Today we leave for Paris.
I woke this morning, my jaw aching from clenching so tightly through the night. I am not at my best, traveling, and I am a bit anxious, on edge. I make checklists, collect the names of the places my friends have told me to visit. But still, I feel unsettled. Like tragedy could befall us at any moment.
After my mother died, I walked around with a sense of doom – the shadow cast by our own too-human fragility. I would enter a crowded place and instead of the people I saw there, milling about, I would see only the sadness of the loved ones they would inevitably leave behind. The unimaginable hole that would be left in their absence. As the weeks and months passed, there was some relief from the immediacy of that feeling – that anticipatory grief, sharpened by panic. But it took some time to see the living again after seeing only ghosts.
In the weeks leading up to this, I talk with my friends about the panic. It will be amazing, wonderful, memorable, they all say. You will have a great time. There will be no time for panic, they say. It is Paris!
I believe this, mostly. I believe that I will let the magic of the city of lights envelop me. That I will throw myself headlong into it, arms open. Heart open.
But the thing is this: It is also true that I will be fearful and that ghostly panic will be a quiet companion.
Another thing I have learned in my fortieth year is that many things – conflicting, paradoxical, baffling things – can be true at once.
I have to imagine that in preparation for the long flight to New York from Seoul, I was told to expect many things. A new family, a new life – wonderful things. Glittering, hopeful things. And when I arrived in New York I can only guess that it seemed something of a dream: the city aglow – the buzz and hum of the airport terminal. The smiling, eager faces that greeted me, the Korean words spoken, halting and unfamiliar in western mouths: We are so glad you are here. We brought this for you. We have waited so long for you.
What do you say to a two-year old about to take the biggest trip of her life, one from which she will never truly be able to return? It will be wonderful. You will be so happy. You will have such a beautiful life.
My wise friend L. asked me some time ago what was I afraid of, about going to Paris. I thought for a while, and said, half-joking: That I might not want to come back.
I have thought about this many times in the recent weeks. About what I meant when I said this. About how it felt true, or nearly true when I said it. What I fear is that when I go to a place, a place that promises so much, that I will inevitably think: Yes, here is where I am supposed to be. What I have been waiting so long for is this: Now, my life can begin. A new life. A life filled with light.
And that the people and places and things I have loved in the life I left behind will over time, fade from memory. That I will try, perhaps to reach out to them, but they will be like ghosts.
When I arrive in New York, my new parents greet me with the words they have learned from the documents they have been sent. They tell me: I am your mother. I am your father. You are our daughter.
And later: This is your house. This is your bed. This is where you live.
And I can’t help but wonder, how did I make sense of this? How was it possible to understand these things that were true but also not true?
We haven’t yet packed. I have my checklists though and now, as the light breaks through to start the day, I will consult them. I will make piles of the things we need to bring. The sweaters and the shoes. The books. The maps. We will drive to the airport and talk about the things we want to see, the things we want to do. How wonderful it will be. How long we have waited for this. I will do my best to leave my ghosts behind. I suppose we can all catch up when I return.