letting go

briefly introduce yourself

My friends come over and we open a bottle of wine, but barely, among the three of us, make it through. I perch on the coffee table to sit close enough to them, both on the small couch by the window, to whisper when need be. There is no one else in the house, at the beginning, but there are some things that we discuss that require a level of discretion.

The work, our jobs. We always talk about them first, taking up, as they do, so much of our time. T. speaks of people I dont know and occasionally, I will interrupt and say: Now who is Laura? or Joe does what there? and she will tell me who they are and what they do little thumbnail sketches of the roles they play in the grand workplace drama.

T. is quiet, says its been a busy start to the year. Big shifts, she says, running her hand through her hair. Like lots of big things are changing. I nod, yes, I feel that too.

I have the tendency to want to track my state of mind at intervals that are too close together to be meaningful. I liken it to weighing myself every couple hours to see whether I have lost a pound: The constant How are you, really? that we ask each other. Wanting more than the cheerful Fine, good. And you? that our public days require, we have perhaps gone too far in the other direction, wanting more, asking too much, too frequently so that one finds oneself caught up in a loop of compulsive self-concern. How am I really? Am I fine? And what about now? And now?

I assemble the documents and the photos that I have, prepare to send them to the faceless social worker who is on the other side of the world, waiting. Or at least, I like to think of her as waiting. Sitting in front of her glowing screen, refreshing it periodically to see what has arrived. And what then will she see from me? A few photos of a chubby toddler in too-short dresses. A copy of the profile that her own agency sent with me that bore the name they gave me. (The childs name was given by the Oprhans Home as Mi Jin KIM, which means: Mi-beautiful, Jin-true. KIM-a most common family name.)

And the page of unfulfilled desires.

It turns out to be more difficult to introduce myself in my two-inch textbox than to explain what I want them to do. I can guess what they are looking for in the terse Briefly introduce yourself, and I oblige by providing the simplest data points: I am married with two children. I run an agency that gives grants in the humanities. I graduated from college, then graduate school. My parents are deceased.

This is as it should be, I am sure, but I admit that I consider another kind of introduction altogether: There are mornings that I wake from anxious sleep with my jaw aching. At stop lights, I find myself tearful for reasons I cannot explain. I am restless, melancholy. I long for things that I cannot name.

The other night, we watch a movie about a man who has nothing to lose. His character is conveyed primarily through his stony silence and the way in which, when the need arises, he kills man after man with steely-eyed unflinching determination. His jacket still wet with blood, he turns to his love interest wide-eyed, waif-like and tells her he will protect her. We have watched their love develop through a series of slow-motion scenes in which they sit silently in a car, driving; then silently near a stream while her son gathers sticks; then silently as he carries her son to his bed. Their love is all big eyes and wordless gazes. Despite this thinness of character development and motivation, I for my part am utterly taken in. This fantasy of two people knowing each other without speaking is just too delicious not to indulge and I imagine that after the son is put to bed, the two of them make wordless love, throwing themselves together again and again as night shadows give way to early light.

I am looking for a way to understand the fantasy. The imagined life I could have had, the imagined people my parents are. On the form, I say: I would like to meet them, if they are willing. I would like to sit across a table from them, share a meal. I would like to touch their faces. I would like to hold their hands in my own.

My friend asks: How do you picture your mother?  What if she is sick or poor? Or crazy?

I admit this gives me pause. In my fantasy, she is well and beautiful. A sadness about her, perhaps, a weariness. “Or what if she has this whole other family that doesn’t know about you?”

On the form, I write this and it is only as I am writing it that I realize it is true: I am not asking for anything of them. I know they may have families of their own. I don’t want to disrupt their lives.

The fantasy is this: that we will see each other and know each other instantly. That without words, without language, we will recognize something deep in each other - something true and transcendent. That the love will be there, instantly - vibrant, thrilling, alive. That she will say: My whole life, I have waited for you, for this. You are beautiful. You are perfect. You will never be alone again. You will never know longing because I am with you. You belong to me.

But that is as far as the fantasy ever gets. Cue sunset. Cue credits. End scene.

I am standing as I often am, in front of the sink. The endless loading and unloading of the dishwasher. The stacking of plates. The washing of pans, of countertops. M. is at the coffee maker. My daughter at her desk. My son at the kitchen table, drawing scene after scene of his imaginary worlds. Once the coffee is started, M. comes over with a towel. Dries the pans in the dish rack. He puts them away, asks: Do you want some music?

“Yes, please.”

“What do you want?”

“Surprise me.”

He pulls out an old record from the little collection we’re amassing and as it starts up, the low hum of it, I think about what this might look like to my mother, my father. How if they could peer through the window at this moment, could they take comfort in what they see? The love, visible - even when we ourselves don’t see it.

In the washing and drying of dishes, there is love. In the quiet burble of the coffee brewing, there is love. In the small hands of our son, moving his markers across the wide white pages, there is love. And I wonder how it is that I have spent my whole life longing for what has been here, what has always been here, when I stand still long enough to see it.

I would like you to tell them this:

That I am happy. That I have a life that is full and beautiful. 

That I think of them every day.

That I hope they are well, that they are happy. That I want them to be happy. 

That I am so grateful for everything they did and for everything they tried to do, to give me the life that I have.

That I love them.

That even if we never meet, I will always, always love them.

That they are with me, in my heart, and I will hold them there - for the rest of my life.

a little red bag

I began this project at a time that was fraught – a time that I was searching. The idea of turning forty hit me hard – harder than expected. I was looking for a way to make some sense of it, to catalog the days – to help me find my way.

So today, on the eve of the day when it all turns over, here’s something it has taken me nearly forty years to learn:

You spend your whole life – every hour of every day in one way or another – wondering why, how it could be that you were not wanted enough to be kept. And how once you were lost, why you are still – all these years later – not wanted enough to be found. And that question – that very question – that wakes you in a panic in the night; that casts a long dark shadow over anything you make or accomplish or try to be proud of; that leaves you feeling empty and alone even when you are surrounded by people who love you, who have dedicated their lives to loving you – that question has no answer.

You are asking the wrong question.

You are waiting for an answer that will never come.

Not from the parents who take you in, buy you sundresses and party shoes. Who applaud you, beaming, from the audience of your dance recitals, your spelling bees, your graduation speeches.

Not from the friends, who gather round you, send you letters and cards and notes. Who call you on the phone to talk you down from your fits of rage. Who take you out dancing when you are feeling sad.

Not from your husband. Who holds you while you cry in the night. Who covers you in a blanket when you are cold. Who brings you coffee in your favorite mug before you can ask. Who carries your fears with him in and out of your days. Days that are a whirlwind of carpools and music lessons and trips to the grocery store. Not even from him.

That answer – that one single answer – does not come. Will not come.

And so in the mornings, when you prepare yourself for the day ahead, you try to remember that the piece of you that feels missing will always feel that way.

And so, maybe - just maybe - fixing it is not something you have to address right away.

My mother used to tell this story: When I was in kindergarten, we lived about a half mile from the school I attended, and so she would walk up to meet me, and we’d walk back together. I was always happy, she said, coming from school, and we’d walk holding hands. Sometimes, I’d skip ahead. But as soon as we got in the door, I would cry for no discernable reason. We’d step inside, she’d close to door behind us, and I’d stand in the middle of the dining room, and cry. For several long minutes, I’d be inconsolable. She’d ask me if something happened at school. If I was hungry. If I was tired. “You didn’t answer. You’d just sob and sob,” she said, “like your little heart was broken.” This happened every day for about a month. “And then one day,” she said, “like whatever cloud had been following over you had finally passed, you stopped.”

A year ago, I was at a week-long professional seminar at a university with people from a number of different countries. One night, walking back to the dorms with a young man from Nigeria, he asked me about myself, about where I was from. I told him I was born in Korea, but had been adopted and grew up in New York. I gave him some more details about my life – where I lived now, my husband, my children. We were walking, the evening was warm. We were waiting at a stop light when he asked: “Why do you say that you were adopted?” His question took me aback. I hesitated, so he continued. “You had parents who raised you, right?” I nodded. “So you are not an orphan. You are many other things, but you are not an orphan. You should not identify yourself that way.”

Another kindergarten story: One day, we were told we could bring in a toy from home. Something that we would share with the class. Tell a story about it, why it was important to us. I had a red vinyl bag that I took to school with me – it looked like a little briefcase and it closed with a buckle. My mother: “We were getting ready to leave, and you said you were going to pack up your bag. You were in your room for a long time. You came out with your bag, and it was bulging. The buckle could barely close. As you got to the door, you dropped the bag, and everything you had packed in there came spilling out on the floor. Little pots and pans, your stuffed animals, your dolls, your books – you even had some ribbons and bits of fabric in there, your shoes – It looked like you had tried to pack everything you had in the world into that little red bag.”

All of this – these concerns and anxieties – of being lost, of wanting to be found, of never being loved enough, of a wound that will never fully heal – it is old music, it is tired, sad music, but it resurfaces over the years, at unexpected times, in unanticipated forms.

There are the expected moments, of course: When you get married. When you give birth to a child of your own. When your mother dies. Mostly, you know that these are coming. You can prepare yourself. You can surround yourself with the necessary care.

But there are the moments that are impossible to know, impossible to prepare for:

When you are walking on a warm night in Cambridge, with a fellow student you’ve just met and he asks you why you call yourself an orphan. And later, in your dorm room, you lie in bed and whisper the word “orphan” over and over again until it has no meaning at all.

When you read a book about a missing girl and the man who spends a decade trying to find her. And when he finds her – in another country, having traveled the world looking for her – he tells her that he has never stopped loving her, would never stop, would never quit.

When you see your child at the age you were, hear the language she uses to love you, see the ways in which she knows you – your voice, your face, your arms – how she follows you when you leave the room, if only for a moment.

Those moments leave you reeling, breathless. Make you come up short. Like you have run for a very long time but know that you still have very far to go.

Forty is an important birthday, a colleague says to me, although we had started talking about other things. You shouldn’t waste it. “Use it to do the work you need to do,” he says. “Maybe lighten your load a little. You know, put it all down for a while.”

I think about my little red bag from kindergarten. All the little pots and pans. The stuffed dog. The spool of ribbon. The shoes I wore on the flight from Korea.

It is not as simple as that, of course. To empty one’s bags and live – unencumbered – in the present moment. To live forward, as the adoption literature suggests. But what is the journey of our lives if not to try, to keep trying, to fail miserably – utterly, completely – and then to try again.

Today seems as good a day as any for that. 

in the end, we do not choose love: love chooses us

Last night, M. plays a show in Boston while I stay home, nurse my anxieties.

We eat together, quietly, the kids and me. I roast the last of our beets.

There is homework to be done and W. and I do it, kneeling at the coffee table. He lets me play music from my laptop while we work.

My friend sends photos of M., of what I am missing, to my phone. “The lighting is so good,” she says.

Here at home, I leave the lights on – the front porch, the entry hallway, the one over the sink in the kitchen, so that when he comes in – late, so late – he can find his way. I stay up as long as I can, waiting, but these days, that is not very long at all.

In the days after hearing news of death, is it not as though death walks with us then, like shadows? Everything impermanent, fleeting. I reach out to hold on to everything I know, love – an instinctive old fear. I send notes to people I have not seen in some time. I make phone calls. And lists of more calls to make. My actions are transparent, I am sure, but it calms me to perform these small tasks.

I come to the adoptee literature late. As my first marriage is ending. A particular cruelty: we are in stunning Napa Valley, my soon-to-be-ex-husband and me, for a family wedding and while the relatives tour vineyards, sipping pinot noir, I am holed up in our suite with a stack of paperback books. The titles embarrass me, the rawness of them unseemly: Journey of the Adopted Self; Coming Home to Self; An Orphan’s Quest; Motherless Daughters.

I keep the shutters closed tight against the breathtaking views so I can throw myself across the wide bed and weep without shame. It is unthinkable, it seems, to grieve so in the face of such beauty.

“Separation of any kind can feel life-threatening,” I read. And so it does, really – then. And also later, in the early days with M.

After days spent together, his leaving would make me desperate. I’d find myself, kneeling on the kitchen floor, my head in my hands – panicked, heart racing, as the door closed behind him.

“This is not a way,” we’d both agree in the morning, after I’d begged him to return, “to start a life together.”

But in the end, we do not choose love: Love chooses us. And so he returned, day after day, and we learned to carry the old fears, share the weight of them between us. And there are days now – many days – when they are barely visible.

At the wedding, my daughter throws rose petals from a basket as the bride and groom walk behind her, their feet barely touching ground.

She is the age that I was when I arrived here from Korea.

I wake in the night and M. is still not back. I hear the rain and think about him driving the van on the slick highway in the pitch dark. Finally, the door creaks open and I pull the pillow close, settle in. I can hear him moving around downstairs – the recognizable, reassuring sounds.

He comes upstairs, finally and sits beside me, lays his hand on my cheek. He tucks my hair behind my ear. This gesture – small, familiar, done a hundred times before – now, in the dark night, after a day of longing, is an unimaginable relief. I drift off like that and in the morning, before I slip out of bed, I lean in close to hear him breathing.

I put my hand on his chest to feel the warmth of it. I bring my head down, my ear to his heart. The whole spinning world in this moment is just this: the nearness of our bodies, the heat of his skin, the breath in his chest – rising, falling, and rising again. 

sometimes a stone is just a stone

About a decade ago, I traveled to South Korea with a motherland tour, a group of adult adoptees. The trip, as I recall, was partially sponsored by the South Korean government, as a way to encourage these displaced Koreans to learn about the culture of their homeland. They acknowledged, we were told, the number of Koreans who, through international adoption, were living in other countries. They wanted us to come back, even if only for a visit. 

Who responds to such an invitation?

The ones who are searching. We were a ragtag group. At 29, I was among the oldest in the group of about thirty of us. Most were in their early twenties, the longing visible on their smooth broad faces. I considered myself rather sophisticated in the vicissitudes of love and life at this point, already with a four-year-old daughter, and a failed marriage behind me. So, when one particularly fragile young woman collapsed (from the heat? exhaustion? the sheer emotional weight of such a trip?) I took it upon myself to be a kind of caretaker, sitting with her on the air-conditioned tour bus, holding her head on my lap, stroking her hair, dabbing at her forehead with a cool cloth. 

More than anything, we wanted to feel something

As we were led through a reproduction of a traditional folk village, or to the countryside to visit local schools, or to the stunning Mount Sorak shrouded in mist, we were searching for a thing - that moment at which we could say: Yes, something in my body, in my bones remembers this. This is a part of me. And this, too. 

Is it strange to say I was looking for a kind of closure? A thing that would let me say: Now that I have set foot on this ground, filled my lungs with its air, felt its dirt between my fingers; now, I know something about who I was when I left this place, all those years ago.

About who I am now. About who I might become.

Closure is, of course, an elusive (illusory?) thing. I made lists of the thing I wanted to remember:

The dusty, dry earth of the countryside.

The schoolchildren in their white shirts and blue jumpers, laughing over jumping games during late-morning recess. 

Every woman of an age I thought my mother might be. 

The crowded markets - booths set up like the giant flea market on Sundays at the Yonkers Raceway, a jumble of items laid out on folding tables, waiting for bids. 

The giant urns of kimchee, fermenting.

The young men, passed out and sleeping on benches in the city, after nights of binge drinking. 

The piles of stones along the path up Mount Sorak. Are they trail markers? Are they prayers for the dead? I picked up a stone, add it to the pile. There seemed a solemnity to it, and I wanted to participate, drawn, as I was, to anything that smacked of ritual. 

When I arrived at NY’s LaGuardia airport in March of 1974, I was 2 years and 5 months old. Based, at least, on the estimated date of my birth. Knowing what I know about child development from my own children, I am fairly certain that at 2 years, 5 months, I had language. In the thin file of documents that I have on my adoption, there is a reference to my speaking (“She has a clear voice. She speaks loudly.”). I like to assume that I had attachments - to the foster family in whose care I was placed, but it is difficult to know how long I was there, and whether this family was one of many placements, or a more long-term one, which might support attachment, affection. 

On the trip, we had the opportunity to visit several orphanages and to meet with officials who could help us with a birthparent search. This was optional, and I declined. I may have been the only one who did so. I don’t know, really, why I decided at the time that I was not prepared for that particular journey, but certainly, if given the chance again, I would take it. What did I expect to see? There will be time, I thought. When I am ready, I thought. Or perhaps I had simply grown too attached to my own narrative of how alone I was in the world, how disconnected, even from my immediate past. 

I took photos of the trip - the things we saw, the people we were - and when I look at them now, as when I look at my list, I don’t feel much of anything. I want to read meaning into everything, want it all to be laden, weighty with answers to questions I have not yet even asked about who, and why, and what. 

When I returned, I told stories to my friends, to my family. I told them that there was a kind of power, a kind of magic in standing on that ground, in taking it all in. I may have believed it at the time, may have wanted to believe it. I am sure that the people who love me wanted this to be true as well. A way to ease the burden of the mysteries we all carry. 

Perhaps it does not matter. Perhaps it is not the trip itself that matters, or the dusty earth, or the way the sunlight glistened on the blue roof of the country schoolhouse in the late morning, or the stones I warmed in my hands before placing them on a pile and saying a silent prayer for the ancestors I would never know. Perhaps the trip is just as simple as a dot placed on the map of my life, one moment, indistinguishable from the thousands of other moments that together, compose a life.