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  • It was my birthday on 8/19.

    Ironically enough, as I get close to finishing my book, I've been
    thinking a lot about death. Don't worry. I'm not depressed or
    contemplating suicide. I've never had a deeper desire to live than
    this present moment.

    Then why do I mention death? Especially, in celebration of a day
    perhaps meant to celebrate life? Because the more I explore the
    relationship between technology, art, design, making, and
    empathy... the more I realize that unless we fully recognize the
    idea of death we will only be left with a rather superficial
    understanding of what they mean to our lives.

    I have a tendency to pretend that I know a lot of things. It's a habit I
    have adopted from working as a design consultant for a long time.
    I have to say, it has proven quite useful in day to day life. But
    death... This one I will not dare pretend to know. But my mother,
    on the other hand, is somewhat of an authority, so I wanted to take
    this time to share her story instead of mine.


    My mother was born October 6th 1950.

    For those of you in the know, that's approximately 3 months after
    the Korean war broke out. On January 4th 1951 there was a
    famous movement for people in Seoul to retreat to Pusan. My
    grandparents took part in that retreat, and of course my mother
    didn't have much choice.

    Apparently, there's a catch you have to be aware of if you're going
    to partake in a war time retreat. You make noise, you get
    abandoned. Why? Because it's an easy way to get spotted and
    shot. Kind of a difficult request for an infant, don't you think? But
    somehow my mother must have known what was at stake... She
    didn't make a single noise the entire time. She lived.

    Having never gone through a war, it's impossible to imagine what it
    must have been like. But suffice to say, my mother had very little
    food to eat, and neither did my grand mother. This made it very
    difficult for her to be breastfed, let alone be fed at all. She
    eventually suffered from a disease where she became so skinny
    that her limbs would curl around. My grandparents took her to the
    hospital, but as you can imagine, hospitals during war time can't
    give much help... She was given some medicine, and my grand
    parents just kept feeding her whatever was available...

    But she didn't show any sign of improvement. So my grand mother
    eventually gave up on her. It was too much for her to bear. She
    had two other children to feed. And she was pregnant with her
    fourth child. (During a war! I know, right?) So she left my mother
    out on the floor thinking that she would die over night in the cold.

    But she didn't die.

    She. just. wouldn't. die.

    So my grandmother took her back, and kept feeding her. She
    didn't get much better, though. But she lived, and grew up as a
    very skinny child.

    When my mother was in college, she met a fortune teller. The
    fortune teller took one look at her and said... "Tsk... Tsk... You will
    die at 38." Can you imagine how offended she must have been at
    that point? She tried hard to shake that memory, but it became
    something that is lodged in her head forever.

    When she was 38, our family was living in Cairo, Egypt. And one
    day she had an acute pain in her lower abdomen. So she went to
    the hospital. It turns out she had a chronic case of appendicitis
    where slow and acute symptoms of pain occur over time instead of
    all coming at once. She was suggested she operate right away.
    But she refused. She just didn't trust the hospital. As much as I
    loved my time in Cairo, I won't defend its medical capabilities back
    in the 80s. I'm sorry. Instead, she opted to get some injection for
    pain killing. Armed with additional medication (What? Appendicitis?
    What? I just...) we got on an airplane and flew back to Seoul.

    Now... if you were her son, you'd be all worried about this, right?
    Maybe cuddle up next to her and comfort her throughout the flight
    or something? Not me. Apparently, I always loved watching out the
    airplane window. As we got close to our layover in Singapore, I
    must've noticed that there were fireworks happening on an island
    nearby. So I guess I asked her if we could go see it, and she said
    "yes". Instead of just relaxing in the airport for a long layover, we
    went out, got on a cab went over to some cable car dock, took the
    cable car, crossed to another island, just to watch some goddamn
    fireworks... then, of course, we came all the way back to check in
    again. That's what sons make their mothers go through. Shame.

    When she got to the hospital in Seoul, they opened her up and
    realized that her appendix had already ruptured in various little
    places. (How can she...? What?) The doctor told her she was
    insane for having waited this long, because she could have died.
    Well, she didn't. She lived.

    She even joked to herself that she cheated death.

    But, it wasn't over.

    Just a few months after that (still 38) we returned to Seoul as my
    father's tenure in Cairo was up. And soon after our return she had
    a bad case of hemorrhage.

    Apparently when she was giving birth to me the doctor told her that
    he had to be done soon, because of an important engagement he
    had the next morning. (Um... Wow? Is that what hospitals were like
    in the 70s?) But there weer a lot of complications with the labor.
    Most importantly, there were a lot of force involved in turning me
    around and taking me out of the womb. I guess the effect of such
    forced labor doesn't become obvious until much later when other
    stress-related illnesses compound. So at the age of 38, years after
    giving birth, she was bleeding out into a bucket. I can't even
    imagine what that must've been like... Really... But thanks to
    advancements in medical technology she lived. Once again.

    Then when she was 52 she had aneurysm surgery. 7mm
    expansion... That's a whole another near-death story involving
    some baffling encounters with the medical system, but we'll save
    that for another time, because this is getting really long. Oh, and
    then when she was 56, she had uterine cancer. Both of which she
    survived.

    So I think she's earned her rights as an authority on death.
    Wouldn't you say so?

    I only say that tongue-in-cheek, but I think there is something to be
    said about going through near-death experiences.... Because
    gratitude is a word that seems to be penetrating all aspects of my
    life these days. It is also the first word to be thrown out the window,
    when I become busy, distracted, or frustrated. And life tends to
    have those qualities, especially if you're passionate about
    something.

    If there's anything I've learned having grown up under a warrior
    mother... It's that Life isn't merely about trying to change the world,
    or seeking "truth"... Those are all fine and dandy explanatory
    principles to have. Maybe even necessary and important. But they
    are tools you use to keep you motivated. Our ability to use empathy
    to make meaning is fantastic in this regard because it satiates our
    curiosity, fills us with insights and knowledge as it continues to find
    new explanatory principles to keep us waking up the next morning.

    At the end of the day, life, to me, is more about living than
    anything else. As the old saying goes... Life is what happens to
    you while you're busy making other plans. And as I discover—over
    and over again—to live is to live together. There's nothing, and I
    mean nothing, I could have done alone. If my experience in the
    field of design thus far is of any indication, the most astonishing
    side effect of design, of making, is in its ability to empower us to
    trust. A quality that eventually leads us to love ourselves as well as
    each other.

    And I would hate myself on death bed, if I didn't spend at least my
    birthday remembering how grateful I am for simply having been
    born and breathing _now_ instead of pondering what amazing
    things I _could_ do in the future. And in the process, pay great
    tribute to the most amazing woman in the whole wide world. My
    mother.

    This day is for you.

    Thank you.

    I love you,

    Stay beautiful.

    Always.

    Your son,

    Seung Chan Lim
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