very good girl

I spend the afternoon with women. A club of sorts: accomplished, sophisticated women who talk about international travel and performance artists and the causes to which they donate their money and their time. Even at forty, and after all these years as a professional, I feel intimidated, ill at ease. Like a child in a party dress, sitting alone on the stairs, while the adults glide across marble floors, sipping cocktails and laughing.

This morning, I wake up thinking about the man who found his mother, after years of searching, only to learn that she had died weeks before. I think how is it that he is standing upright, talking to me? How is it that he is walking around and showing up at meetings and putting on his shoes and bringing a fork to his mouth? I cannot imagine carrying this loss. The thought of it – for him – makes me want to fall to the ground and stay there for a long time.

Years ago, at a time before I could imagine searching, I asked a friend why he would. “It’s like I have a hole in my heart,” he said, his hand fluttering up toward his chest, involuntarily.

“And you think this will fill it?” I asked. I was trying to be sincere.

“No, I don’t. I hope it, but I don’t believe it. But what is there, to do, but keep trying?”

“There is not trying,” I thought, but I did not say it.

Some time ago, I read a story in the news about a woman who killed her daughter. The girl, who was barely three, was a twin – her brother sent away and adopted. The brother starts looking for his mother, meets an aunt who asks: Have you found your sister.

The sister is found, twenty years after her death, wrapped meticulously in blankets and newspaper, and plastic, in a locked foot locker. The locker inside a tiny closet, the door bolted shut. Moth balls and incense and baking soda boxes.

The woman, now suffering from a cancer in her bones, collapses at the closet door. “Please just let me die,” she says.

She was known in her apartment building as kind and caring, a bit eccentric. “She would complain about hearing noises in her apartment all night,” the building superintendent explains: She said she heard a baby crying all night. That the baby wouldn’t stop screaming. That she couldn’t get to sleep with all that noise.

The chairs in the classroom have been arranged in a circle, so we can sit facing each other as we speak. We are nearing the end of our time in Korea, and we are asked to reflect on the trip. The women look to me to begin.

I say: “I didn’t expect the countryside to be so beautiful. I didn’t expect the smell of it to bring a tightness to my chest.”

T. follows suit: “I didn’t expect to want to stay.”

By the time we reach the end of the circle, we are all crying, holding each other. It feels a bit unseemly to encourage such a public display. What is to be accomplished by this, here among the broken-hearted? This is a level of grief to which even I do not wish to go.

After, we stand around by a table that holds cookies and plastic cups of juice and I think: We will always be like children in this place. The women mill about and pat our heads, squeeze our hands, look into our faces with tears in their eyes. “You go back now and you know that we love you,” they say. “You are very strong,” they say. “You are very good girl.”

When she was barely two years old, we moved back to Providence, my daughter and me. Our apartment was tiny, the furniture low to the ground. In the afternoons, we’d walk down the block to the bookstore, or the toy store, or to get ice cream. There was a low stone wall along our path. When we’d reach the start of it, she’d lift her arms up to me without speaking. I would lift her to the wall, and we’d walk along that way, her small hand in mine.

“I’m big,” she’d say solemnly – to me, to anyone who walked past. “Look how big I am.”