Whether your experience with motherhood is being married to one, being one, or having one, you’ll find plenty to make you cringe with guilty recognition in PLEASE LOOK AFTER MOM by the Korean writer Kyung-Sook Shin. The story is simple enough: an elderly woman is left behind when the subway train doors close in Seoul. Her husband, who has always walked ahead of her and ignored her pleas for him to walk more slowly, doesn’t realize she’s not with him until it’s too late. At the next stop, he gets off and walks back to the previous station, but she’s gone.
The couple are from the country and have come to Seoul to visit their grown children. In past visits, one of the children has always met them at the station, so their mother has no experience navigating the crowded streets by herself. As they frantically search for her and put out flyers asking for information about her, they each remember their unique relationship with her, the secret sacrifices she made for each one, the promises they made to her about what they would do for her when they grew up. The promises they never kept. The husband remembers too, how he had taken all she did for granted and how he had not insisted that she go to the hospital even when her headaches had worsened so much she couldn’t bear even to cry with pain.
The mother has her own memories, some secrets that her family has never suspected. Told in four points of view, the result is an intricately woven pattern of a family’s love, loyalty, betrayals, secrets, forgiveness, and emotional transcendence. It’s a story that will stay with me for a long time. Most of all, it made me wish I could spend just one hour with my own mother and beg her forgiveness for some of the thoughtless things I did and said when she was alive.