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Spending a month in South Korea meant revisiting my relationship with my late grandfather

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — As I was being battered by a particularly brutal blast of frigid wind, I stared at the barb-wire topped fence that marks the border of South Korea and thought about him.

I wondered if he’d felt the same cold to his core.

I wondered if he felt the same guilt about the U.S. being part of the decision to separate Korea into two countries.

I wondered if he was scared and tired and overwhelmed with fear that he would never again see his California home.

It has been impossible for me to spend nearly a month in South Korea without thinking of my grandfather, Thomas J. Taylor.

Every trip through the countryside is a trip through my life, a catalogue of the conversations we had, and a long list of questions I never thought to ask the only grandfather I ever knew.

Lots of kids grow up with grandparents so close, so accessible, and so plentiful that they take them for granted.

I was not that child.

My dad’s father was killed in a car-train accident when my dad was 12. My mother’s father was lost to a heart attack when she was just 16. Both of my great grandfathers died before my parents even met.

Luckily for me, my paternal grandmother re-married the year before I was born. This gave me my one and only grandfather, who was at the time, a major in the U.S. Army.

It didn’t occur to me that we didn’t share biology until I overheard someone talking about my biological grandfather, Fred Donaldson.

I will admit that it bothered me.

It wasn’t that we didn’t share a name or biology that gnawed at me, it was the fear that someone might not think him to be mine, simply because we didn’t share blood.

It wasn’t until I was an adult, that I could talk to him and my grandmother about my fear. I was frankly afraid that he might say, “Well, yeah, I’m not really your grandpa. So what?”

But it was quite the contrary.

His big blue eyes shone with pride and love for me every moment we spent together.

He was the reason I tried jalapenos and the reason I pretended it didn’t burn my mouth. He was my sanctuary when my grandmother lost her temper with us. And he was the guy who never said no to a swim, regardless of the hour I arrived.

He was the guy who insisted we could go to the beach, even though my grandmother worried about everything from ocean critters to the messy sand.

He was my human GPS. All I had to do was tell him where I was, and he could guide me anywhere in California.

One night, while I was driving from Las Vegas to their house with my oldest daughter, who was 4 at the time, I got lost. I pulled into a Carls Jr parking lot and got my daughter some food. I called my grandfather, who nearly lost his mind because of the neighborhood I’d wandered into.

“Don’t leave the car!” he said. “I’m on my way.”

I didn’t tell him until he arrived, that we’d already ventured into the restaurant.

He is the one who got me hooked on Tommy’s Chile Burgers, the most delicious mess ever created. He’d take me to the drive through no matter what time I arrived, and he’d eat French fries while I scarfed the messiest thing my grandmother allowed in her house.

But like most kids, I didn’t see my grandfather as a man who had a life that would be interesting to me until he was approaching the end of his life.

It was when I was helping him write something he had to submit to the VA about injuries he’d suffered while serving in Korea that I even thought to ask him about his service.

He talked about the cold.

He talked about being homesick.

And he talked about being afraid.

It was during one of those conversations that he gave me some mementos from his time in Korea. I never imagined I would someday walk the beaches he walked or stand in the shadow of those same mountains.

As I toured the DMZ Museum, I felt unnaturally emotional. Seeing the faces of soldiers lost, reading about battles and propaganda, it all made me miss him in such a profound way. I wish I’d asked more questions. I wish I’d written his answers down.

My grandfather retired in 1982 as a Colonel in the Army. He spent his life in military service, but he was one of the most gentle humans I’ve ever met. I cannot imagine him young, cold and scared in a place he knew nothing about, saturated in a conflict it took him decades to fully understand.

Our early morning conversations ended in 2012 when he passed away. Really, they ended a couple of years before that as his health made even basic conversations about anything impossible.

So I had a conversation with him as I walked along a fence on an empty section of beach. I thanked him for being so good to me. I apologized for not seeing him as a person who had a life that might be worth knowing until it was too late.

My affection for my grandfather has been my constant companion in Pyeongchang. Did he try this food? Did he find these people as kind? Did he have favorite places? And how did he feel about the people he met while serving.

I did have the chance to talk to some of the people who worked at the museum and at the restaurant where we ate lunch. They love Americans.

They do not resent us. They do not blame us.

“There was no choice,” said one woman, who would love to see Korea unified as one country.

Many people I talked to said Korea will likely never be one country because North Korea is a dictatorship that will not compromise or bend. Despite the efforts of South Korea’s government to extend a hand of peace, the most people say they realistically expect is the status quo.

They just don’t want war.

When a country has been invaded by both a foreign government (Japan) and a hostile force (North Korea), they see worst-case possibilities in hateful rhetoric.

Listening to Lindsey Vonn talk about losing her grandfather, and how she hoped her effort would make him proud, I felt a kinship with the most successful alpine skier in U.S. history.

I understand that desire to make a grandfather proud.

I feel it myself.

Only, when I start to wonder, I have all those days that he told me I was something special. I have all those burgers and swims and even the times I drove him crazy with my inability to follow directions. I may regret the questions I didn’t ask, but I don’t regret that we spent plenty of time doing interesting and ordinary things.

I might wonder about a lot of things, but when it comes to his feelings about me, I’m certain.

He’d be as proud of me as I am of him. And for some reason, in the cold of Korea, I feel it even more acutely than I ever have.