written on the body

Temperatures dropped overnight and despite my body’s protestations, I throw myself into the cold before the rest of the house begins stirring. I know the route so well, have worn this path into the rhythms of my heart, my breath: the broken pavement in front of the transition home, the honeysuckle now dormant, the bathtub madonnas majestic, the loose gravel at the corner across from the skate park. In front of the double-decker by the high school, a woman in a black parka holds her dog on a leash. She nods, I nod back. The wind stings my eyes. I tug my hat down as far as it will go.

There are steps I could be taking. There are forms I could be filling out, sending across the world. Over the weekend, I get an email from the adoption woman. Have you reached out to___? Was she able to tell you anything? I have not responded. I have not reached out. Several times since I saw her note, I have begun composing the excuses in my head, but I have avoided sitting down, writing it.

In my defense, it has been a busy weekend – a visiting friend, a birthday dinner for M., a hundred tasks that required my attention. But it is also true that I am standing here, staring at the door now ajar and I recognize – as I suppose I always have – that just because a door is open does not mean that I have to walk through it.

“Of course you do,” my friend says over coffee. “Follow this where it leads.”

It’s probably not going to lead anywhere, I hear myself saying. Just a lot of dead ends.

“You don’t know this,” she says. “You can’t possibly know.”

“The language barrier alone,” I begin, “there are no real files… It’s not like it is now.”

She does not respond, lets the whiny sound of my own voice hang there between us.

“I’m very attached to my narrative, you know.”

She nods, reaches her hand out to touch mine. “I know.”

As we are readying to go out for breakfast, I feel something pop out of place in my knee, and the sudden pain causes me to crumple to the ground. I clutch the offending knee and M. rushes over, hovers, reaches for me. I tell him there is nothing he can do except to stand back a bit, as I fight back angry tears. It’s been getting worse, this knee, and M. shakes his head at me as I gradually extend my leg. Whatever had been misaligned has now righted itself and at full extension, my leg is fine again.

Over breakfast, he says: “Now, will you please, please go to the doctor?” I assure him that I will.

“I’ll go, but they’re not going to be able to do anything.”

“Well, why don’t we let the doctor tell us that?”

“It’s either going to be some terrible surgery, or they’ll have to give me some injection that I don’t want.”

He laughs, says, “How about we role play this a bit? You be me, and I’ll be you.” He cocks his head to one side, raises the pitch of his voice: “I don’t want to go to the doctor because the thing that will help me to walk properly is too complicated. So, I’ll just ignore it and keep falling.”

I reach for his hand. “But you’ll carry me around when I can’t walk any more, won’t you?”

He’s done with his impersonation. He shakes his head. “Nope. You’re on your own. It’s a cold cruel world out there, and it’s every man for himself.”

For several years as a child, I danced competitively. Irish stepdancing, of all things. Soft and hard shoe and recently, a friend who had come back from seeing a performance of stepdancing observed: “All that stomping must have been very hard on your knees.” I had not put this together before, blaming my weak right knee on a fall while running decades ago, and later, falling again skiing.

I think about my son, who sits frog-legged, his feet pointing out behind him and how his doctor once told us that position puts undue strain on the knees. It seems hard to imagine that these things we do in childhood can have such lasting consequences in our later years.

“Your body remembers everything you do to it,” the occupational therapist we were seeing for my son once said. “Every bump and bruise, every fall, all those years of wearing high-heeled shoes – all of it.” W. is sitting on a wide swing, suspended a few feet off the ground. She is throwing bean bags at him and he is trying to catch them, giggling. He misses one. She retrieves it from where it has fallen and throws it at him again. She says: “Everything you do leaves its mark.”

When we were growing up, my sister and I shared a small bedroom and for many years, slept on a trundle bed. There was a slightly smaller bed on a wheeled drawer that when not in use, could be rolled beneath the larger bed. We often left this drawer open, though, and one day, we were playing a game that consisted of running from the hallway, bouncing on the lower bed and landing on the top one. I ran but didn’t clear the bottom completely, and banged my shin hard on the edge of the wooden drawer, scraping off several layers of skin. I bled profusely. The scar is still visible.

Years later, readying for a high school winter dance, I was shaving my legs with a pink disposable razor, rushing. I am careless and the blade catches on my ankle bone. I come away with a three-inch long strip of skin hanging. As the blood dries, it adheres my pantyhose to my skin. An angry scar runs along the tendon.

The worst scar, though is on my left shoulder. An immunization gone badly. My mother would examine it periodically, mutter angrily about the imagined incompetence of the doctor in Korea. “How could he have botched it so badly? Did he try to inject you with a chopstick?”

There is a tiny round scar on my right hand where I burned myself with a cigarette. A long scratch just above my left knee from when I insisted on climbing over the chain-link fence of my high school friend M.’s backyard, rather then waiting for him to come open the gate. A crescent moon shape on the first fingertip of my left hand where I sliced a bit of it off once, chopping carrots.

I believe that constitutes – in its entirety – the catalog of my scars. A cautious child, a tentative adolescent, I have never trusted my body to do much. I did not climb trees, or ride bicycles, or jump from the high diving board. I did not hang from monkey bars or sled down the steep hills. I skated when I had to, at grade-school birthday parties, but slowly – hovering near the railing all the time. I know the way recklessness can be marked on the body – the scars and the broken bones – but I wonder how apprehension engraves itself? Where on the body do we carry the traces of the failure to act, of fear?

More than a decade ago, the name of the other woman – the Korean woman who ran the orphans’ home, who facilitated the adoption from there – found its way to me in a news article circulated by some adoptee email list. She was celebrating her eightieth birthday. She was interviewed about the hundreds of placements she had helped to make over so many years. I emailed the newspaper. I got a name and a phone number for her adult son who was caring for her. “Call him,” I was told. “He can help you.”

I cannot explain why I did not call then. Any better than I can explain why I let the form from the agency sit on my desk, untouched. The clock is ticking, I know. None of us is getting any younger.

Maybe today.