One night last year, M. and I were at a benefit event and there was dancing. It has taken the better part of the twelve years that we have been together but now, when there is dancing, he will hold his hand out to me and I will take it, and we will laugh and sway awkwardly at the perimeter of the dance floor, my arms thrown around his neck, his hands resting on the small of my back.
We stay there, for that song and through the next. He wears an expression that is not easy to read, and I say: “It is so difficult to know sometimes, if you are happy.”
“Do you think I know?” he says, and he smiles, draws me closer in, kisses the top of my head.
It is as beautiful and true a moment as it is a terrible one. Happy? How do we ever really know?
I am reminded again of R. when he says: “The question isn’t about happiness. It is instead: ‘Do you have an ample life?’”
Yes, of course. We do.
The ride back from my sister’s house is uneventful and quiet. How accustomed we have all become to the hours on these long stretches of gray highway, green signs marking our progress, marking time.
I think sometimes about leaving this part of the country. Going west – out to the desert – to the wide sky. My aunt took a trip to the Grand Canyon last year and she speaks of it every time we see her. M. says: “Who was it who tells the story about seeing the Grand Canyon with her husband, and knowing he was depressed when he said: ‘I thought it would be bigger.’”
There are places I have never been. How will I get to them all? How will I see all the places I have never seen?
When my sister and I were small, we were invited to a party for all the families who adopted children from Korea through our agency. One of the families was hosting it at their home in Connecticut. It was winter, near to Christmas and all the trees that lined their long driveway glittered with tiny white lights.
In the entry hallway, a stairway curved up to a balcony that overlooked the front door. There were two things I remember clearly from that evening. One was watching wide-eyed as the daughter, a little older than me, slowly descended that curving staircase in a snowy white dress that was tied at the waist with a broad pink ribbon. She was clutching a doll – with jet black hair and bangs like hers – in a dress that matched her own.
The second was what can only be described as a chocolate fountain. On a table by the stairs, visible immediately as you stepped inside, sat a silver base from which a seemingly endless bounty of melted chocolate surged up and flowed back down in a multi-tiered cascade. Set out around the base of the fountain, trays of cut fruit and bits of cakes and cookies, with skewers in them, just waiting to be dipped.
The quality of randomness is something that I have struggled with. The sense that one could just as easily have ended up with a family in Portland, Oregon, or Washington, DC, or Ridgefield, Connecticut. And that some other child could have ended up in my life. The pile of papers and photos on the desk of the social worker who deals them out like playing cards: You, here. And you, there. You, to the home in Pound Ridge, where you will learn to ride horses and spend your summers in Montauk. You, to Minneapolis, Minnesota where the winters are so cold, your tears will freeze on your cheeks. You, to the red brick building in Bronxville. You will take dance lessons and write sad stories where all the characters die of broken hearts.
My sister left home just before she turned eighteen. She was a senior in high school. I had been away at college for two years. She was so close to being free of it all, but not close enough. “I was going to kill her or she was going to kill me, or I was going to kill myself. Someone was not going to make it out alive.” Even now, twenty years later, her voice trembles when she says this.
What is it that we owe to the memory of the dead? To try to see them in their fullness, I think. To shine light on their humanness – on the complexities and intricacies of a human life. The messy imperfections. The fragile joys in it.
“It was the happiest day of my life,” my mother often said, about the day she met me at the airport. There is a photo of her, crouched down, holding her hands out to me. I am crying. How did she know, then, that she was happy?
For several years, she had a blue parakeet. She spoke to it every morning and every night. She had taught it to say a few phrases: Good morning. Pretty bird. I love you. The morning they were to meet my flight, she sent my father out to start the car. It was late March, but still cold. There was snow on the ground. When he came back inside, she was crying. The parakeet dead in its cage.
That evening, after the long drive back from the airport, my mother fried bacon and eggs and made toast with strawberry jam. We all ate together at the long wooden table. This newly-made family. My mother woke in the middle of the night to find me sitting up in the dark at the table. When she turned on the light, the story goes, I held my hand to my lips and then to my stomach. Even then, hungry all the time.
I was nearly five by the time the second adoption was finalized. “You will have a sister,” she told me. She had been sick, there had been some delays in Korea. If we all went to the airport together, I don’t remember it, although I imagine that we did.
Later that year, there was a blizzard. Nearly two feet of snow. We were bundled into our snowsuits and scarves and hats and mittens. When we stepped onto the snow, it held us there for a moment before we sank down into it. My father took photos. We were headed to the park, but barely made it down the block. We moved so slowly.
My father said: “Lie down flat on your back and wave your arms up and down.”
The sun was bright and high. The cold chapped our lips.
“Now move your legs back and forth. OK, can you stand up now? Good. Stand up.”
We stood, snowblind, blinking.
“Look, do you see it?” my father asked, pointing to the places where we had been. “Can you see it? Look. You’ve made angels in the snow.”