Today marks the one-year anniversary of a tragic accident that changed me forever…
“Do you want to see where it happened?”, my friend’s brother asked me when we were having dinner together in Ilsan a while ago. I looked at him. “You mean where he crashed?”, I asked, referring to the horrific bike crash that would end up costing my best friend, my mentor, and eternal soulmate his young life.
“Yes”, he said “it’s not far from here. A ten-minute walk at most.” I hesitated. For almost a year I had been having so many questions in my head. How did it happen? Where did it happen? And most importantly, Why did it happen?
“I’d like to go there, if you’d show it to me” I said finally, already feeling my throat turning into a knot.
That evening, his brother and I had been attending mass together at St. Joseph’s cathedral next to Juyeop station. Incidentally, Juyeop station in Ilsan was exactly where I hugged my best friend goodbye for what would be the last time exactly one year ago. I’m not Catholic, but my friend’s family is, and I wanted to see where they go and worship every Sunday. I wanted to see where his brother prays for him and be there to pray together with him.
The mass was beautiful. The solemn music went straight to my bones and I instantly felt very emotional. When the priest at one point said to take the hand of your family member and join together in prayer, my friend’s brother grabbed my hand. Tears started welling up in my eyes and I stifled a sob as I clutched his hand in the very cathedral where my best friend’s funeral ceremony had been held last November.
We had talked about the accident, and the funeral when we had dinner after mass. That conversation had prompted my friend’s brother to ask if I wanted to go. I did. And I didn’t. But mostly I did. I had so many questions still, and here was a chance to maybe find some answers.
We walked the ten minutes side by side mostly in silence. As if we both dreaded what we were about to do. Right in front of Ilsan station, his brother stopped and said in such a low voice that only I could hear him, “We’re here, Sohee. This is it.” I was confused. We were standing at a pedestrian crosswalk right in front of the station. “I thought you said he crashed on a downhill slope”, I said. “He did”, his brother said quietly. “Let’s cross over at the green light, and you’ll see.”
On the other side, I realized that what I had been looking at from afar was the entrance to an underpass built to ensure safe passing under the busy street. The underpass lead down to a tunnel underneath the street and then came up on the side we had just been standing on. On each side of the steep slope were narrow stairs, and in the middle bricks were laid flat like a ramp, so that you could push a stroller or walk a bike more easily. My friend’s brother saw how I had started to tremble. “You don’t have to go in, we can just go back if you want”, he said kindly. “No, we came this far, and I want to see the place for myself”, I said with determination.
“Do you see the camera hanging over the street?”, he asked pointing to the CCTV camera above us. I nodded. “The recordings by that camera the night of the crash showed him wanting to get over the crosswalk we were standing at right before. The light had then shifted to red so instead of waiting, he went into the underpass tunnel. That’s where he crashed”, he explained. I looked into the steep underpass tunnel again and saw the whole accident in a flash before my eyes. Slowly, I then started walking down. I deliberately didn’t use the stairs. I walked on the ramp where my friend had ridden his bike. The whole time I thought how careless it was to ride a bike here. It was obviously extremely dangerous. For a brief second I even felt angry at my friend for having done something so dangerous on purpose and thereby causing the collapse of the lives of all of us who loved him.
“Where did they find him?”, I asked as we were almost at the bottom of the ramp, my voice starting to break. My friend’s brother pointed to the solid granite floor a couple of meters ahead of us. “Over there.” I went to the spot he had pointed out. The gray granite tiles were still vaguely tainted brown by my friend’s blood here almost a year after. I kneeled down on the bloodstained tiles and convulsed with sobs. My friend’s brother said that he would give me a few minutes alone and would wait up at street level. Whether he said it to allow me to be alone or because he couldn’t stand being there any longer, or a combination of both, I’ll never know.
But for more than ten minutes I kneeled there, staring through my tear-filled eyes at the unforgivingly hard granite stone floor that had crushed my best friend’s head without mercy. I prayed that he had felt no pain but instead been granted the bliss of immediate unconsciousness. In my mind’s eye, I saw him lying there helplessly until he was discovered by a passerby who called an ambulance. I imagined the surgeons trying and failing to save his life. I remembered my state of acute shock when his brother called me with the terrible news. I felt all of my grief rush over me like a tsunami. “Why? Why? Why?”, I cried. No one else was there but I wouldn’t have cared anyway.
I saw his brother come slowly down toward me again. Hesitantly, I stood up and wiped away my tears. “Come, let’s go, Sohee”, he said to me in a voice that told me that he was on the verge of crying too. I followed him without a word. I was afraid my voice would fail me if I began to speak.
“Do you understand it a little better know?”, his brother asked as we were back up from the tunnel again. I took a deep breath. “I do”, I said “but I don’t think I can ever fully accept it. It seems so utterly meaningless.” He nodded. “I feel the same way”.
We walked back together, quietly, united in our grief. I was still fighting my urge to cry. “The blood stain used to be much brighter”, his brother said, breaking the silence. “It has faded a lot since then.” “I doubt it’ll ever disappear completely”, I said, and added “I think it’s like the grief inside us. It may change but it’ll always be there.” His brother agreed. The accident had left both him and me forever changed.