tell us what you would like us to do

For as long as I can remember, I have carried with me the names of the two women who facilitated my adoption one in Korea and one in New York. The other day, I found the New York woman in a search that, according to google, took all of 28 seconds. A brief note of introduction composed and in minutes I had done something that I had chosen not to do, all this time.

Within an hour, a warm response. Some words of encouragement, another name, a phone number. A door that had appeared closed now nudged open just wide enough to let in a sliver of light. Write to the agency, she says. Dont hesitate.

From the agency, I receive an email. I am your social worker, she says, and attaches a form. Please fill this out. A single page. The instructions read: Briefly introduce yourself, and then a two-inch text box. Another text box, about the same size: Tell us what you would like us to do.

The woman tells me about her own daughter, adopted a few years before me. She is now a professor of the humanities at a large prestigious university. Ivy League degrees. Several scholarly books. And she mentions a colleague of hers, who also adopted a child during this time. You could call her, she says, but adds that the woman and her daughter are not on speaking terms. This woman whose name I have known all my life, who is now in her 80s and still working, writes, On my way to work now to be continued. She is a realtor. She sells homes. 

She asks me to send a current photo, so I do. When she responds with another bit of information, she adds at the end of her note, parenthetically, You are beautiful. Accustomed as I have become to exclamation points and emoticons and symbols, the simplicity and directness of the words on my screen seem less like a compliment than a reproach. I cannot explain this reaction.

What will you find out, my friend asks. What do you want to learn?

It seems worthy of note that these questions are asked of me as if I were limited only by my own desires. Tell us what you would like us to do.

What I would like you to do? I have forty years worth of unmet desires. I may need a larger text box.

Stopped at the light downtown after dropping my daughter off at the train station, I recognize a man crossing the street, wearing a backpack. It takes me several moments to place where I have seen him before and then I remember that he works at one of the office buildings nearby. I see him when I am there for meetings and we smile, nod at each other in the hallway or coming in or out of the elevator. Me, carrying notebooks and folders, him with the tools of building maintenance a trolley cart piled with keys and electrical cords, or a trash bin on wheels. I watch as he crosses and heads toward the office building and wonder where he is coming from, on foot? The building has its own parking lot, so its hard to imagine he has left his car somewhere. The bus stop is not in the direction from which he is walking. Its possible he lives downtown, in the apartments that were built behind the mall. Perhaps he lets his dog run in the narrow fenced-in strip of grass alongside the parking lot.

I decide that no, I dont see him living downtown, but rather I picture a modest ranch house in the suburbs perhaps in Lincoln or Smithfield or North Providence a few blocks from a small park where on Saturday mornings when it is not raining, he takes his young daughter for a walk after breakfast.  

The light changes and I move forward with the rest of the traffic. I hold this image the man, his ranch house; his walks with his daughter, her hair in long braids down her back, the two holding hands until I park my car, ready myself for the day.

Tell us what you would like us to do.

There is a photograph of me, in Korea. I am sitting cross-legged on the ground next to a shallow basin of water. There is a white toy boat floating in it. Nearby, a woman in a blue hanbok squats. Her hair is pulled up in a bun. She is wearing black-rimmed glasses. She is facing me, away from the camera. She is wearing flat black shoes. Her left hand is extended, offering me a cracker. I would like you to tell me the name of this woman.

Another photograph: I am sitting in a small wicker chair. One of its legs is broken. I am holding my ear with my right hand. To my left, there is a young girl. She looks like perhaps she could be six or seven. She is wearing a light blue sleeveless dress that seems like it could be too small for her too short at least, but she is kneeling, so it is difficult to know for sure. A barrette above her left ear. Her right hand is resting on the back of the chair that I am sitting in. I would like you to find this girl and tell me, is she well? Is she happy? Does she remember me?

At the end of the day, I wander up and down the street, waiting for M. and my son and our friend, E., visiting from out of town. We’ll have dinner at the brightly-lit Korean restaurant where we’ll eat from hot stone pots. W. will draw in a notebook that we have brought for him. We will hold small bowls of soup in our hands and let the steam rise to warm our faces. E. will tell us about his children, his work. M. will smile at me across the table. Outside, people will walk up and down the street in twos and threes, peering in the restaurant windows, making their choices.

Night will fall here as the sun rises in Korea. And eventually, we will all make our way home.