in progress: mourning ritual

This is just the beginning of an idea, prompted by an image of a traditional Korean home and courtyard that I encountered in a book about Korean family lineage records. I imagined myself in the center of this walled space and it called to mind: protection, safety, enclosure, solitude. My reaction was immediate and visceral: I want my courtyard.

At the time, I was working on my toddler dresses, the making of which was an attempt to re-create something I no longer had. And so it seemed to follow that if in being sent to the U.S. as a child, I lost my courtyard, perhaps this too was something I could reproduce for myself. I would build the framework for the outer walls – simple, spare. And the interior space would be the site for the placement of certain artifacts – dresses, books, toys, and other household items I would make or procure – to re-create a site of childhood and family that I could not otherwise have.

I envisioned that part of the installation process would include some sort of ritual – some recognition that the child – the Korean child I was – experienced a kind of death in order to be “re-born” in her American life. And so I wanted to incorporate a simple ritual of mourning over the passing of one life transformed into another.

In the weeks since I have been turning this over in my mind, I listened to this interview with Pauline Boss about the idea of “ambiguous loss.” Simply put, ambiguous loss is a loss in which you don’t know where the person is, or what has happened to them. These losses contain paradox: The person may be dead, or may not be dead. They may be coming back, they may not. Or in the case of chronic illness or dementia, they are there, but they are also not there. In ambiguous loss (unlike a more “direct” loss, when a person has died, and you have a funeral or memorial service for them), there is not always an opportunity to formally or ritualistically acknowledge the loss.

In adoption, in fact, loss of the first family or first culture is not generally even recognized as loss. Instead, the focus is on the moment when the adopted child is placed in the new family. That is expected to be experienced as a joyful event all around, and no real acknowledgement is afforded to the profound trauma that the child has experienced, before they have any ability to acknowledge, understand, or verbalize that loss.

And so I started to think about the ritual component as one of mourning not necessarily for the child (although that is always there), but perhaps more for the first mother, first father, first family. Borrowing from traditional and contemporary Korean mourning rituals, and incorporating my own experience with memorializing the dead, I want to hold a formal ritual in which this loss can be recognized and commemorated. And just as with any important milestone, I would expect to do this in the company of the significant people in my life, the people with whom I would celebrate any happy life occasion and mourn any life loss – a formal, “public” ritual of grief.

Although this is still very much in its early stages of development, I would welcome conversation with anyone who has their own experiences of ambiguous loss – in particular other adoptees for whom this notion might resonate. 

a dress that suits me

In the last days of her life, my mother asked me to read to her. Of course, I say, of course. I have been home, on leave from college, for several weeks, but we know now, that we are getting close to the end.

It is difficult to know what to choose. I look through the few books I have brought home with me. I choose The Lover by Marguerite Duras. For its rhythms, for its poetry. For the simplicity of its language.

It is a terrible choice, of course. There are whole sections I cannot read aloud – the descriptions of their affair, the anger she expresses at her mother, her brother. But I will just choose a few passages, I say to myself. I will just read the parts about her traveling and the parts about the war.

When I enter the room these days, she looks hard at me. She knows it is me, but it is as if when she sees me, my face looks distorted to her somehow, a feature out of place. She squints a bit, a quizzical look. She doesn’t trust herself to ask: Did you change your hair? Did you move your chin? Did one of your ears get bigger? But you can tell that the question is there, just behind her eyes.

I pull the chair up next to her bed. Her brown hair on the white pillow. I begin:

One day, I was already old, in the entrance of a public place, a man came up to me. He introduced himself and said, “I’ve known you for years. Everyone says you were beautiful when you were young, but I want to tell you I think you’re more beautiful now than then. Rather than your face as a young woman, I prefer your face as it is now. Ravaged.”

She closes her eyes, pulls the thin blue blanket up to her chin.

I skip paragraphs, flip through the book for the unobjectionable passages. I know she drifts in and out of sleep as I read, that she wants only the sound of my voice as she drifts. I steal glances at her face. She is so still except for her thin lips, which seem to be quivering. If she notices the gaps that my censorship creates, she does not say.

This is in early fall. October. I read to her like this only for a few days – three? Four? Is it strange that I should not remember, exactly?

There are no drapes in her bedroom. I don’t know why. Perhaps they had been taken down for cleaning? Afternoon sun floods the room. The room itself seems temporary, spare: The light wood floors are bare. The brass bed with its hospital-white linens. There is a black steamer trunk in the corner. And the straight-backed wooden chair that I sit in.

While she sleeps, I will sometimes knit. I am not working on anything in particular, just casting on, knitting long rows until I make an error, then tearing it all out, starting again. It is a kind of meditation.

Sometimes she will ask to see what I am working on, and I hold it up to her. She will reach out to touch it, nod her head. Good, she will murmur. Good.

For a long time I’ve had no dresses of my own. My dresses are all a sort of sack, made out of old dresses of my mother’s which themselves are all a sort of sack. Except for those my mother has made for me by Do. She’s the housekeeper who will never leave my mother even when she goes back to France. …

Do was brought up by the nuns, she can embroider and do pleats, she can sew by hand, as people haven’t sewed by hand for centuries, with hair-fine needles. As she can embroider, my mother has her embroider sheets.

It is just a handful of days that pass that way.

There have been weeks of unknowing. There have been whole stretches of days that she is up, alert, walking around, eating. Sitting on the couch watching television. The school year goes on without me. My friends call, and I can hear the sounds of music in the background, the sounds of vibrant, heady life. I hang up confused. Angry. I try to write things down.

Then all of a sudden, we are hurtling toward the known. She is so tired, her body so weak. Her requests are so simple: A glass of water with a straw. Show me your knitting. Read to me.

Later, I will remember the confusion and anger and be ashamed. I will remember my own preoccupations with the life I was not living back in Providence.

I will remember her asking one day, in a fevered state, “Am I not dying fast enough for you?”

In the books I’ve written about my childhood I can’t remember, suddenly, what I left out, what I said. I think I wrote about our love for our mother, but I don’t know if I wrote about how we hated her, too, or about our love for one another, and our terrible hatred too, in that common family history of ruin and death which was ours whatever happened, in love or in hate, and which I still can’t understand however hard I try, which is still beyond my reach, hidden in the very depths of my flesh, blind as a newborn child. It’s the area on whose brink silence begins. What happens there is silence, the slow travail of my whole life. I’m still there, watching those possessed children, as far away from the mystery now as I was then. I’ve never written, though I thought I wrote, never loved, though I thought I loved, never done anything but wait outside the closed door.

Her passing is so quiet, in the still early hours of a Thursday morning. Her sister, my aunt A., is there with me, and we are by her bedside as she drifts from us. We hear her labored breathing, the rattling in her chest.

We make our phone calls, and the rituals begin. The merciful rituals, the arrangements. We have the service in the morning, the burial, followed by the luncheon.

First hours, then days – pass.

I’m wearing a dress of real silk, but it’s threadbare, almost transparent. It used to belong to my mother. One day she decided the color was too light for her and she gave it to me. It’s a sleeveless dress with a very low neck. It’s the sepia color real silk takes on with wear. It’s a dress I remember. I think it suits me.