Library dedicated to a young life cut shortJune 2, 2003 began as an ordinary morning for the Lee family. At 8 a.m., father was washing up in the bathroom, mother was fixing breakfast and their elder daughter, a graduate student, was preparing for school.
Then the phone rang. All three thought it was another phone call from their younger daughter, who was then studying English in the United States. It turned out to be the last phone call anyone expected ― or wanted.
“Jin-ah used to call around that time to say hello, because she knew that all three of us would be home,” recalls Lee Sang-chul, her father. “As soon as we heard that Jin-ah had died in an accident, we totally lost our minds. Finally, we put ourselves together, got on the next plane and headed to America.”
Five months have since passed. On Nov. 3, the bereaved attended a ceremony at Seoul’s Seodaemun district office. Mr. Lee donated 5 billion won ($4 million) to build a library at nearby Independence Park in his daughter’s memory.
Mr. Lee attached no conditions to the library, except that it be named for Jin-ah, who was 22 when she died. The five-story structure will have a small auditorium and multimedia facilities. The expected opening date is Sept. 15, 2004, Jin-ah’s birthday.
“I always thought that I would want to donate my belongings after I retire,” says Mr. Lee, who is 56. “Jin-ah made me shift that date forward a little bit.”
Mr. Lee, who earlier in life named his garment company, Hyunjin Apparel, after his two daughters Hyun-ah and Jin-ah, says, “Jin-ah was a student who loved art and helping others, so I thought it would make her happy to see a library named after her where other people can receive help by studying and learning,” he said.
With his warm smile, Mr. Lee appears calm and at peace. Inside, though, he’s devastated. “I didn’t realize how big a space she occupied in the family,” he says with a quiet sigh.
Jin-ah last saw her father two weeks before the car accident, in New York City. Mr. Lee had flown to the United States on a business trip, and his daughter came down from Boston to meet him.
“Jin-ah was always shy,” Mr. Lee says. “She never spoke her piece, but she was different at that time. She said she wanted to go watch a musical with me, and go to a baseball game. After spending the weekend, she begged me to let her stay one more day, but I pushed her to go back to school.
“I didn’t even get to give her a good hug because the bus was about to leave. She hopped on the bus and that was it.” Tears begin to well in the man’s eyes.
A photo taken during the trip shows father and daughter smiling on a bustling Broadway. “That picture must be the only picture we’ve ever taken together,” Mr. Lee says. “I was always busy with work and business trips. I carry this everywhere I go, but it doesn’t fill her empty space.”
An old Korean saying goes, “One buries his parents in the soil, but he buries his child in his heart.” Mr. Lee exemplifies that saying. The Lee family had been planning to move in October, but cancelled the plan and decided to renovate their current house. “I know it sounds ridiculous, but what if Jin-ah comes back and can’t find the house? She was supposed to come back home in December.”
Of the library site, he says, “I thought that Independence Park would be a perfect place because it will not disappear easily. I believe that Jin-ah’s soul will always be there, and so will I.”
When he retires, Mr. Lee plans to volunteer at the library. He stresses that it will be run for the public good, and be under government ownership.
“It feels good knowing where I will be after I retire. All I want to do is mow the lawn, clean the library and stroll around where my daughter’s soul rests.”
by Eugine Oh
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