different tradition: traveling to a warm and sunny location in the tropics, preferably by the beach and a golf course.  Considering we’re all grown up and out of the house, and that my parents have extra days off during the holidays when their business is closed (not to mention the fact that Indiana gets so freakin’ cold and dreary before the holiday season even hits), it kind of makes sense.  And so, for the past 15 years or so, that’s how they’ve celebrated Christmas.

One year they traveled to Hawaii, one time they went on a Caribbean cruise, and a few times they’ve gone Mexico and various islands in the Caribbean.  They even came to Tucson three years ago to celebrate our son’s first Christmas.  However, contrary to popular belief, Arizona is not a blazing inferno yearround.  It actually does get chilly in December and January (highs in the 60s, sometimes in the 50s and even the 40s like last week!).  When my parents realized that Tucson at Christmastime doesn’t sufficiently thaw them out from the harsh Indiana cold, they opted for warmer climates, which meant going further south than Florida or Arizona (i.e. outside U.S. borders).  This year they chose Riviera Maya in Mexico.

Initially my husband and I vetoed the idea to meet them there because traveling with kids, especially young kids to international destinations, is a real pain in the neck (more about that in the next entry).  However, my parents desperately wanted to see their grandchildren, whom they hadn’t seen in a few months.  And since it was their turn to travel (last time we had seen them, we all flew Indiana), they offered to pay for our trip, including our flights to Cancun and a week’s stay at an all-inclusive beach resort (very generous, I know).

So our Christmas Eve and Day were spent on the beach.  Don’t get me wrong – it was a gorgeous beach with fine, white sand and beautiful crystalline blue waters.  However, despite the fact that I was with my entire family, it didn’t feel like Christmas.  The resort attempted to make things Christmas-y for their gringo tourists, with a humongous Christmas tree in the lobby, Christmas music playing throughout the resort, and a holiday-style buffet.  Although the resort look more festive, it didn’t successfully achieve the Christmas feel.  I guess the Christmas spirit comes from being at home with family and time-honored traditions (and cold weather, perhaps), not when it’s artificially concocted by a monstrous corporate entity (as our resort was).

Before having children, I hadn’t felt the Christmas spirit in years, not since maybe college.  Toward my adulthood, Christmas became more of a nuisance than a time for celebration.  I don’t even remember coming home for Christmas while I lived in Boston after college because I was too poor to travel during the peak season.  I remember one year I waited tables on Christmas Eve and the next day, two fellow servers and I volunteered at a homeless shelter.  Then there were those years when I was abroad and in places where they didn’t even celebrate Christmas.  During those years I was aware that it was Christmas but didn’t do anything special in honor of it.

Despite the 10 or so non-Christmases I had in my life, I actually have great memories of Christmas when I was a kid.  And now that I have young kids myself, I would like to create wonderful memories of Christmas for them. Part of the fun in having kids is reliving your childhood through their eyes and recreating traditions while starting new ones with them.  We already have started some traditions for the holiday season – watching the Charlie Brown Christmas special on tv while drinking hot chocolate, decorating the Christmas tree, seeing the Christmas lights at Winterhaven (a neighborhood in Tucson that is famous for its Christmas decorations), baking cookies, etc.  It’s fun for them to hear stories of Santa Clause, see the colorful blinking lights, decorate gingerbread houses, and sing “Jingle Bells” (not so fun to visit with Santa Clause…yet), and through my children, I feel the Christmas spirit returning to me.  Although at one time all the music and decorations and presents seemed extraneous and wasteful and unnecessary, I realize that it all contributes to the magical and wondrous feeling that makes Christmas the best time of the year.  And seeing the joy and excitement on my kids’ faces is priceless.

Next Christmas my youngest will be nearly 3 and the oldest 5, so they will start grasping the concept of Christmas. And that’s the best time to celebrate holiday traditions at home and start creating memories for them.  I want my kids to see Christmas as a magical time and look forward to the holiday season each year.  So sorry Mexico, we won’t be spending another Christmas with you.  Maybe another time, though.

Dance as if no one (or just your baby) is watching

When babies hit the 10-month mark, they enter a glorious phase that showcases their newfound mobility as well as their listening and social skills: the dancing phase.  Anytime they hear anything with a beat, whether it’s the music you listen to (my firstborn liked to rock out to Metallica), a toy, a television commercial, or the blender (like my friend’s baby), they start grooving to the music.  This can take various forms including rocking back and forth, swaying side-to-side, bopping the head up and down, bouncing in place, and pumping the fists.  Not even adults laughing will stop them.  In fact, it may even elicit a smile and encourage them to dance even more.

This dancing phase is adorable and highly entertaining.  Grab the video camera now because before you know it, this phase is gone.  Somewhere after 18 months old, they become less interested in dancing, and by the time they are 3 years old, they are downright self-conscious.  At least my kid was.  When my son turned 3 and a song came on that he wanted to dance to, he would yell “No! Don’t laugh!” at me or “Go there!” and point to the other room.  I guess children become aware of when adults are laughing at them instead of with them.  Now when he wants to dance, he’ll stand up but then take a sidelong glance at me to see if I’m watching.  I take the hint and leave the room so he can cut the rug in private.

I’m sure this will get even worse as he gets older, judging from the typical American parties and weddings I’ve attended.  At these events, people sit around, talk and refrain from dancing.  If some brave (or rip-roaring drunk) souls start to dance, it’s not often that others follow suit.  If they do, their movements are slight and timid, as if they are trying to draw the least amount of attention to themselves.  Usually they are off to the side gawking at the ones dancing.  Maybe it’s just the (lame) parties I’ve been invited to, but it seems that people are too self-conscious and embarrassed to really let go on the dance floor.  Perhaps they are afraid of being made fun of (I still hear references to that infamous Seinfeld episode where Elaine dances).  Of course there are exceptions, but generally Americans are a pretty lame dancing set.

In contrast, I remember a party I went to when I lived in Boston, given by the Brazilians who I worked in a restaurant with.  To this day, it goes down as one of the best parties I have ever been to, and not because of the free-flowing alcohol or the big slabs of meat on the grill.  When I arrived at the party, it was still relatively early in the evening, but the house was wall-to-wall packed with moving bodies.  Almost everybody there was dancing.  I was amazed that people were so uninhibited and dancing their hearts out, not because they were drunk but because they were celebrating life. We had similar parties when I lived abroad.  There’s nothing like getting a bunch of American/Canadian/Europeans aid workers together in a foreign land after a week of stressful work, add in some familiar dance music and a lot of alcohol to get a lively dance party going.

In other cultures, people embrace dancing and are more uninhibited on the dance floor than their American counterparts (after all, that great party I went to was a Brazilian party).  Dancing may be more ingrained in their culture or just something fun for them to do to let off some steam.  It was that way in Kenya, where I’ve seen Kenyans dancing on several occasions that is even remotely a cause for celebration – a wedding, parties, having visitors.  Dancing was more an extension of themselves rather than a skill that they were being judged for.

So if your baby is in the dancing phase, enjoy this wonderful time and take videos.  Or better yet, get up and dance along with your baby.  It’s a great way to let off some steam.