family

snow angels

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.”

house of gingerbread, ceiling of stars

We are at my sister’s house. In the room we sleep in, the ceiling is covered with stars. When we turn out the light, they glow. We lie there in bed for a few moments, taking it all in. Then we talk softly. Ask the questions we’ve not been able to during the tumble and roll of the day, with its gingerbread house assembly, its trips to the market, the seemingly endless washing and drying of dishes.

After dinner on our last night together, my sister asks to speak with me privately. I follow her into her bedroom. She shuts the door. She says, “Please know that I love you,” and I am instantly afraid of what will come next. My heart is racing.

“I am sorry you had to go through so much when we were little,” she says. “And thank you for all that you protected me from.”

This is not what I was expecting. “I hardly protected you at all,” I say. “Look at all you went through.”

“You did, though,” she says, “because you went first.”

We talk for a while about our childhood, and the different ways in which we experienced it. There isn’t time to go deeply into anything. We left M. out at the dining room table and the others are on their way back from their errand. So we make a few jokes and laugh a little. We hug. We reassure each other of our love.

One night in college, I took a bag of popcorn over to the apartment of the man I was seeing. I brought a couple books, too, although I didn’t expect to get any work done. It was late and I was bored. My housemates were away. I shimmied between the juniper bushes beneath his window and tapped on the glass. He slid the key out onto the sill and I let myself in.

He had papers strewn out across his desk and spilling onto the floor. A coffee mug nearly overflowing with the broken ends of cigarettes. He was standing in the middle of the room barefoot, in a dingy white t-shirt and black jeans with the cuffs rolled up.

I held out the bag. “I brought you popcorn.”

He gestured for me to put it down. I did. I tried to approach him, stepping gingerly over the papers. “This isn’t the best time,” he said.

“It looks like maybe you could use a little break,” I offered. He shook his head.

“You should have called. I’m in the middle of a thing…”

“Just for a minute. And then, I’ll go.”

He looked at me then, for the first time since I had arrived. He inhaled deeply, then let it out slowly. He had dark circles beneath his eyes. “Just for a minute?”

I nodded, smiled.

“OK.”

I sat down on the worn green sofa in the corner of his room and he came over and sat next to me. He apologized and explained that he had been working on this play for weeks and he felt like he was finally making progress. “I haven’t slept in three days,” he said. “I can tell,” I said.

I woke on the green sofa to the sound of furious typing. It was barely morning. The light was still blue. He didn’t look up as I crossed the room or as I placed the key on his desk.

There are some things that even as they are happening, you know that you will remember them imperfectly. My cousin was born with a genetic disease that left one leg shorter than the other. This imbalance caused his spine to grow crooked and as he got older, the condition became more pronounced. He walked with a limp. I adored him. He played guitar and the walls of his room were covered with dark depictions of men dressed in leather and women in chain mail bikinis. Tigers lurked in the background of these scenes, a constant threat of impending violence. I was eight and he was fifteen when he asked me if I could keep a secret. I told him I could. I didn’t know then how long I would have to keep it.

When the playwright graduated, two years ahead of me, he left me his mattress and his bookshelves for my new apartment. He invited me to brunch with his parents. “They want to meet you,” he said, as he adjusted his tie. I imagined trying to sit across a white linen covered table from them. They drove up from their Central Park West brownstone. His father a partner in a huge downtown law firm, his mother a celebrated painter. I had seen photos of her work in exhibit catalogs. I was not prepared for this. I declined. “Are you sure?” he asked, “I don’t know where we’re going, but I’m sure it will be very, very expensive.”

“Yes. I am sure.”

For the rest of his short life, my cousin struggled with the myriad complexities of his condition. He battled addictions, spent his twenties and thirties in and out of jail. Over the years, I have heard bits and fragments of stories about him. About the situations he was found in at the time of his arrests. About the articles of clothing found in his car when it was searched. A routine surgery several years ago had unexpected complications and he died in the hospital where he had been born. Where he had spent more of his life than any young man should.

My sister says: “It was something I didn’t know about until just this year. You protected me. And I never knew to thank you.”

This afternoon, we head back to our lives, which have been held in abeyance these last several days as we have returned to our own pasts, lingered there, poked around the cupboards and closets of our youth. We’ll load our bags back into the van - all we brought with us, mostly. We are leaving things behind, of course - the gifts we had wrapped, sparkly and beribboned; the things we baked and bought for our meals together. And we’re taking a few things back with us, too. Some we will use right away: the set of cutting boards and measuring cups from my aunt. The board games from my sister. But there are, I think, a few things that we won’t yet know that we’ve carried. Those will only reveal themselves slowly, over years.

across miles

Loving someone you can’t have makes you cynical, C. writes in a long message to me. The time stamp tells me it is late when she writes. She’s been up for hours.

He sends her a card in the mail – a Thanksgiving card, with a turkey on it. It says, “thinking of you across the miles.”

“Across the miles?” she asks me. Her voice sounds tired on the phone later when we speak of it. “Does he mean across the five miles from his house to mine? Or do you think he means the miles of bullshit he’s put me through? Across the metaphorical miles? Because that’s my guess.”

The holidays can be hard on the heart, it seems.

I walk with my friend K. in the afternoon. It is unseasonably warm for late November. The sky is streaked with pink. She is one of my two friends in divorce mediation. The last session did not go well. He mutters insults under his breath at her and when the lawyer leaves the room, he snarls accusations. “If he had shown this much passion during our marriage, we might not be getting divorced,” she says. We walk past a marina where white boats are tethered to the dock. She’s moved out, has her own apartment, which she’s already decorated for Christmas. It’s light-filled and airy. There is a view of water.

“It’s fine, though,” she says, as we are heading back. “Every time it gets a little easier.”

“And what of P.?” I ask about the man she fell in love with, before she knew that she would leave her husband. “Not thinking about him until January,” she says as we turn the corner to her street. “Check back with me in January.”

We are sitting on a rock formation near a man-made pond in the middle of a sprawling corporate park. The pond is stocked with koi and our children watch in delight as the fish come right up to the rocks, open-mouthed. My nephew pets one like a cat. My sister hands out the snacks she extracts from her backpack. It seems impossible that her bag could hold all that she pulls from it: Popcorn, crackers, bottles of water.

“It’s been a hard few months,” she says, in a quiet moment. Our husbands have wandered away with the children, so it is just the two of us. The sunlight creates rainbows in the jet spray from the perpetual fountain.

“I couldn’t understand what was missing from my life. I have everything I’ve always wanted, but something still felt missing. I think I have figured out what’s been missing all this time.”

I suppose that I expect to hear her say – finally, after all these years – that she wants to learn more about her adoption. That she is thinking about searching. I expect her to ask if we could plan a trip together – back to Korea, to see what we can find out, if anything at all. I am not expecting what comes next.

“I think what has been missing all this time is God. I’ve found God in my life, and I’ve never felt more at peace.”

If there is one thing I have learned when it comes to discussing matters of faith with members of my family, it is that I will quickly come to sound shrill and strident and angry. It is not a conversation in which I tend to present my best self. So I am silent for a time, give her the space to continue speaking. About how she is reading about prayer, praying all the time. Learning how to pray. “I don’t think I ever learned how,” she says. She wants me to say something.

She says: “I just feel so much peace now. I want everyone to know this happiness, this peace that I feel.”

What I say is only this: “I am very happy that you have found something that brings you peace.” She seems unsatisfied, though and the conversation that follows goes a little like this:

“Do you believe in God?”

“I don’t know that I do.”

“What do you think happens when you die?“

“I don’t think anything happens when you die. I think we just die.”

“But what is your belief system? What do you believe in?”

This last question irritates me more than the rest, the way she says “belief” and “believe” like the words themselves are magical incantations. I take a deep breath and dive in. I speak slowly, choose my words carefully, keep my voice at an even volume.

“I think the assumption that one needs to have a whole system of consistent beliefs is false. I think it’s also a false assumption that our lives are supposed to happy, that we are supposed to be at peace. I think to be human is to struggle with the very nature of our human-ness.”

She pauses. She, too, is choosing her words carefully. “And you don’t think that’s kind of sad?”

“Yes, I do think it’s sad. I think life is sad. I think that the fact that we go on at all – in the face of sadness – is what makes us human. The struggle. I guess I believe in the struggle.”

My son runs up to me with a long stick in one hand and a leaf in the other. “I’m going fishing in the pond,” he shouts at us. “I’m using this leaf as bait.”

“Oh, that’s good.” I say: “Be careful,” as he runs back off again. “And remember, this is just pretend,” I call out after him.

In my first job after college, I worked with a woman who was a poet. She had been through the graduate program I would later attend myself. As a young woman, she fought fierce battles against her depression, her bipolar disorder. “I would take the bus from Butler to my workshops, and then, when I was done, I’d get on the bus and head back.” Butler is the psychiatric hospital where for several years, she was an inpatient. She tells me this one afternoon at a staff luncheon. We are standing in a corner of the meeting room while we watch one of our co-workers carry in a sheet cake, set it on the conference table, light candles.

“I can remember riding along Blackstone Boulevard around the holidays when all the houses were lit up and decorated, thinking those people who lived there must be so happy. Because how could you possibly hang all those strings of tiny lights, tie all those bows over the doors, if you were not happy? It seemed impossible.”

I remember my mother’s far less generous interpretation. “Anyone who can spend all that time putting decorations on the outside of their house, you know it’s because they are unhappy inside.”

“They’re hiding something in there,” she’d say ominously as we passed a particularly bedazzled home. “You can just tell they’re hiding something.”

Back at the corporate park, my son has grown frustrated. We’ve moved on to another part of the park and there are smaller, shallower ponds without fish in them. “I want to fish for real,” he whines, poking his stick around in the water. “Well, you would need to have a real fishing pole,” I tell him. “And we’d have to go to a lake or a pond where we were allowed to fish.” He throws himself to the ground and moans. I look away. When I look back at him, he is on his feet, but leaning down to watch the path an ant makes across the stone. “Look, an ant,” he says and as I am about to respond, he brings his sneakered foot down on top of it, hard.

“Why did you do that?” I ask him, a little too loudly. He does not answer.

A few minutes later, I take him aside. Tell him that I understand he was frustrated and angry. But that doesn’t mean that he can hurt other people or things. “Do you understand?” I ask him, my face right up near his. “Just because you’re angry or sad does not mean you can hurt other people or things. Do you understand?”

He looks down at his shoes. “Yes.”

I send my other divorcing friend a message when I get back. Tell her I am thinking of her. She writes back: “This was our first Thanksgiving apart in twenty years.” Then: “It was fine. A little sad, a little lonely. But mostly fine. Spent time with my family. Visited with old friends. There were moments that were lovely, even.”

On the drive back from New York, back to the life I have chosen, I think about my sister’s question. About my belief system. About whether my own inability to find God has left me bereft in significant ways. “Doesn’t it make life seem sad and empty without a purpose, without thinking there is some sort of plan for you?” she had asked, but there was no time to answer before the kids came swarming back, shouting and reaching for our hands.

Had there been time, I think maybe I would have tried to say this: Empty? No, I don’t think so. A little sad, a little lonely at times. Many, many lovely moments. And mostly, fine.

a kind of homecoming

Last night, we arrived at the home of my aunt, A. It’s been several months since I’ve seen her. We’ve spoken on the phone, briefly a few times, but a visit was overdue.

In past years, this holiday weekend has been a celebratory one – the fall so beautiful here. My birthday, usually celebrated with some extravagance, with all the family – A., my sister, her husband and children – together.

This year, planning for the trip was a bit rushed though. The visit will be brief – a 24-hour stay – and the mood, I think is a bit subdued. The summer has been difficult here for A. There has been much sad news for people close to her.

Her friend, N. is here when we arrive, and after dinner, we catch up on family friends and gossip. The pilot’s wife is unhappy. The pilot, who has taken his wife to live in a country where only he understands and speaks the language, travels the globe, leaves her and their small son behind. She has an engineering degree from a prestigious school, I remember. The school where the two of them met. And now, what does she do.

“She does nothing,” A. says. “That’s the problem. She’s just there around the house, doing nothing. Do you know,” she says, that her husband was flying back from China – he got home late at night – and she didn’t even have dinner ready for him? Can you imagine? The woman’s husband is coming home from a long trip like that and she doesn’t even make him some dinner?”

This, I know, is bait, and I take it, in the manner that is expected of me. I play out the script that has become comfortable and familiar for all of us.

“Can you imagine,” I say – and N. and I exchange glances – “that a 43-year-old man can’t manage to get his own dinner?”

We all laugh. But A. says, “Do you mean to say that if your husband was coming home from a long trip like that, late at night, you wouldn’t have something for him to eat?”

I am expected to say, “I doubt it,” and so I do.

Just as she says, “Well, you say that, but I think you would,” M. comes around the corner from where he’s put our son to bed.

“Would what?”

The evening is lovely. Conversation hovers around the expected topics. We talk about our jobs, about our health. About who is getting married and who is having babies. It is good to see them both, I realize. I feel as though I have been avoiding this visit for some time and at the moment, I can’t remember why.

For the last few years, my aunt and I spend one day alone together in the summer, for her birthday, at the end of June. Without the clamor of the kids and the chaos of preparing meals. We meet halfway between us, in Connecticut, wander around the outlet malls. We talk about my mother and about their parents as she watches me buy shoes and dresses that I don’t need. For lunch, we indulge in plump lobster rolls on buttery grilled buns and in the late afternoon, before we each drive off in opposite directions, we drink terrible coffee in the cold, sterile air of the donut shop at the highway rest stop.

This summer, I was traveling for work around the time that we would typically go, so we put it off. But then, the weeks sped by and we found ourselves in September. “We never got to have our lobster roll,” she says on the phone each time we’ve spoken since then. I vow not to miss it next year.

In the last years of her life, my mother was not well. She had grown angry, depressed, a bit unstable. Her outbursts were unpredictable, erratic. She would lash out at us all without warning.

“Do you think,” A. asks quietly, during one of these donut shop conversations, “that maybe she was a little off balance?”

“I do,” I say and we sit there at the molded plastic table, warming our fingers on our hot paper cups. There is more to say, of course, but we both let it go.

Her phone rings, but she does not answer it. We sip our coffee.

“She always loved you, you know, even at the end. Even when she wasn’t herself. Even when she said all those things…”

I know this. In my head I have always known this. Sometimes it is the heart, though, that takes longer to understand.

After M. and I settle in to the guest room for the night, I can hear A., still up, moving around in the kitchen. “We’ll take a picnic up to the orchard tomorrow,” she told me when we arrived, then followed after me as I put down my bags to explain the plans for the visit.

I’ll be up early tomorrow morning, and put some stuff together. We’ll pack it all up. I have crumb cake. You like crumb cake? I have everything already cooked, we’ll just pack it in the morning. I’m up very early, you know. We’ll go up to the orchard. It’s supposed to be beautiful, weather-wise. The kids can run around. I think they have pony rides. You remember the pony rides? Cider donuts, I know you like cider donuts. I cannot believe you are turning forty. Forty! You look good though. You look very good. So, we’ll stay up at the orchard there for a while and then we can stop by D.’s if you want. Then we’ll be back here in time for dinner. I made a big pot roast for dinner. Everything is made. It’s all ready. All we have to do is enjoy it.

(mini) travelogue: cambridge

On Monday, a last hurrah before the official start to the fall, we took a little trip up to Cambridge. The Planetarium for the menfolk; me and Z. to Harvard Square for browsing and chit chat. We’d meet up later for an early dinner at Koreana before heading back home, to make ready for the week. 

It was warm, humid. Z. and I were a bit sluggish. But the day was bright and expectations ran high. 

We stopped at an art supply store for tiny animals and notebooks, and to ogle the beautiful handmade papers. What a thrill to think of all the letters that one could write and receive! The endless possibilities of the stories that could be told across distances, word by word, inked by a loving hand.

Today, I resist the urge to hoard papers. I also resist the siren call of the glitter jars, although I am tempted, briefly, by a jar filled with tiny glitter tubes. In the end, my inner 12-year-old is led away, but not before documenting the glitterporn:

Once we part, we take the T to Harvard Square, Z. and me. The shoe store is disappointing, so we decide that a snack will lift our spirits. We escape the heat for a few minutes and drink fruit smoothies and Z. has the sweetest little pink donut. It’s hard to see in this photo, so you’ll have to trust me when I tell you it was adorable. If I could have, I would have covered it with glitter and preserved it forever. That’s how cute. 

At the table, Z. tells me about the game she plays online with her friends. “We’re such dorks,” she says, with a certain amount of pride.

I am struck by how beautiful she is, how quickly it all happened. Surely, I had only looked away for a moment. 

We pass the afternoon easily, comfortably. We duck in and out of clothing stores. I wait while she tries on a skirt or a pair of pants.

There are whole families wandering around today: parents confused and tired as they stumble behind their children, who stride ahead, wide-eyed, expectant.

In a few short years, this will be us, and I wonder where we will be. I tell Z. that we will visit as many places as we can. I want her to see other parts of the country - the pacific northwest, the midwest, the desert, the south - before she makes a decision on where to go to college. I want her to know that the country is big and beautiful and she can always come back here, to the neurotic, bookish northeast that she knows.

She wants to study art, and I tell her that I will make plans, find the schools - we will go to Chicago next spring, the west coast next summer. More cities in the fall, as many as we can fit in. She says, “I like that this is how your tiger mother comes out.” Her saying this makes me happy and proud for reasons I don’t quite understand.

We meet up with the menfolk in the late afternoon and convene for our Korean feast. Our family has all sorts of dietary issues - one vegetarian, one who eats almost exclusively meat, one with a handful of food allergies. I take particular delight in the fact that we can all be happy in a Korean restaurant. Bulgogi and chapchae for Z. and W; bibimbap for M. and me. I imagine my Korean ancestors watching us with pride. 

W. tells us about the planetarium. “We flew through a star that exploded!” he shouts, gesturing with his arms. 

We leave the restaurant happy, full and sleepy.

Back at home, there is laundry to be done, dishes in the sink. We have lists of supplies to gather up for school. We need to sync up all our calendars, review the week’s commitments. Phone calls to be made.

But for the moment, as we make our way back to our car, we have this sense of peace, of satisfaction. The ease of being in each other’s company. I will hold on to this for as long as I can.