mothers

land of morning calm

The guidebook says that older people can be easily spotted by their light-colored traditional clothes. They travel in groups, it indicates. I imagine a slow-moving horde. “They have amazing energy, always travel in groups of all men or all women and spend their time sightseeing. They particularly like vacationing at mountains or hot springs. After a lifetime of following the strict rules of society, they are finally free to do as they wish. This may include staring straight at and talking to you.”

There is a wrestling game that is played in a sand pit. Men bind their legs tightly with cloth. They face each other, squatting and grab at each other’s thighs. Each tries to make the other lose his balance. The first to make the other fall wins. 

Do not assume that someone who smiles is happy. Do not chatter excessively. Do not carry a hereditary disease. Do not steal or lie. Do not laugh or chew with your mouth hanging open. 

Women are marriageable from 22 to 26. After 28 or 29, options drop precipitously. Older sisters marry first, then younger. 

Consult the fortune teller for the best days for the marriage. Consult the fortune teller to confirm the best possible match. 

If you have three daughters, the pillars of your house will fall down. 

Bend at the waist and bear a box of gifts on your back. You are a horse. Walk all the way to the house of the bride without speaking. Carry the box up the many flights of stairs to her apartment where her family waits. They will give you money. They will spread a feast for you. Give the money to the groom. Take some for yourself. Take your friends to the bars where you will all drink until morning. 

The groom might carry a wooden duck.

A section on Korea that is difficult to write. It goes slowly. I read travel guides and travelogues. A book about the Korean war. 

Decades ago, in the darkened gymnasium, the boy came up to me and said: I hear you are Korean. He was tall with dark hair and a broad face. Dark eyes, pale skin. He extended his hand. His name was Ken. Yes, I said. He said: I am half Japanese and half French. And if you’re Korean, you are supposed to hate me. 

At the time, I did not know about the Japanese occupation of Korea. Or about the comfort women. That would come later. At the time, I was baffled. You know, he said: Japan. The Koreans hate the Japanese. 

There are things I know that I wish I did not have to know. I read the first-person accounts of adoptees who have gone back to find their families. To try. 

There is the woman who sits across the table from the social worker. There is a file folder open between them. Your mother was twenty-seven. Your father was thirty-two. The did not have much money. You were the youngest of four daughters. They were hoping for a boy. 

There is the man who finds his mother, but his father has died. She speaks some English and says: How did you find me? I did not want you to find me. 

There is the man who goes back to Korea to live. He writes me a letter after we have not spoken in years. I found them, he writes - my mother, my father, the whole family. I lived with them for four years, then I got tired of drinking too much. I moved to Thailand to become a scuba instructor. A lifetime of searching reduced to this:

I got tired of drinking too much. 

They were hoping for a boy. 

I would come to you if you were sick. I would come there to the hospital and rush past all the people who were there for you. I would go to you, hold you in my arms, and say this is what she needs and this. The people there would ask, who are you, and I would only say this is what she needs and this. 

We are sitting at the restaurant by the water. She is holding my hands in hers. We have had too much wine.

Do you ever think it is strange, I ask, that we should have found each other? I do not believe in fate, I tell her, but look at us: You, with a daughter you could not keep. Me, running out of mothers? 

Do you have any idea how much I love you, she says. Do you know that I carry you with me all the time? 

I let the words glide past me. The sensation of floating. My cheeks are hot and I am dizzy.

You have not imagined this, she says. This is real. 

I know you. I know who you are. I see you. You are part of me. 

This is real. You have not imagined this. 

You will not lose me, she says. Know this: You will not lose me. 

A dull ache in my head. A pulsing behind my eyes. I dream that my house is filled with people I do not know. They are drinking coffee in my kitchen. They are lounging on my sofas. They are eating with their hands and laughing. I am a stranger in my house. I wander the rooms unnoticed. 

The guidebook offers suggestions about leaving:

Singing and drinking can continue for several hours. The longer you stay, the more you are assuring your hosts that you are enjoying yourself. When you are ready to leave, your hosts will accompany you to the door. 

Put on your shoes. Face your host and hostess, bow and say goodbye. Sometimes your host will accompany you to the front gate, or as far as the street. Other times, you will have to find your own way. 

satisfaction

The girl steps off the plane and into the arms of her waiting mother.

I wake in the night and scribble this sentence on a scrap of paper by the bed. In the morning, it is difficult to decipher, words bleeding into words. The girl steps off the plane and into the arms of her waiting mother. Hardly an idea – a placeholder where an idea might come. A gesture toward the beginning of something. 

For a summer, I worked at a café behind a counter that was so high, I could barely see over it. People would saunter in and stand there, looking up at the chalkboard menu and when I drew myself up on tiptoe, asked to take their orders, it would startle them to see my head there, disembodied, floating.

I would pepper them with questions about their sandwiches and accompaniments, checking off boxes and circling things on my pre-printed notepad. Cheese – cheddar. Red onions – light. Potato salad. Pickle – NO.

The men I worked with were tall. They worked the slicing machines, carried things back and forth, made the sandwiches, the soup. There were three of them, and me at the register. My favorite was J. He hung his motorcycle helmet on a hook near the back door each morning and one afternoon, when it was slow, he took us all outside to admire his bike. I had no idea, really, what I was looking at, so made what I believed to be the appropriate noises. He invited me out. I said, sure. Why not?

We spent a better part of the summer together, riding around. We rode out to Sakonnet, the vineyard there, made our way back so slowly, stopping at all the roadside stands for raspberries and cheese and honey. That night, we prepared the meal together in his apartment. After coffees, after it was clear that the evening was going one way and not another, I walked home alone in the dark, the leftover raspberries tucked into my bag. He had wrapped them in a napkin, and then in a piece of butcher paper. When I got home, opened the packet, they had all been crushed. I stood there in my kitchen beneath the light of a solitary bare bulb. With one foot on the pedal of the trash can to hold the lid open, I lapped at the raspberry pulp until it was gone, dropped the napkin in the trash, and went to bed.

I landed in Seoul at night, but even in the dark, the heat was crushing. I took a taxi to the school dormitory, our accommodations. I was greeted by the two women who would remain with us for the duration of our stay. They made me tea and spicy instant noodles in a styrofoam cup and stayed with me in the lounge there, while I ate. When I was done, one of them handed me a packet of butter cookies and led me to my room. She gave me a folder with the next day’s itinerary. She squeezed my arm and said goodnight. Said: “We are so happy that you are here.”

In the morning, more heat. It settled into the skin, spreading. Sitting on the low wall in front of the dorms, we fanned ourselves with our folders. Someone said, “You know, that only makes you hotter,” and we glared at him until he wandered off.

We organized ourselves loosely by age. The youngest among us grouped together, and the oldest. As the days piled up, we broke off into smaller groups of three and four, dosing love gradually, a cautious titration.

Fragility became a kind of currency among us. There – united by a common sadness, we distinguished ourselves by degree – how old we had been at the time of separation, how many homes we had been placed in, how much information we had about our pasts. I found myself squarely in the middle-ground – not wholly one thing or another – a familiar landscape, one to which I had grown accustomed.

This morning, for reasons I cannot explain, it seems important to me to put the newspaper back into its blue plastic sleeve to carry it home from the café where we have breakfast, the boys and me. I roll it up – all the sections that had been unfolded and refolded – and try to slide it all back into the bag. Halfway through this exercise, I wonder why I had begun this at all, since really, we could carry it home in a folded stack, and as I am thinking this, the sharp corner of a particularly thick section (national? arts?) tears through the thin plastic. My son is standing by the table, his coat and hat on, waiting. I am positioned out into the space between my table and the next with this project on my lap, and between the two of us, we are effectively obstructing passage. But there are only inches to go. In my peripheral vision, I can see the bus boy approaching to clear our table, but I do not look up, do not let him pass. I stay there, my head down, and keep working at it – tugging and turning – until finally, it is done. As I walk home with the thing tucked under my arm – all tight and snug like a fat sausage in its casing, I realize that I have not felt such a sense of satisfaction – simple, self-contained, uncomplicated – in some time.

The girl steps off the plane and into the arms of her waiting mother.

The line – this one imperfect line – follows me around all day – from the café to the grocery story to the desk facing the window, where I sit, and try to make sense of it. To the kitchen sink (again, dishes) to the laundry room and back.

I imagine the plane – the enormity of it as it makes its lumbering descent into Gimpo. And the girl small against it as she disembarks, follows the carpeted path to the gate. Crossing the threshold from the walkway into the airport, her motions fluid, uninterrupted, she walks on – down the stairs, past the baggage carousels, the sounds they make – low and mournful. She continues on toward the woman, who is standing near a row of chairs. The woman holds a sign with the girl’s name printed on it. The girl walks toward her and when the woman sees her, she lets the sign drop to the floor, raises her arms up and opens them wide. Her mouth falls open, too. She holds her arms so wide apart, it seems as though she might herself be preparing for flight. And then the girl sees her, spreads her own arms open, breaks into a run.

something important changes forever

Over breakfast, L. and I talk about the limits of love. She tells me about her son and the time he spends in and out of jail. He is so young – still a boy, really. He is due out, again, but she says she knows that it is only a matter of time. “Next time, we’ve already been told,” she says, “the sentence will be longer, he’ll be put in maximum security.”

She pokes at the contents of her bowl with a spoon. “We’ve already been told.”

We have known each other for so many years. She has seen me in my darkest days. When several years ago, I show up at her door, dazed, despondent, she takes me in and makes me tea, and we sit in her backyard, facing the water. We talk until the light fades. As I stand to leave, I have cried so much that I am weak, depleted. She holds me up.

I look at her across this table and there is nothing I can say that will change anything. I tell her about the book that M. was reading. The one about the father who tries to save his son. “In the end, we can’t control anything,” he had said, as he slid the book back onto the shelf. “We can’t even keep our own children alive.”

I’m sitting in the parking lot of my doctor’s office, waiting. It’s raining, just a drizzle, really, but it’s cold and gray. In the morning, sitting over coffee, I tell M. about the appointment. The procedure is quick, simple. I say, “Because we can’t be too careful, right, because we are so done,” It is a joke, of course, the boy now five, me at forty. It is a joke and I wait for his response, but he pauses a moment too long.

“Because we are done, right?” I say again, too loudly. 

I look at him. He holds his hands around his cup. Long, beautiful fingers. He looks down.

Finally, he speaks. But softly. “It’s just a hard thing to answer,” he says. “Of course we are done,” he says, “but it’s a hard thing to say.”

In the early days, it was me who wanted. It was me who said, “Can’t we at least consider it?” And finally, our tentative agreement reached and within weeks, we were on our way. We expected it to take longer. We expected it to be more difficult. A file had already been started for us at the adoption agency – a kind of insurance. We called to cancel the home study.

We took Z. to the park on an afternoon in late winter. In the gazebo, just the three of us, we sat on the ground and handed her the envelope so that she could be the one to open it. She could be the one to tell us: A boy! We held hands and laughed and walked around for a bit, let the frost and the dried leaves yield beneath our feet. A boy.

In the classroom, we talk about story, try to define it. We call out our ideas. He lets us talk, our fearless leader, and then he says this:

“Something important changes forever.”

Yes, of course. Just this.

And I think about those moments – the seeds of our stories. The ones we tell each other, the ones we know, and the ones we are just in the middle of now – at this very moment – where we don’t yet know what comes next. How we can’t yet know what is important. What will change us, for how long.

Did you know then, sitting close to him on the couch in your tiny apartment, his face illuminated by the blue light from the television screen, long after the credits have ended, long after there is anything left to see. How you sit there in that blue silence and reach out to touch him and how he doesn’t pull away. Do you know what you are starting, even then?

Or in the hospital, as you watch him take your mother’s arm to steady her as she shuffles down the long hallways. How small she looks next to him, how frail. How you imagine him lifting her up and carrying her, cradling her like a child and the imagining itself warms you, brings heat to your skin. 

Or in front of the hotel lobby, when he comes up behind you and wraps his arms around you. You can feel his heart, its pulsing. His grip is so tight, he pulls you so close you wonder what else is there, holding him up.

There, in the classroom, with the windows bolted shut against the heat of the Miami afternoon, you look down at the page you’ve been scribbling on, and the question you’ve written, again and again is: What are the bounds of love?

On the morning she died – early, before the sun – I walked my mother down the hall to the bathroom. When we got there, she shook her head and so I walked her back. She went back to bed and so did I. Not long after – an hour, maybe two – I woke to the sound of her moaning, softly. I sat next to the bed, took her hand. Her skin was cool and dry.

In those last months and years, we fought all the time. We played out our roles in the strange choreography – the movements that had been imprinted on us for longer than we could recognize. A fierce, selfish, suffocating love – in that way, weren’t we the same. Could we not, in fact, have been cut from that same cloth?

After angry words, always we would try to erase them. To say I am sorry and I love you. You know how much I love you.

It changes nothing to say this here. Now. Nearly twenty years later. You are gone. You have been gone now for longer than I knew you. More unknown than known. It changes nothing. It saves no one and yet it can still be true: I am sorry. And I love you. I have never – for a moment – stopped loving you. 

among the reeds and the bullrushes

I am hosting a work dinner at my office and as the discussion winds down, I take the tray of dessert pastries from the side table and walk it around the room, offering it to each attendee in turn. One of the men, older, but not – in my assessment of it – old enough to get away with this takes a petit four and says to me: “Ah, yes. Good girl.”

I laugh it off, keep moving, but when I sit back down I can feel myself trembling with rage. In a moment it seems he has dismissed my eighteen years of education and fifteen years of work experience. My face is hot and I feel small, like a child who has been sent to her room. I imagine jumping up in the middle of whatever they are now discussing, upending the conference table, hurling the pastries across the room at his face, all the while shrieking, “Am I a good girl now? Am I a good girl now?”

I spend most of the summer after my first year in college in the café where the theatre majors and art students nurse single mugs of coffee and scribble in black sketchbooks while Patsy Cline records play on continuous repeat. I’m approached by a man who gestures toward the book I am reading (Swann’s Way, if you must know) and says: “Oh, you’re reading Proust?” He has the slightest accent, or affectation of one, and nineteen-year-old me requires little more than that. I invite him to sit down and we talk for a while. He’s an art student, of course (I was, at the time, a theatre major) and we meander through the expected pleasantries of a budding flirtation until he suddenly checks his watch, says he has to go. “I want to see you again,” he says, and takes a piece of paper from the pocket of his pants. He writes something on it, slides it across the table to me. “Oh, and wear something red,” he says, as he walks toward the door, “I like girls in red.”

On the slip of paper, an address – or rather, an intersection of two streets – and a date and a time. It’s like a game. I’m nineteen, in love with the idea of drama, of romance, and I’m all in.

I buy a red wrap dress at the second-hand store and on the appointed date, I show up at the designated time. He is already at the intersection when I arrive. He has a giant pack on his back that is made of silver fabric that seems suitable for space flight. A kiss on each cheek by way of greeting (how European, I think) and then I follow him on a winding path that leads behind one of the college buildings and opens out to a grassy courtyard bordered by trees. He takes a fringed blanket from his pack and spreads it on the grass. He lays out crusty bread and soft cheeses on small white plates. Strawberries.

My memory of the evening is imperfect, probably because in the end, it was unimportant. We drank vodka from chilled glasses and ate bread and cheese and strawberries on a fringed blanket in a tree-lined courtyard on a summer evening. There is, I think, a kind of beauty in the simple fact of this. Of being nineteen and following the directions scribbled on a scrap of paper by a stranger in a café. I never saw him again.

My mother was an optimist. So says my wise friend L., although I am not convinced.

“Think about Moses,” she says. “Relinquishing a child is a sign of hope. It’s about imagining a future.” We are sitting across the table from each other, over plates of fried eggs and corn muffins. I imagine fat baby Moses floating in his basket down the Nile, through the reeds and the bullrushes. Was he frightened? What did he remember of his journey?

When I tell her that I think about searching, but then cannot bring myself to take any real action toward it, she asks: “What do you think is holding you back?”

This is an easy one. There is one single thought that stops me cold. That immobilizes me. That stops the hand as it hovers over the phone. The single thought is this: In the best possible outcome, the one in which my mother wants to be found, wants me in her life, what kind of relationship can I have with her, halfway across the world?

L. remains undaunted. “Well, what kind of relationship would you want?”

I think for a moment before speaking aloud the answer that I already know – have known it in my heart for as long as I can remember knowing anything. I don’t want this to be the answer, don’t want it to be true even as I am saying it, but I say it anyway: “I would want to completely integrate her into every part of my life. To make up for all the time. To start at the beginning. To tell her everything. To know everything. I would want her completely and entirely and all to myself. For the rest of her life.

She looks at me, as if considering how to say what she wants to say. As if assessing whether or not she should say it. “You realize,” she begins slowly, as if speaking to a child, “that you’re talking about a woman, probably in her sixties, who may have a family and maybe even grandchildren, friends, relatives – obligations that she couldn’t possibly leave…”

Of course. I know this. Of course. But this is my search. And my fantasy. And here are my terms: That she recognizes that I’ve become all that she had hoped for. More. That she sees this life that I have made for myself – that I have struggled to make for myself – and she is so filled with pride and love and gratitude that she wants to hold me close to herself and never let me go.

And also, there is this: If I get her back – this woman I have spent my entire life missing – if I get her back – if I can look into her face and see myself. If I can hold her hands and see what my own hands will become. If I can press my palms to her face and to her hair and if I can enfold her in my arms and feel the shape of her bones and if I can bring her close and inhale the scent of her skin – if I do all that, and then have to say goodbye, I just don’t think I could survive it. 

What I say aloud is this: “Well, I don’t think that I could bear her sending me away again.”

“Again. You said again?”

I nod. “Yes.”

Our eggs are cold. She looks down at her plate, pokes at them with her fork. She holds her head down for a long time.

When she looks up at me, she has tears in her eyes. “You remember it,” she says. “You must remember it – in your body somehow. You remember being sent away.” She reaches across the table to put her hand on my arm. We are both crying now.

“My god, you were old enough to remember it. Being sent away. And of course, you can’t bear to go through that again. You remember it all – all of it.”

Yes. I suppose I do. 

in disguise

We are traveling in a little tribe tonight – my friends and their daughter; me, my daughter and the boy. We drive out to Warren in the van and go to the store with the shiny, sparkly things. The boy spends his time in front of a low table covered with costume jewelry rings. A rhinestone-encrusted skull. A bright pink flower. He puts one on each finger, runs over to me where I stand, absently caressing the scarves. “Do you recognize my fingers, Mommy?” he asks as he wiggles them in front of me. “They’re in disguise.”

After, we all pile into a booth at spot nearby, and order pasta and beer while the boy busies himself at the pool table in an elaborate game, the rules of which are unknowable to the rest of us. He walks around the table’s perimeter, slides the cue ball back and forth across the green felt. His face registers delight each time he reaches down and extracts it from the pocket into which it has fallen.

It is dark one night when I get up from bed. I cannot sleep and wander out into the living room to find my father sitting on the couch by the light of a single desk lamp.

He sees me right away, says, “Hey bunny,” and gestures for me. I climb up next to him. Spread out on the coffee table in front of him are neat rows of tiny white balls that have been rolled up from bits of tissue paper. “I’m saying my prayers,” he says, although I have not asked. “Do you know what this is called?” I shake my head. “This is called the rosary. Each little bead is a prayer and you say each prayer until you’re done with all the little beads.”

He goes on: “I used to have real beads,” he says, “but I lost them. So now, I make my own.”

My mother’s tortoise-shell reading glasses are on the coffee table, alongside a glass with just a bit of amber liquid left in it. There is a little fabric doll that she brought back from Mexico years before. The doll’s hair is made of black yarn and is braided in two long plaits with a bit of ribbon trying each end. There are blue loops of yarn on the doll’s white face. To represent tears. Why, I remember thinking every time I saw it, would anyone want a doll that is crying?

He asks me if I am having trouble sleeping and I nod. Bad dreams? Even though it is not nightmares keeping me awake, I say yes, because it seems a reasonable response and the one that he expects. He kisses my head, whispers into the top of it: Go away bad dreams, and don’t come back.

“Do you want me to tuck you back in?” he asks. I say yes and so he does.  

The boy falls asleep on the ride home. P. follows me home in the van so we don’t have to wake him twice. When we get to the house, he is awake but confused. He walks in small circles on the front lawn while we transfer the car seat. Inside, he takes off his coat and his shoes. I head upstairs to get his things ready for bed. I hear him running after me, and in the hallway, he stops me.

“Mommy,” he cries, his eyes filling with tears. “I am so sorry that I didn’t want to hug you this morning.”

I had asked him for a hug when he got up, but he was coy and ran away when I reached for him.

“I wanted to tell you,” he says, his voice quivering, “that I changed my mind.”

We hear the front door creak open and we both run downstairs, shouting “Daddy!” We weren’t expecting him so soon. W. tells him about the trip, and about how he was in disguise. “No one could recognize me,” he says, glancing sideways at me to see if I am paying attention. “Not even Mommy.”

When I come downstairs from putting the boy to bed, M. is in the kitchen and the coffee is made. There are still a few more gifts to wrap, and I work on those. “Stay in there for a few minutes,” I tell him, and I hurry to put the last few things I’ve bought for him in boxes. He’s put some music on, something we used to listen to a long time ago, and for a moment, it stops me short. Like seeing a photograph of yourself from a time you can barely remember. You, but a different version. You have to look close to be sure. 

My father was tall and lanky. When I was small, he carried me up on his shoulders and I would grip his hands so tightly as he walked. He would make a big deal of ducking down under tree branches or through doorways. He’d wobble a little, say “hold on tight,” and breathe a huge dramatic sigh once we were clear of the particular threat. “You OK up there, bunny?” he’d ask, calling out loudly as if I were very far away. “You still there?”

Yes.

Still here. 

that the line might at last be continuous

The dream is familiar, but it has not come to me for years: I am running through long dark corridors after a girl in a pink dress. She has been entrusted to my care, but I keep losing her. I am following a vision of her – just beyond my reach. Every corner I turn, I catch a glimpse of her – turning the corner ahead. In the dream, I feel as though I have run for hours.

One corridor finally opens out into a courtyard, but she is gone. The ground is dry, gray, dusty. There is a low stone wall that encircles an open area. There is no one here now, but patterns in the dust suggest motion, struggle. I walk to the center of it. Kneel down on the hard-packed earth. The faint smell of warm metal: there has been blood on this ground. I look down and there is a pink ribbon in my hands, when moments ago, my hands were empty.

That I should have had this dream – so filled with anxiety about my ability to care for a child – in the weeks before the birth of my daughter – seems a failure of imagination on the part of my subconscious mind. Its meaning could not be more literal. Meanwhile, the world in its cruelties seemed to offer up an endless spectacle of human failures: stories of mothers killing their children appeared daily, it seemed. Or at least, that is the way I remember it.

In many cases, my friend explains, mothers who kill their children will either drown them or suffocate them. Something about replicating the conditions of the womb, she says. She is a crime writer, so the confident way with which she delivers this is grounded by countless hours of grim research. I have no reason to doubt her.

I ask: But what about the woman who dressed her three children in their Sunday clothes, took them up the elevator to roof of their apartment building and walked them off it. They were all holding hands. “There are always exceptions,” she shrugs. “I’m just telling you what I’ve read.”

In childbirth classes, we had been counseled that our babies might look strange when they are born, and that we might not immediately bond with them, might not feel love for them at first. That this was not abnormal. That the love would come.

My love for my daughter was immediate and overwhelming. To hold in my arms this tiny person who was part of me, but not me. Who was of my flesh and bone. In whose soft, rounded features I could see the imprint of my own.

I clutched this child so closely to myself, as if her survival meant my very own. And didn’t it, really? In those early weeks and months, it was as though we were merely extensions of each other’s bodies. Her warm soft skin, her sweet milky breath. She was intoxicating.

Not long after my daughter was born, an adopted child was killed during a “rebirthing” treatment, which had been intended to address what seemed to be an attachment disorder. The child, who had been removed from the home of her birth parents for neglect, was adopted at the age of seven.

For this treatment, conducted when the child was eleven, she was wrapped in a sheet (meant to simulate the womb) while several adults kept pressure on her – with their bodies and with pillows – so that she would try to break free of it and thus be “re-born” to her adoptive mother.

After more than an hour in this sheet, the child suffocated and died. This story haunted me – as it did many – for months.

In the dream, sometimes the girl – the elusive, disappearing girl – is my daughter. Sometimes it is me. I catch a glimpse of her face to see my own staring back for a just a moment before she is gone. And then I am running, again.

It is tempting to seek meaning from every image, every story about a mother and child. Or, perhaps it is tempting only for me to do so. As if there is some code, some hidden message imprinted – and that if only I look long enough, look hard enough, I will discover the essential truth that has been there all along. That suddenly, when I look into the face of my daughter, not only will I see myself, but I will see my own mother, and her mother, and her mother before her. That the line will at last be continuous: the line of blood and bone.

I wake from the dream strangely calm. I get out of bed, walk down the hall past my daughter’s room, where from behind the closed door, I can hear the muffled sounds of her morning routine. Music playing low. The soft fall of her slippered feet as she walks back and forth between her closet and her bed. While I am standing in the bathroom, in front of the mirror, she walks in behind me and for a moment, our faces are side by side, reflected in the glass. She asks to borrow a pair of shoes. I turn, embrace her and kiss the top of her head, hold her there. “OK, thanks,” she says as she backs away down the hall. 

in the company of mothers

I meet my long-time friend L. for breakfast. “Please tell me,” she says, as she slides into the booth, “that you are not in crisis.”

I laugh. “I’m not,” I assure her. She sets her bag down and adjusts her sweater, says, “Oh, good, because everyone else around me is.”

“You missed all my crises,” I tell her. “I’ve already had mine without you. You were gone all summer. I couldn’t wait.” We laugh. She orders tea. She has a complicated life and she fills me in on the various turns of it.

I have not seen her in months. I realize as she is speaking how much I have missed her. She reports on the people in her life, people we both know. Of jobs lost. Of a divorce. Of difficulties with her children. “It’s been a challenge,” she says, “the summer was not easy.”

“But tell me about you,” she says, as she folds her napkin and sets it down on the table. “How have you been?”

I have known L. for years. Our paths crossed through an organization where I worked part-time for a few months during college. I sat next to her at lunch at a meeting one day and we started talking. I had no idea, of course, what she would come to mean to me.

How she would tell me, in the quiet dark booth of the deli a mile from her house, about the child she was made to give up for adoption.

How she would tell me the stories of her own adopted children. How I would come to watch them grow, witness them, at a distance, in their own fierce struggles.

How she was searching for her daughter. How she said she would never stop searching.

How during the long process of my divorce, I went to her. She made us tea and we sat in her kitchen and looked out on the bay. A lawyer by training, she drew up a checklist of things to ask for. What’s in the best interest of your daughter, she said.

How before I left for Korea, she called me and told me how loved I was.

How she told me that she had found her daughter when she found her. How I was happy for her - so happy - but also a little scared about losing her.

How during some difficult days of my marriage, I sought refuge there. She was kind, but direct. You already know the answer, she said. There are things you have no right to expect, she said.

After our plates have been cleared and we linger there with our cups, I tell her about the past several months. My struggles with 40. When I get to the part about realizing how much I wanted to be found, her eyes well up with tears and she reaches her arms out across the table to put her hands on mine.

In this moment, I look at her, the tears in her eyes, the kindness of her face, her arms outstretched, the strength in her hands as they clasp mine. My god, I think, and I can feel something hard in my throat as my own eyes fill. I have spent my whole life wanting mothers, and there are mothers all around me.

I think about my aunt, of course. Her utter devotion. From before my mother’s own illness, how she stepped in to fill the gap that my mother’s absence left. How she mothers me still. In every possible way.

About A., who I met in my first job after college. How she mentored me, cared for me. Brought me into the lives of her own children, who were not too far from me, in age. On weekends, she would cook for me and we’d spend the days together. How careless I was with her. I can no longer remember the circumstances that precipitated our falling out, but I remember being angry and petulant. Ungrateful.

About the women who have given me things that I have needed, have led me to the lessons I have needed to learn. About B.’s mother, who reached out to me, even after the divorce.

About M.’s mother, who writes me letters to tell me that I am like a daughter to her. Who took us in, my daughter and me, as if we were her own all along.

And L., about dear, dear L. who has been, for so much of my adult life, a constant, steadfast presence. Who I know I can call when I don’t know where to turn. On whom I have come to rely for a kind of clear-sighted, hard-won wisdom. One that does not judge. One that wants only what is in my own best interest.

The waitress comes by with coffee pot in hand, then hesitates and walks on as she sees us, our cheeks wet with tears, our arms locked.

Outside the restaurant, L. and I embrace. I have told her that I have come to understand the longing. That I am learning to manage it. Like a chronic illness, I say. Learning to live with it. That is good, she says, that is right. There are questions you will never be able to answer. We all have them. You learn to manage them. You learn how to manage it all.

The morning is bright and cool. I hold my car keys in my hand as we stand out on the sidewalk and talk for a few minutes longer. I don’t want to let her go this morning. We hug again.

“You are doing well,” she says. “You are doing just fine.” Let’s not let so much time pass next time, before we do this again, she says.

She tells me she is proud of me. She tells me that she loves me. And as I walk back to the parking lot, holding back new tears, I believe her.

I believe her.