Night before Christmas
The fall semester was over, and the boys had all gone home for the three-week winter vacation. My home in Korea was ten thousand miles away. It was too far to go. In February, 1953, it took me 17 days to cross the Pacific Ocean in a freighter and four days in a train to cross the continent of the United State to arrive at this school, located in a small town facing the Long Island Sound. Mother had sent her sixteen year old son to get a good education, return home, and help his war- torn country. So here I was alone in the dormitory filled with silence. Classmates invited me to spend the vacation with them, but I refused, saying that I had to catch up with my studies. I wanted to go but I did not want to intrude in their family get-together.
It was the night before Christmas. I was at the desk studying. It had been already a week since the boys left. Most of the time, I ate in the room to save money. I bought corn flakes, cans of sardines (12 cents a can), peanut butter, jelly, Carnation powder milk, cans of fruit, and some candy. I did not have to buy breads because the man at the store gave day-old bread. Also I bought a bottle of vitamins even though they were expensive. I felt that I was not getting all the nutrition that my body needed. I did not want get sick. If I got sick, who would take care of me? The infirmary was closed too.
Eating the same food for morning and night, day after day was a test of my self-discipline. I was getting sick of eating the same things morning and night. Even during the refuge life, struggling to survive, Mother cooked different dishes for each meal. The family ate sitting around the round table, talking and laughing. Here I was all alone without anyone to talk with and laugh with. An intense feeling of loneliness swept over, and I decided to write it on paper in large strokes:
How do I describe loneliness? I feel it in my body. I feel its intensity. It fills my eyes with tears. It throbs my heart with pain. It makes my face devoid of expression. But I can not describe its shape. I can not describe its hue. I can not measure its hardness. Is it an emptiness in the heart? Then what is emptiness? Is it a separation from people? But monks seem to be content in a temple in a desolate mountain. Is it a want of friendship? But some feel loneliness in the midst of friends. I do not know. I do not know. I only know that it is here with me, devoid of shape, color and weight.
I closed my eyes absorbed in my feeling. After a while I realized that I was being sucked into the tunnel of loneliness and self-pity. I did not want this to happen. I decided to take a walk instead.
It was around 10 o’clock the night before Christmas. I walked over to the closet, pulled a jacket tight around me and went out of the room to take a walk down to the village. The hallway was frighteningly quiet. Every footstep on the squeaky floor made an eerie sound echoing through the hallway.
Outside, the freshly-fallen snow covered the meandering road, gently sloping down toward the village. The trees along the road were covered with the snow. Thousand twinkling stars graced the moon-lit sky. The moon was big and round and its light brightened the snow-covered roadway. There were no cars on the road that broke the stillness of the night. There were no foot prints to be found along the road. It was very quiet and peaceful, and the only sound that I could hear was the quiet sound of my footsteps on the snow. Along the way I stopped and looked back to see my footprints. I could see them all the way to the turn, about 50 yards away under the moonlight.
Out of curiosity, I walked back a few steps to check my footprints. They were about a foot long , 4 inches wide and 2 inches deep. I saw that my right footsteps were several inches longer than my left footsteps, and that toes were pointing outward. I remembered someone telling me that it was important that the right side and left side of the body should be balanced to stay healthy. So I walked slowly extending my left footsteps longer and also pointing the toes toward the direction of the walk, frequently looking back to check the progress.
Near the village, I heard ‘Silent Night, Holy Night’ sung by male and female voices. The music was coming from the house on the right side of the road. I quickened my pace toward the house. The roof was covered with the freshly fallen snow. Through the open curtain of the living room, I saw a lady playing the piano while several people standing behind her were singing the carols. A white haired lady wearing glasses was contentedly sitting on a rocking chair, caressing a young boy on her lap, slowly rocking back and forth with her eyes closed. I saw gray smoke gently floating skyward from the chimney.
I stood on the snow-covered road watching the scene and listening to the beautiful carols coming out of the living room. I wished that I were there with them singing, not outside standing on the road watching in the cold winter night. I thought of my family and relatives sitting around the living room floor singing the Christmas hymns with smiles on their faces. I saw Mother singing with them in an alto voice out of tune. I did not know how long I had been standing there watching and listening. After singing ‘Joy to the World, the Lord is Come’, they closed the curtain. I slowly turned toward the village and resumed my walk.
The village shops were all closed, and it was quiet. The Christmas lights of many colors inside and outside the shops decorated this little village like a picture in a Christmas card. It was beautiful. I walked slowly by the shops looking at the decorations in the windows. I walked to the edge of the Long Island Sound which was facing the village. The water was very calm without a ripple. I could see the reflection of the moon on the water. I stood there looking far into the horizon without thinking. I just stood there looking, oblivious to my surrounding and the passage of time until I felt a hand on my left shoulder. Surprised, I turned around and saw the school janitor looking at me with a smile.
Mr. Coleman was an Irish descent, small in stature with reddish face, a long pointed nose, and gray hair. He was about 60 years old, who had been the school janitor for all his working life. He was a very caring and friendly person, popular and loved by the students.
“Something told me that you might be here,” He said. “So I decided to come and check. I knew you were all alone in the dorm.”
“I decided to take a little break from study,” I said. “It is very beautiful out here.”
“Yes, it is indeed beautiful,” he said. “Why don’t we go to my place for a hot drink?”
“Thank you,” I replied. “But I don’t want to bother you and your family.”
“I live alone,” he said. “So you do not have to worry about that.”
I found Mr. Coleman lived behind the village square with shops and offices. He lived in a small house with two bedrooms and a living room open to the kitchen. The house was very clean, simply decorated, and comfortable. He filled the water in a pan, put it on the gas stove to boil and took a can containing Hershey’s hot chocolate powder and two cups out from the cupboard.
While waiting for the water to boil, he asked, “When did you come to America?”
“About 11 months ago,” I replied. 331 days, five hours, 32 minutes to be exact.
“Since you were a junior, you must be 16 years old.”
“Yes, I am.”
“You must be lonely being alone.”
“Somewhat, but it is no problem,” I said bravely. “I keep myself busy studying.”
Mr. Coleman asked more questions while going back to the kitchen and pouring the chocolate powder and hot water into the cups. We both sat at the round dining table while enjoying the hot chocolate drink. Mr. Coleman started to tell his story:
“My father was a janitor and his mother was a cook at Brooks School. I was the only child, and my parents never talked about their relatives, and no relative had ever visited them. So I grew up all alone. However, because my parents were very active members of a local Baptist church, I kept myself busy with various church activities. I grew up without experiencing any loneliness. Then when I was 18 years old, my parents died in a car accident. One night a drunken driver drove straight into my parents’ car, head on when they were coming back from the church. I was left all alone not knowing what to do. First time in my life, I experienced the agony of loneliness.”
“But I was very lucky to have the wonderful people around me. The church people and the staff members at Brooks School helped me to go through the pain of losing my parents. They invited me to their homes. They brought food. They took me to various activities. The school hired me as a janitor to follow in my father’s footstep. I knew then that even without any relatives, I could rely on these wonderful people. I also decided then that my life would be helping people in trouble.”
During the couple hours with him, listening to his story and sharing my background over a cup of hot chocolate, I felt very good and ready to return to the dormitory.
As I was about to open the front door to go back to the dorm, he asked, “Do you know how I found you?”
“I was invited to a friend’s house for dinner in Smithtown. I took the train to the friend’s house. Returning home, I remembered that you were all alone in the dorm. So I decided to stop by. Finding that your room was empty, somewhat concerned I walked toward the village from the school and found the foot prints. I was certain that they were your foot prints and followed them and found you here.”
I smiled. As I buttoned up my jacket, he put his hand on my shoulder.
“You may feel alone sometimes,” he said. “But no matter where you are, you can make an awfully deep and indelible footprints in the world.”
Walking back to the dormitory, everything seemed more beautiful. I found myself humming ‘Silent Night’ in Korean while making new foot prints next to the ones I had made coming down to the village. A thousand stars twinkled above. The moon smiled brightly as if to say, “Merry Chrismas”.