theme: o78. Sickness.
I’m not sure exactly the time or date or place when I realized it. All I know is that I did realize it early on before anyone else. It wasn’t anything drastic that caught my attention, but the smaller things that opened my eyes. His eating habits changed, he had problems singing, his body became stiffer while he danced and slowly, very slowly, he lost weight.
It was when I returned from China with the other members of SJ-M that I finally saw what a long period of time did to him. He had lost a considerable amount of weight, his skin almost flaxen when without makeup, his eyes that were usually so lively were dull - he even lost the strength he once possessed, was famous for, was so proud of. What happened to the Kangin I knew?
Out of worry more than curiosity, I approached Eeteuk hyung who had always been closer to Kangin than anyone else, “Hyung,” I said, cornering him alone in the kitchen, “What’s wrong with Kangin? He’s lost at least 20kg.”
“He’s just been working too hard. That with his diet just had this affect on him. Once promotions for SJ-H are finished, he’ll gain all that weight back,” Eeteuk insisted as he perused the fridge for something to snack on, “Don’t worry Kyuhyun-sshi, I talked to Kangin about it and he’s assured me it’s just all the stress and work from his schedule. Once he gets a good week’s worth of rest, he’ll be back to his normal self.”
“Well… when does he get this week’s worth of rest?” I asked, almost demanded in a tone harsher than I previously planned,
“Soon,” Eeteuk insisted as he looked up from the fridge, “Don’t worry, it happens to all of us once in awhile. Remember how much weight you lost before you debuted with us because you were so anxious? It’s just Kangin’s turn; he does have a heavy schedule.”
I nodded quietly, despite the rebelling thoughts in my mind. Kangin hyung may have convinced Eeteuk hyung otherwise, but I knew better… Kangin hyung was hiding something.
One day while everyone else was away from the dorm, I finished my schedule with SJ-M early and returned to the dorm before the others. I heard coughing from the bathroom and, startled that I wasn’t alone, cautiously crept up to the door. I saw Kangin within, taking a hefty dose of pills as he slouched over the sink. His body was racked with a coughing fit and I reached out to open the door, but stopped myself just as my fingertips grazed the oak barrier. Obviously, Kangin was hiding something, but I needed a different approach to confronting him. If done wrong, he may end up hating me and that was the last thing I wanted.
So, I quietly backtracked to the front door and called out, “I’m home.”
“Kyuhyun-sshi is that you?” I heard him call from the bathroom with a strength I knew he no longer possessed, let alone felt.
“Ah, yes. I finished earlier than the others, so I came home to play more of a new game I bought,” I answered, forcing myself into a beeline for the computer in the living room. Situating myself in front of the monitor, I pushed my body into the needed moves to execute starting the game, the needed moves to act normal.
Moments later, Kangin appeared from the hallway and plopped himself down on the couch, “Another game, eh?”
I nodded before tentatively asking, “How come you’re home hyung? Don’t you have your radio show today?”
Kangin promptly turned on the television, feigning casualty and disinterest, “I’m not feeling so well today, so I can’t do the show.”
My heart lightened, that’s why he had taken the pills, he was just sick like everyone got. Relieved, I sunk into the computer chair, Eeteuk hyung was right after all.
That’s what I thought for a week. For one week I let myself believe everything was fine, that Kangin hyung was okay. For one week I let myself be naïve.
During a dance practice, I tripped over a loose floor board, landing wrong on my ankle. The manager who was present immediately brought me to the hospital. Despite not being able to walk on it and it swelling to twice the size, my ankle felt fine. Scans were done and it showed I had a hairline fracture, the manager felt stressed with this news, but refused to let me go home. He made me promise I’d stay at least one night for the doctors to monitor me until I headed back to the dorm. A night off from schedules? I complied more easily than thought possible.
That evening, I got a call from Eeteuk hyung. After I begged him and the others not to fret and not to waste their time coming to visit me, I felt the sudden urge to talk to Kangin hyung.
“Hyung, is Kangin-sshi there? I want to ask him something,” I asked more on impulse than reason.
“Ah, he’s not, he had a family emergency so he went to his parents’ home. He’ll be back in a week,” Eeteuk answered,
“Ah… okay,” I said a little put-out when suddenly something caught my eye, “Ah hyung, I’m getting sleepy, I’ll see you all tomorrow, bye.”
And before he could respond, I hung up the phone. I grabbed my crutches and hobbled out of my room into the hallway. A lone figure was walking away and turned into a room just five down from my own. As fast as my crutches permitted, I followed. I wasn’t mistaken - I just knew I wasn’t. Finally standing outside the door, I looked at the patient nameplate: Kim Youngwoon.
I knocked on the door just as I heard coughing from the other side of the door. A voice beckoned me in and I entered.
“Kyuhyun-sshi!” Kangin exclaimed, his voice hoarse.
I stood there in the doorway, frozen. The hyung who had left that morning had a smile on his face, a head full of hair and dressed in his favourite clothes. The one who was before me now, hardly resembled that person. This hyung had a sunken expression, his head shaved clean and was drowning in a hospital gown that looked at least three sizes too big.
I’m not sure how much time passed between us, but eventually Kangin said the one word that explained everything and confirmed my deepest fears: “Cancer.”
When Kangin hyung came home a week later, he looked worse than when I saw him that fateful night in the hospital. He explained it off to the others as emotional exhaustion, so no one pushed him for more details. I, however, knew better. That night in his hospital room, I stayed with him until a nurse scolded me back to my room. The next morning I went to his room, but he had gone for a chemotherapy session.
A month passed and before anyone - before I - realized it, the winter holidays were upon us. From the 24th of December to the 3rd of January, we were given a holiday from all work. Excited for the reprieve, everyone went home to their families, everyone save myself and Kangin. He was too weak to leave the dorm and my family was overseas in America that Christmas holiday. The others were reluctant to leave us, but Kangin feigned a fever, insisting he’d be fine in a day, and I insisted they leave and see their families.
When the last of them left on the 24th, I found myself alone with Kangin hyung. The moment the door closed behind them for the final time, hyung excused himself and went to his room. He had grown weaker because of the chemo sessions and on Christmas eve, he slept the whole day.
Christmas morning, I was up earlier than usual because of a phone call from my parents and sister. After speaking to them for close to an hour on the phone, I began making breakfast for hyung and I. In the pale yellow light of the kitchen, Kangin emerged to me for the first time since the others left.
“Hyung, I made us some eggs and-” Before I could say more, Kangin collapsed to the floor. I was at his side in moments, holding him up as best I could. I nearly burst into tears the moment I had him in my arms. His body had deteriorated into just skin on bones. He was so light, so fragile that I was scared I would break him. “Hyung, how do you feel? What is it?”
“Dizzy…” he murmured, closing his eyes,
“Should I call the doctor? A manager?” I asked in a panic.
He shook his head and for a pregnant pause, he said nothing. Finally, he said quietly, “Don’t bother them… I’m fine.”
“You just collapsed! How can you be fine!?” I demanded,
“I’m just weak from the chemo,” he insisted weakly, “I’ll be fine once it’s done.”
“And until then - am I supposed to pretend you don’t have this sickness? What about the others? Are we supposed to keep lying to them?” I questioned, “They should know!”
Hyung shook his head again and paused before speaking, as if the simple shake of his head was too much effort. “I was always the strong one, the one others went to for strength or support… I don’t want them to think otherwise of me. I don’t want them knowing how sick I am, Kyuhyun.”
“They’re going to realize sooner or later, that it’s not just stress affecting you! You sleep most days, you’ve cancelled most of your schedule this month… they’re going to find out!” I argued,
“Then for as long as possible, let me remain strong in their eyes,” he murmured, opening his eyes finally and looking up at me.
I felt my breath catch then. I saw it all, his feelings, his worries, his weakness… He was right, he was always the strong one, the one we all went to for strength or support. At that moment, I felt caught off guard seeing such naked fragility in his eyes as he pleaded with me.
As if reading my thoughts, or feeling my resolve falter, he placed his hand over one of my own, “Kyuhyun, please. By the time they suspect I’m more sick than I’ve let on, I’ll already be half better. I don’t want them worrying over me, over a small thing.”
“A small thing!? You have cancer!” I exclaimed,
“Yes, but I’ll get through this, so I don’t want to bother the others. I don’t want them seeing me as weak, Kyuhyun. I’m Kangin, after all,” he said with a touch of finality.
“It’s okay to be weak sometimes,” I said then, feeling my voice tremble as I fought the tears stinging my eyes, “You don’t… you don’t have to be Kangin all the time, hyung. Sometimes… sometimes it’s okay to be just Youngwoon.”
Hyung closed his eyes and nodded, “Then I’ll be Youngwoon around you.”
“Hyung, the others-”
“Please, Kyuhyun. Being Kangin is the last piece of normality I’ve managed to preserve since learning I have cancer. If… if I lose that too,” he broke off early, not finishing his thoughts. He didn’t speak for a long time, and I believe it was because he no longer trusted his voice. If he heard his voice break, he would feel himself losing Kangin.
“Then… then I’ll keep quiet until they find out,” I complied then. It was Kangin’s sickness, Kangin’s life… no, Youngwoon’s sickness and Youngwoon’s life. Who was I to direct it?
“Thank you,” he murmured before adding quietly, more to himself than to me, “So… tired…”
I sat there quietly as he grew quiet. I didn’t care that we were in the kitchen entrance on the floor, or that the eggs were left cold in the frying pan, the fire turned off almost an hour ago when hyung had fallen. I didn’t care that the sun grew brighter as the morning continued on, or that the phone was ringing constantly from the other hyungs calling for greetings.
All I did care about was the one hyung that was with me that morning. The one hyung who lay in my arms, more weak and more delicate than I had ever seen him. The one hyung who hid the truth in order to save remnants of his old self as he struggled through his present self. The one hyung who trusted me with his secret even if my knowing was forced upon him…
As his breathing finally steadied, I knew he had fallen asleep. It pained me, feeling his light frame in my arms, feeling his bony structure beneath my hands and yet, I couldn’t let myself cry until after hyung had nodded off. It would kill him to know how much I worried and fretted over him; to know that in my eyes, he wasn’t the strong Kangin anymore, but just Kim Youngwoon.
When I couldn’t bear it anymore and let the tears follow their course, I strengthened my embrace on hyung, as if doing so transferred strength to him. In my sadness, I leaned down, pressing my lips to his cold forehead, a few tear drops falling on his peaceful countenance,
“Merry Christmas hyung. Saranghaeyo…”
(For the sequel: Reprieve)