of one thing, I am certain

I am thinking about the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. The way we construct ourselves with our language. How we say: I am sad or I am happy or I am fearful.

And: I am worthy or unworthy. I am lonely. I am alone.

My aunt tells me this: Your parents were young. They were killed in an accident. You lived with a woman and her son. You were old enough to remember.

And she says: We have no way of knowing whether or not this is true. This is the story your mother was told.

I worked for a time at an organization that helped place children for adoption. That is the term: placement. They were careful to call the book with the photos and descriptions of the children who were available for adoption a “photobook,” and not a “catalogue,” though the effect of course, is the same. This is not a criticism. There are no delicate ways to talk about this.

I heard stories there that haunt my dreams. About children being moved from placement to placement, carrying their belongings in black plastic trash bags. About a boy found sleeping in an abandoned car. About a girl who got off the bus from school one day only to find that her family had moved from their home without telling her. The door was locked. The house was empty. She had only her backpack and her jacket.

Is it possible to think that one can recover from trauma like that? Perhaps recover is the wrong goal. Perhaps this is yet another thing to be managed.

My son is five now. Occasionally, we will be getting ready to go out and one of us – M. or me – will need to run outside to get something from the car. My son will hear us at the door and start crying. We will rush up to him: What, sweetheart, what is it? What’s wrong?

I was afraid you were going to leave me, he will say through tears.

I was a little older than he is now in a story that my mother told me. I don’t remember it, except in her telling. We were going to the library and it was pouring. There was an overhang in front of the library, sheltering the front door. She dropped me there at the entrance and drove off to park the car. By the time I got to the door, you were inconsolable. Just standing there in front of the entrance, sobbing. She says: I asked you what was wrong and you could barely speak you were crying so hard. You said, “I thought you left me. I thought you weren’t coming back.”

I take my aunt to breakfast before she leaves Providence. She has stayed here for a few days with the kids, while we M. and I were away. We linger over coffee. It’s a slow morning and we are both a bit down. She tells me about the trips she is planning to take: San Francisco to her cousins for Thanksgiving, somewhere in Florida over the winter, if her friends with the house there invite her. Perhaps she will go back to Italy next year. Or maybe it will be the year after that.

We drive back home past the Planned Parenthood on Point Street. A handful of protestors are out in front already, setting up their sandwich boards and their signs. A woman paces in front of the entrance with a stack of handmade flyers. I look away.

How are you doing, my aunt asks, tentatively. How are you feeling, now that the big day has past?

I am not sure how best to answer this. I want to be truthful, but don’t want to cause her worry. Finally, I say: I guess I’ve been struggling a bit, this year, you know. It has been a difficult year.

She listens as I tell her a bit about my searching, a bit about my longing. She is quiet for a long time.

As we pull in the driveway in front of the house, she says: Maybe what haunts you is not that you were unloved, not that you were abandoned. Maybe it’s the memory of having been loved so well.

My mother takes me back to Korea when I am four years old. She is going back to adopt another child. The woman who arranges things in Seoul is an older woman. When she doesn’t want to answer a question my mother has asked, she acts as though she does not understand. My mother thinks she understands it all.

She asks whether I have siblings. The woman does not answer. My mother says if there are others in my family, other children, she would like to keep us together, if she can. The woman does not answer. One last time, she tries: I will do whatever I can to keep the children together, if there are more children. The woman shuffles papers on her desk.

The woman tells my mother in stilted English: The foster mother has asked to see your daughter. You should not go see her. You should give me a photograph and I will take this to her. You should be careful when you are walking around in the city. You should watch your daughter very careful when you are out in the street.

I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if we had gone to see this woman. And I don’t know why I have not heard this story before. Or perhaps I have, but it has not fit into my narrative, and so I have chosen not to let it in.

To have been unwanted, to have been unloved, to have been left on the steps of an orphanage wrapped in blankets. This is a different story, is it not, than to have been taken from a loving home?

It means everything and it means nothing at all.

I am here, today. Of this I am certain.