opportunity cost

The businessman tells me: You must also consider the opportunity cost. While you are doing one thing, you are not doing others. What are you not doing? What progress could you be making on another endeavor, were you not spending your time this way?

We are sitting in a coffee shop in the lobby of a hotel. Beyond the window, the street. Cars and trucks speed by.

Look, I’ll give you a simple example. Basic. A baby could understand this: You put your money in car parts. You’re making car parts. You have a team, you’ve got a little factory, you send those car parts off the line. Every day, car parts. Then this other guy is making flash drives. He’s got his team, his factory, and all the little flash drives come off the line. At the end of the year, you’ve got your car parts. He’s got his flash drives. He didn’t make any car parts, didn’t have the time or the resources or the people who know how to do it. His people make flash drives. Your people make car parts. Some investor comes along and he wants to buy your factory. Give you a ton of money for it. He asks you what have you got? Well, I’ve got car parts. Hmm, he says. I think what I’m looking for is flash drives, and BAM. You’re out. Flash drive guy’s got the deal. Flash drive guy is sitting on a whole pile of money. That is a missed opportunity. That’s what I’m saying. Do you see what I mean? That’s what I’m saying. 

I take my aunt to breakfast and we talk about my mother. Does your husband know how she was? she asks. You know, how she did things, the way she was. 

He knows about what happened, I say, if that is what you mean. He knows she was unhappy. She says: “I got so mad at your sister once when she said that. When she said your mother was unhappy. I told her, well what did she have to be happy about? A failed marriage, no job, no money, no friends to speak of. What was she supposed to be happy about?” 

I nod, say nothing. “But that was a long time ago. I have had time to think about it. I think about her so much. She’s been gone for twenty years now. And I still feel like I have to defend her.” 

I have thought about her a lot, too. She has been gone now for longer than I knew her. I think about her every day. Her unhappiness. I worry about the ways I am like her. 

She had assembled a fantasy of how her life should go - the husband she would have, the house they would live in, the car she would drive, the dresses she might wear - and everything around her disappointed her because it did not resemble the fantasy. None of us - my father, my aunt, my sister and me -  knew what this fantasy was, exactly. She did not describe it. We only knew, I think, that we were not quite right. 

The children she should have. Who we did and did not resemble. 

My fantasy has always involved a letter. Handwritten on fine paper with stamps I do not recognize. It begins “dear daughter,” or “to my dear daughter.” It tells a simple story and brings news: I have been looking for you and now I have found you. I am coming to New York and I would like to meet you. And we set a date and a place and a time. It does not matter, in my fantasy, how long it takes for my letter to reach her. The meeting is set. I buy a new dress. 

We meet in the afternoon and we have tea and hold hands. There is not much we can say. I speak no Korean and she has some English, but it is limited. In my fantasy, it is better that way. We avoid all complexities. Perhaps we take a walk in the park near her hotel. Perhaps she brings me a gift - something I used to wear or a book or a photo of her and my father, together in happier times. She is young and smiling and her hair is piled high on her head. My father is rakish. His hands thrust deep in his pockets. 

My businessman might take issue with my dwelling so long in fantasy. My resources are limited, after all. Allocation of time, of imagination: How many missed opportunities are piling up even as I sleep? 

I walk down to the river and stop there, looking out over rocks, the precipitous drop. Six minutes. I cross the bridge and follow the curve of the road up the street past the library. Three minutes. I enter the gym, scan my card walk through two sets of doors. Put my bag in a locker. Three minutes. On the bicycle: forty-five minutes. Back through the double doors and down the road and across the bridge and back up the street. Thirteen minutes.

My aunt says: “I didn’t feel like time was passing, really until after I turned seventy. That’s when I started feeling time go very quickly. And now sometimes I think: I am seventy-three years old. I forget sometimes,” she says, “that I am not forty anymore.”

Aren’t we all just passing time? 

I walked home from school as a child, bent down to pick up twigs from the sidewalk. I took them home, arranged them on a shelf. I fingered the bark. Should I instead have read a book? Or built a raft? Or learned the flute?

We drove out to the beach in winter. The hotel room had a gas fireplace, and we lit it. He took me to the bed and we stayed there until the fire burned out and night fell. I could have knit a sweater. I could have made a list of all the stars in the sky.

I sat by the bedside of my mother and watched the hours tick past. Watched the white sheets rise and fall with her labored breaths. The time was shapeless. Endless until it was not. I could have been sweeping floors. I could have been digging trenches in the dirt. I could have carved lines into my skin. 

I could have been searching for my first mother. All this time, I could have been searching. I could have flown to Korea and back a thousand times. Learned the simple, phonetic hangul. Learned to say mother

I could have loved the mother who was in front of me - the living, pulsing, unhappy mother - how much better I could have loved her. 

Being here and not there. Wanting this and not that. Looking one way and missing what the eyes cannot see. Everything we have lost. Everything we cannot get back. This is a moment I will never get back. And look another has passed now. And another. 

We have people over for dinner two nights in a row and after they have gone, my aunt says: You have such nice friends. They are such lovely people. I say yes. This is how we pass the time. This is how we shape the days. Afternoons in the kitchen, the warmth of the oven, the rhythmic slicing and chopping. Bringing out dishes, placing them on the table. Chairs pulled up around the table. The pouring of wine. The raising of glasses. We lean forward, we laugh, we embrace. There are children and they run up and down the stairs. They parade around us in hats. They ask for chocolates and we give them. We take plates back to the kitchen and pile them on the countertops. 

A river of hours flowing past more swiftly than we could ever have possibly imagined.

Let them flow. 

my own mind is a tenement

A woman who lived in the house next door has passed away. We learn this - rather, we deduce it - from a few strange happenings. First, wooden boards are nailed to the windows on the first floor. On the concrete beneath the kitchen window, now boarded shut, someone has written in “R.I.P.” in green chalk. The woman’s mail - a few utility bills, a catalog from the community college, a postcard from the pet supply store - starts showing up, mixed with ours. We find it on the floor of the entry way, where it has been pushed through the slot. By whom? Surely not the mail carrier? And then this morning, I come outside to see moving boxes packed with trash lined up on the sidewalk in front of our house. 

“Who would put trash in front of our house?” M. asks when I tell him about it, later. I say I think it’s all from the woman next door. “I’ll call the sanitation department,” he says. We are advised to leave it there until trash pick-up day. If it is still there after that, call them back, we are told. When I return home, I inspect the trash more closely. Someone has opened one of the boxes, rifled through its contents. There is a paperback book - on how to use Photoshop - on the ground. The cover is bent backward and on the first page, I see the woman’s name written in green ink. The empty box from a video game console. A black plastic trash bag has been ripped open to reveal its contents - a set of old, cloth-bound encyclopedias, the pages brittle and yellow. I am hesitant to move anything. I pile a few small bags that have started to spill out on the sidewalk past the row of boxes. As I take my son’s hand to walk toward the front door, I see the corner of a baking sheet sticking out of one of the boxes. It is bent and rusted. Unusable. The sight of these objects, lying out on the sidewalk, exposed, picked through, makes my stomach hurt.

Question #3: What do you know about the circumstances of your adoption?

“Imagine this,” she says. 

I am sitting in a deep armchair across from a woman in another deep armchair. She smiles at me. 

“Imagine this: she can’t take care of you in the way you need to be taken care of, so she says I love you, but I have to let you go.”

“She doesn’t love me enough,” I say. “If she did, she’d find a way to keep me.”

“So it’s not possible that she simply does not have the capacity, the ability to care for you?”

I shake my head. “She won’t try hard enough. If she loved me enough, she would try.”

“So there are no circumstances under which letting you go would be better?”


“And there’s no room, in your view, for her to be herself - flawed, limited, human? It’s just all or nothing for you?”

“Yes,” I say, “exactly.”

I sit in the cafe and try to read, but it is too loud to concentrate. I read the same passage over and over again: “My own mind is a tenement. Some elevators work. There are orange peels and muggings in the hall.”

I gather my things to leave. The afternoon is gray and cool. I walk down the block, feeling dizzy. I hold my arms out a bit to steady myself. At the corner, I turn around and walk back. Then, I sit in my car, stare out the window for several long minutes before heading to my next obligation. 

Question #9: If you had any difficulties that you faced in life, please tell us in details. 

1. When I was ten years old, my father took us to a low-budget, ranch-themed resort. Meals were served in a vast dining room at long tables. It was hot and noisy and everywhere you went, the smell of horse manure and hay lingered. The horse I rode spooked on the trail and ran off ahead. Not far. Not for too long. Just enough to frighten a ten-year-old girl already fearful of her body, hurtling through space. I cried. I clung to the strap of the reins. The palms of my hands smelled like leather, no matter how many times I washed them. 

2. With the money I have saved, I pick out pink-framed sunglasses from the discount store near the beach. There are tiny rhinestones glued across the frames. My mother asks do I want to spend all my money on just that one thing, wouldn’t I like to get something else - a coloring book and crayons? A doll whose eyes open and close? But my mind is made up. I take them to the counter, empty the contents of my tan change purse out onto it. I get a few coins back, put them back in the purse. At the beach, we walk down to the edge, where the sand is wet and warm. Where the waves break on your ankles then pull you back toward the sea. I am in the water up to my knees. I am looking behind me, toward the sand, at my mother, who is approaching. When I turn back to the ocean, I see the wave coming at me, high and fast. It knocks me down. I am sitting in the sand with salt water in my nose, seaweed on my arms. My sunglasses are gone. 

3. As a gift one year, I receive the doll with the eyes that open and close. She has jet black hair. “She looks like you,” the woman - a friend of my mother’s - says, beaming. Hold the doll upright, its eyes are wide open, revealing its blue (“not like you”) eyes. Lay it back and the eyes close. “Shh. She’s sleeping,” the woman whispers, holding a finger to her lips. After a few days of opening and closing, doesn’t one eye start hovering in the half-lidded position, no matter how hard I shake it? I turn it upside to see whether the lid will fall open. It does not. I hide it in my closet, way back in the darkest corner, where at night, in my bed, I imagine it staring out at me through the closed door, one eye open, unblinking, the other in eerie half-sleep. 

In the evening, my friend comes over and we sit at my kitchen table, drinking wine and playing records. I put out some cheese and crackers and we eat and laugh and re-fill our glasses. She tells me a story about a man she once thought she loved that makes me cry. Then another one that makes me laugh. My daughter walks in and we chat with her. She humors us for a time, then goes back to her projects. 

And this is the way we pass the hours - turning over the records when one side ends, pouring wine until the bottle is empty.

everyone forgets that Icarus also flew

We land to rain, the sky a monochromatic gray. I appreciate the somber welcome after several days of giddy, unmoored play. Like sleepwalkers, we drag our bags silently from the gate to the baggage claim. From baggage claim to the parking lot. Up and down the rows of parked cars. The gray baggage carousels. The gray parking lot. The gray concrete.

Just past the exit from the airport parking lot, there is a toll that I did not anticipate. I have spent every last bit of my cash and as I approach the booth, I see the sign “Cash Only.” I roll down my window and plead my case. The young girl behind the plexiglass barely acknowledges me, simply leaves her chair to walk around to the back of my car, take down my license plate. She returns to the booth, her head down, writing on her pad. She tears the top sheet from it, hands it to me, all without speaking a word. I accept it, thank her, pull away. I look down and see the words “NO CASH VIOLATION” across the top of it. I tuck the sheet into my bag and drive on.

The traffic is unexpectedly heavy for this hour of the morning. The rain comes in short bursts. A fine mist punctuated by several minutes of downpour at a time. In the passenger seat, my daughter sleeps lightly, her jacket draped over her and pulled up under her chin.

When we arrive home, I am tired, but cannot sleep. I make tea, open our bags, but do not unpack them. I pace, sit down on the couch, drink the tea. There are messages to return and so for a few minutes, I do that.

I am someone who thinks that travel should change you. And it does, perhaps. But I am here, and I am the same. I have carried the memory of the things we have seen, the places we have gone, but here I am, back in my house, where the tulips have faded and fallen. Where the laundry is still in its piles. Where the steady rain falls on the unkempt yard, a visible and persistent reminder of my willingness to start things that I know that I cannot finish.

My daughter, the wiser, sleeps. I sit here and nurse my anxieties about the days ahead.

Overnight, while I am in the air, M. sends me a poem from the hotel room where he and our son still wait for the later flight they are taking. It begins: Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew. He says, it reminds me of you, has a line in it almost exactly like that line you love.

I am rifling through the stack of papers on my desk and I come upon the questionnaire for the Korean television show – the one where I would appear and tell my story, to see if my parents are also looking for me. I scan the questions again and they engender the same irritation they did the first time I read them – now, weeks ago. Question #13: “When do you miss your mother or family the most?”

I do not mean to take this lightly. I do not mean to pretend that the job they must do there, at the agency, is an easy one. I imagine the earnest meetings around conference tables where they discuss the questions they will ask, the information that they feel they should know, but I wonder how, exactly, I am expected to answer a question such as this? When everything I know and everything I do – consciously and unconsciously – is shaped by her absence. That the confusion of not knowing, not understanding why has created and defined longing in me. That I have lived my whole life with my heart in two places: The place I am and the place I can never be.

Failing and Falling
–Jack Gilbert

Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew.
It’s the same when love comes to an end,
or the marriage fails and people say
they knew it was a mistake, that everybody
said it would never work. That she was
old enough to know better. But anything
worth doing is worth doing badly.
Like being there by that summer ocean
on the other side of the island while
love was fading out of her, the stars
burning so extravagantly those nights that
anyone could tell you they would never last.
Every morning she was asleep in my bed
like a visitation, the gentleness in her
like antelope standing in the dawn mist.
Each afternoon I watched her coming back
through the hot stony field after swimming,
the sea light behind her and the huge sky
on the other side of that. Listened to her
while we ate lunch. How can they say
the marriage failed? Like the people who
came back from Provence (when it was Provence)
and said it was pretty but the food was greasy.
I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell,
but just coming to the end of his triumph.

I put the questionnaire back in its folder, slide it to the corner of my desk. I will get to it, in time. Back in the kitchen, while I wait for the kettle (more tea), I see that some of the flowers in the jam jar bouquet are still alive, even with barely an inch of water left. I turn on the faucet and hold the jar beneath it until it fills, set it back on the windowsill. Perhaps they’ll last a few more days.

this will be the year

So much longing, so visible, is unseemly. This is the idea that follows me around whenever I think about the Korean television show. I try to explain this to the people who ask. It is one thing to exchange documents, queries. These are simple, contained things. I send my request: I would like a name or a photograph, or a story of one sort or another – and in return, perhaps I receive a note or two through the ether that I can print out and slip into my blue folder. I can take these out when I wish to, consider them in private, quiet moments.

One can imagine Shinhye walking through the office of the agency, opening a file drawer or two. Removing a folder, spreading its contents out across her desk, flipping through pages, coming up empty. Where a name should be, only a blank line. Unknown. N/A. There is a simple beauty to the finality of it: There is nothing more in the file. We have no information for you. But this –

Broadcasting one’s wishes so plainly. The lines on my face visible, the eyes wet, the quivering of the lip or the chin. Perhaps I would at least be spared having to show my hands, their trembling. The way I would be folding and unfolding them, their movements compulsive, involuntary.

No one, I think, should have to see me in such a state.

You made your bed, now lie in it. This was a favorite saying of my mother’s. As a child, it confused me. Making my bed after all, was a thing I did after I rose from it, smoothing the sheets, pulling the quilt up over the pillow. I could only imagine climbing atop it and lying very still on its now unspoiled surface. And why, I wondered, would one want to do such a thing?

The expression comes to mind, though, on the way home from dinner with a friend, driving in the wet snow. I am thinking of the ways in which we organize our lives. The decisions we make – the small, unthinking ones – that start us down one path or another. And we follow the paths where they lead, not always aware of how far we have come from where we started. And then suddenly, there are decisions of more consequence to be made. How did I get here, we wonder? I don’t remember choosing this path. And then, my mother’s voice as she is standing over me, her arms folded across her chest, her glasses slipping down the bridge of her nose, “Well you made your bed, now lie in it.”

“You don’t believe in fate?” my friend asks.

“Define fate,” I say. “Define the word ‘believe.’”

I am constantly being seduced by the promise of the checklist. I come across one for a spotless kitchen in just twenty minutes a day! This morning’s tasks are to wash out the container that holds the utensils and to clean the top of the refrigerator.

The container is easy, so I do that first, then I take the stepstool that we bought for my son to reach the bathroom sink, drag it up to the refrigerator and survey the landscape. A bizarre collection of random items have made their way up here: construction paper leaves cut out and glued to the drawing of a tree, a plastic bag, an oversized plastic serving tray that I bought for the baby shower I hosted for a friend of mine, whose son is now four years old. Once the debris has been collected and I’ve made a first pass over the surface with a dry paper towel – to dust off the surface grit – I think perhaps the task is not as bad as it may have appeared. Armed with my all-natural, chemical-free, dye-free spray cleaner, I set to work.

It is more difficult than it first appears, though. They layer of grime is thick and greasy. A single pass with the spray bottle will not be sufficient. I check the clock. There will not be enough time. I leave the spray and the sponge in the sink for later.

Beneath the list of thirty tasks on the deep-cleaning checklist is the explanation that these are in addition to the regular maintenance – the dishes, the sweeping, the wiping of regularly-used surfaces. So, I have become obsessed with sweeping. I can no longer stand still in the kitchen. I sweep under the table, come away with toast crumbs and bits of dried cheese, stray grains of rice. While waiting for water to boil or for oatmeal to simmer, I take my broom out into the hallway, sweep up the clumps of dust that collect in the corners and behind the doors. Occasionally, in the pile, the tiny plastic head of an alien or the bottom half of a miniature fireman will appear amid the dirt. Although I am always tempted to dump the contents of the dustpan unceremoniously into the trash, at the last minute, my guilt gets the better of me, and I rescue the little toy pieces and put them in a pile on the kitchen counter. 

“Whatever you decide, we will work to make it fine.” This, from my former writing teacher when I was deciding whether to take leave from my graduate program to move to New York, where Z.’s father had a very attractive job offer.

She said she believed my life to be charmed and that we would find a way to have it all work out. This, before the long lonely months spent in New York, while he traveled. This before I returned to Providence with my young daughter and we lived in the tiny apartment in the squat brick building. This before the divorce.

But she was right, even then. This charmed life.

I walk up the hill from downtown and in front of one of the campus buildings, there is a garden bed full of fledgling shoots pushing up through the earth. I am late, as I often am, so I am walking quickly. There is not much time to stop and examine them closely, but I am fairly certain it is too soon for them to be emerging. This strange weather – the warm days, the full hot sun – confuses.

I think about my own garden – how once the oppressive days of late July and August arrive, there is not much that I tend, so that each year without fail, the last days of summer see the beds in great disarray. Stray clumps of weeds, the rose bushes leggy and wild. How those days seem to slide so quickly into fall – with the start of the school year all its attendant busyness – that I never seem to finish the last chores of the garden, the readying for winter. Each spring, when I am out there, clearing out the detritus of last year’s overgrown weeds, I vow to make one last round of the yard at the end of the season, one last attempt to clean out the beds, to lay down winter mulch. For the last seven years, I have said: This will be the year.

This will be the year. 

this is it

I say yes to the Korean television show and Shinhye sends me another form. This one has fourteen questions. Each of the fourteen is frustrating, baffling in its own way:

Question #4: “Write any information or memory about your birth family and how you got them.”

Question #7: “What’s your opinion of Korea?”

Question #9: “If you had any difficulties that you faced in life, please tell us in details. (& #10: How did you overcome it?)”

And my favorite, I think, is the last: “Write a letter to your birth mother or birth family. (A long letter).”

I am tempted to send back, almost immediately, a box packed with my many diaries from high school – the 5-subject, wire-bound notebooks I filled with my looping script in ballpoint pen, label it “Question #9.” And then as an attachment to my email, a thousand-paged, single-spaced document. But I am not sure that Shinhye would get the joke.

And then, I think: And what is my joke, exactly?

In college, the theatre department held an annual evening of monologues. Student-written, directed, and performed. I auditioned one year and got cast in the role of an over-privileged, middle-aged, second-generation Korean woman (I swear, I am not making this up) who imagines a dinner party of all her former lovers, and one by one, attempts to decimate each with a cruel diatribe about his various shortcomings. It is fair to say that the whole of it – the writing, directing, acting – was flawed. I was given a martini glass to hold and I wore the dress I had bought for my high school winter dance – dark blue velvet with a tafetta skirt. It had an open back that my date, R., slipped his hand into on the ride back from the city, where we had gone dancing. Despite the cold of the evening, his hand was warm and he left it there – unmoving, resting on my back – for the entirety of the trip.

There was another monologue delivered that night that still haunts me. A woman struggling with some undefined mental illness. She would steady herself with the phrase, “This is it,” but spelled it out, so that periodically through the monologue, she would pause and drop her voice to a whisper: “T H I S I S I T.” As she spoke it, she said the letters in pairs, and it was this decision, I think, that made her delivery one that has lodged in my brain ever since. The simple, clipped rhythm: TH. IS. IS. IT.

I don’t remember much of the content of it, only that phrase repeated, its meaning changing, gathering complexity. At first a comfort. Later, a call to action.

Then finally, wearied resignation?



I tell my friend that I am sad, and she tells me that I am not. Sitting at the bar in the restaurant, she lectures me, her voice rising. She waves her arms around. Why call it sad? You are searching. You are in the middle of big things. You are doing fine, she insists. The waiter comes by and hovers near us until she is finished speaking. “Can I get you anything else?” he asks.

We are sitting sideways on the bar stools, facing each other. She puts her arm around my shoulder. “Would you please tell my friend that she is fine,” she says to him.

He plays along. “You are fine.”

I say: “Thank you.” Then, “Now please tell my friend that she is loud.”

“You are loud,” he says. We all laugh.

“I’m loud, but I’m right!” she calls out – to him, to me, to the table across from us near the window. Then back to me: “I’m right.”

I run the shower and stand there, with my hand under the spray, waiting for the hot water to make its slow journey up from the basement heater. The shower faces a stained glass window – a scene of two birds sitting on a branch, with the sun rising in the background. The colors are vivid. It’s a stunning piece – one of the many things we fell in love with when we first saw the house nearly seven years ago. The glass is bowed in places and in need of repair. We had a consult early on and were informed of the rarity of this particular pane. “Probably,” he said, “the most valuable thing in the house.” Its value, as I recall, has something to do with its coloration – the many shades of red and pink and orange - and its depiction of birds. I had thought I might research it, but that project made its way to the list of “someday, to do” along with the dozens of others that seem increasingly likely, as the years pass, to be forgotten.

When the light hits the window, the yellow glass of the sun is brilliant. Standing in the shower, the hot water falling, the colored glass illuminated, it is hard not to feel a glimmer of hope for the day ahead. The heart lifts, lightens.

The bus stop man is not at the bus stop across from my house this morning when my son and I pull out of the driveway. I admit that I have a moment of concern. How much a part of my routine it has become to wave to him as I head down the street. As I am driving down the block, I see a man approaching, a knit hat pulled down low. I think it might be him, but then quickly see that it is not. I think about the summer and the days that I would linger in the house, peeking through the curtains until the bus pulled away, so that I could avoid the little ritual completely. And now, months later, I worry that he is not there.

On the drive to drop off my son at his school, I think about routines. How reliant we become so quickly even on those things that can be most wearying. The dishes, the cooking, the setting up and clearing of the dining table. The laundry – up and down the basement steps. The folding of towels, the hanging of shirts.

Yesterday, I am anxious about my list of tasks and M. asks do I want him to do the grocery shopping by himself so that I can have time alone to work and I find myself saying no, no, I want to go with you, it’s one of the best parts of the weekend. And it is: Driving down to the grocery store, meandering through the aisles with our son sitting in the cart among the apples and the lettuces. How we will separate, wander off and then find ourselves at the check-out line, with multiples of the same item: two bunches of bananas, two wedges of cheddar. How satisfying it is to lay all our purchases out on the conveyor belt – clustering all the dairy and freezer items together, then the produce, then the cans and bottles and jars. Packing it all up in bags, piling them in the trunk. Dragging them into the house, unpacking. What a sense of accomplishment it gives me to see my refrigerator shelves full. Small things, within my control.

Sometimes, just as M. is falling asleep, or in the morning, when he is just waking, I will hover over him, grinning, my eyes wide so that when he senses me there and finally opens his eyes, he will see only my big head, my stupid wide grin and he will laugh. I used to do this all the time – a running joke between us and occasionally, he would push me away, playfully. “When I’m dead,” I would say, feigning injury, “this is one of the things that you will miss most,” and we would laugh.

We used to joke like this all the time – a multipurpose laugh line to head off any number of silly domestic squabbles: “You left your shoes in the middle of the floor!” Or, “You put all my sweaters in the dryer!” Or, “We needed milk and you were at the store, but you only brought back a pie?” Always the same response: “You know you will miss this when I am gone.”

I am melodramatic and sentimental to a fault. A little superstitious, truth be told. I want to read signs into everything, I’ll admit, but I do feel as though we may joke a little less like this these days. Could it be because we already know the truth of this? Know that what we will miss most are the tiniest, most mundane details of a life, shared over years?

Wouldn’t we go without milk for months, and wouldn’t we shrug off the shrunken sweaters, and wouldn’t we pick up each other’s shoes a hundred thousand times if only we would never have to know loss?

Yes. I think I would.

all the advice we give goes unheeded

My friend is angry at a friend of hers and so she paces my kitchen, fuming. Her friend has been living abroad for four years, not making much money, dabbling in illicit substances, and crying all the time. “She’s got to move back here, get a job, stop taking money from her parents and get her shit together.”

I have never seen her so upset. She goes on, “I mean, she’s not twenty-five any more. She’s too old for this shit. She’s stopped writing her book, she gets involved with these awful men and then she’s sad all the time. I talk to her on the phone and she’s crying. She’s smoking too much. I mean, it’s time for her to grow up. Don’t you think she should just grow up?”

I’m putting a salad together, slicing cucumbers. She’s waiting for my response. “I guess,” I say, “but I don’t think you can make her do that. She’s got to find her own way.”

She picks up the lid from the pan on the stove, puts it back down. I go on: “I mean, we all have our paths, you know?”

She is quiet. She reaches for the open bottle of wine on the counter, pours a bit into her glass. “She’s just ruining her life,” she says, as she lifts the glass, “she’s totally throwing her life away.”

She is constantly turning questions around on me, so I take this opportunity to ask: “Why are you so upset about this? Is there something this is stirring up for you?”

She laughs. “Oh, I see what you are doing.” I hand her the salad bowl, she walks it over to the dining table.

“I think I’m just mad because I feel like I am losing her. Like she’s just going to stay there and throw her life away and I’ll have lost my friend.”

“Should I get the kids?” she asks. I nod. She walks into the living room to call them. I put a tiny bowl of salt on the table. The pepper mill. The dressing for the salad. Take the rolls out of the oven, put them on a plate. She comes back, wraps her shawl around her shoulders. “I’m just so mad that there’s nothing I can do. I can’t do anything but watch her make this mess of everything.”

All through the night, fierce winds. I wake to the sound of the old windows shuddering in their frames.

We go to breakfast, plot out the day, make our lists. There are menus to plan. There is the shopping and the cleaning and the caretaking to do. As we leave the restaurant, a flurry of text messages sent and answered. I have friends in various stages of decision-making. We check in with each other, lift each other up. K. says the week was a difficult one, and I say yes, for me too. The planets in an unfortunate alignment, she suggests. Sure. I’ll take it.

I drive my car out to the service center and watch as big clusters of clouds drift across the sky. A sudden illumination as through a hole in the cloud cover, a rush of sunlight and I feel something in my chest lift, expand. It is hard not to want to read signs into everything. Rather: it is hard for me not to read signs into everything.

M. comes home late last night, but he has brought gifts and I fuss over them. We share a late meal alone, in the quiet. We recount our days to each other – the big, wearying things. On the table, there are roses from our recent dinner party. Tulips by the windows. The china dishes from my mother fill the shelves of a heavy dark-wood sideboard that we were given by a friend when he moved. I think about our first house – the tiny purple one on the west side where we ate from the mismatched plates we bought at the Salvation Army store. How much we are the same but we are not the same.

Outside our bedroom window, there was a black walnut tree and in the late summer and early autumn, we would wake to the cacophony of the walnuts hitting the roof and rolling down to the ground. How we were always taken by surprise. The soundtrack of our mornings there: walnuts falling and the man in the neighboring house who rose early to do his stretching on his porch. The soft whooshing sounds he made, the puffing sounds of his breathing, exaggerated and rhythmic.

A couple we knew bought the house after us. Lived there together for several years. I learned recently from a friend in common that they since have parted ways. She remains in the house. He has moved on. I drove past last fall on my way back from one meeting or another. Black walnuts scattered on the sidewalk. 

I invite my friend to eat with us but she says she is considering making the four-hour drive to see her on-again, off-again man. He refuses to come here, she says. I tell her unequivocally that she is crazy to do it, that she should stay here with the people who want her in our lives. She says but he does want me, he just wants to control the terms. I don’t respond to this, tell her just to let me know. Who am I, really, to pretend to know what is right.

Many years ago, when I was still in my twenties, still with B., we had poet friends who shared a house, but had decided not to marry. She asked me about it once, whether I thought they should. I told her yes, yes, and I waxed poetic about it, I am sure, although I can no longer recall what I would have said.

Later, when B. and I divorced, I spoke to her once on the phone. It was clear I had already lost them both to him, and in this final conversation between us, she hissed: “How could you ever have encouraged us to get married? How did you dare?” as if our divorce alone shed doubt on the whole institution. As if I had already known what was to come.

I ask M. again what he thinks I should do about the television show. The one where I would appear and say that I am looking for my family. “I don’t see why you wouldn’t,” he says, and I sit with it, the idea of it, for just a few minutes.

“There is something so unseemly about asking so publicly,” I say and even as I hear myself uttering these words, I recognize the absurdity and the irony of them. Me – this open book, this constant stream of self-reports. Ask me anything, I say, and I will tell you. And yet, this. This seems like it might just be too much.

We are driving home from breakfast. It’s a short drive, but we have to take the highway. The landscape so familiar it is like driving in a dream. The light intensifying then dimming as the clouds move across the sky. The wind, subsiding now - quiet, as if drawing up strength for an approaching storm.

I miss that person

I take my son to the playground on another unseasonably warm afternoon and as we cross the parking lot, he takes my hand, pulls at me, says, “Let’s run.” When we are at the sidewalk, I tell him, “Go ahead, you run,” and he takes off. I follow him – his red coat – for only a moment or two and then he is lost to the swirl of jackets and hats and sweatshirts clustered and clamoring – around the rock wall, the steps to the slide, the tall rope structure with the coveted high platform that one child at a time can sit atop and from there, gaze down on all the goings on below.

When I find him, he is standing still, waiting for his turn on the covered slide. I walk around the other side of it so I can watch him come down. I catch a glimpse of the top of his head before it disappears into the plastic tube, and then he pops out the bottom, his cheeks flushed, his coat hanging open.

He is fascinated by the rope web. Slowly, he climbs up onto it and makes his way across to the center, where several older boys are circling the ropes leading up to the platform. He freezes in position whenever someone moves past him, which causes the web to shake. When it is still again, he creeps along on all fours until he arrives at the farthest point from where he began. Then, he lowers himself one leg at a time so that he is clutching the rope at his chest, legs dangling, his shirt rising up so that a narrow band of his round belly is visible. He holds this position for as long as he can, then drops to the ground. He scans for me. I am sitting up against the wooden fence in full view. He runs over. “Did you see what I did Mama?” he asks grinning, breathlessly. I pull him into my arms, squeeze him. “I sure did. You were amazing.”

L. comes over for dinner and we catch up on her on-again, off-again, not-quite-available boyfriend. “He’s calling it a relationship,” she says, her voice dropping as she leans in closer across the table. I don’t ask about the status of his divorce. She says, “I think it’s ok – I mean, it’s good.”

I ask whether they’ve seen each other since the weekend at the hotel. She says no, but they’ve spoken on the phone a few times. “I thought the connection was just physical,” she says, “but it turns out we have a lot to talk about.” We laugh.

She tells me about the man she lived with for a while, who wanted his own bedroom and only told her he loved her when he was traveling and they were far apart. “And how long did this go on?” I ask. “About a year,” she says, “and almost all of it was terrible.”

She’s talking about the boyfriend again now, says he’s trying so hard to get his life together, not drinking so much. She shows me a photo. It’s dark and there are shadows falling across him. He’s wearing a knit hat pulled down. It’s not easy to see his face. “He’s sad, though,” she says. “He seems so sad and alone.”

“And that is what they do,” I say as I get up to clear the plates from the table. “That is how they pull us in.”

She gathers her things to leave. Inexplicably, she’s meeting up with the man she once lived with. “Well, he called and asked if I wanted to have a drink,” she explains, as she puts on her coat. “I’m trying to make it clear that I am not interested in starting anything up again.”

“No better way to communicate disinterest than to meet up for drinks,” I say. We laugh, but she does not respond. We hug and I walk her to the door. “Your house is so cold,” she calls as she walks down the front steps. She’s waving her hand in the air, but doesn’t turn around. “Don’t you feel the cold?”

There’s a note from Shinhye, my social worker in Korea. She reminds me that I had written to them in 2001. Says there is no information about my family, but that I can appear on a television show if I’d like, tell my story. Many people have been reunited with their families this way, she says. “Let me know if you are interested in the television show.”

I follow the link she’s embedded to the show, which is called “I Miss That Person.” There is a video still – presumably from the show – on a bright, garish set. Two hosts holding microphones lean in toward a video screen showing a man’s face. On the other side of the screen, another man holds his hands behind his back, his eyes cast down. The scene makes my stomach ache.

I tell M. about it, show him the site. “I don’t think I can do it,” I tell him, as I scroll down to the description of the various ways in which they attempt to reunite people. There is a program dedicated specifically to Korean adoptees called “Mom, I Miss You.” The description reads:

This service is for the 200,000 Korean adoptees worldwide wishing to find their Korean roots. Raised as foreigners, the only Korean they can typically say is “Mom, I miss you.” In the past, they had to visit Korea but now, through UCC and video calls, they can participate in the show airing in Korea real-time.

“You should totally do it,” he says.

“But I can’t say ‘Mom I miss you’ in Korean,” I tell him.

“Why wouldn’t you want to do it?”

I close my laptop. Put it down on the rug. I let him embrace me, pull me close. I mumble my answer into his chest: “I guess I just don’t want to seem like I want it that much.”

This morning, I wake to snow. Big, fat flakes that seem to melt on contact with the pavement. I stand at the stove, stirring oatmeal. My son comes into the kitchen with his feet bare. My daughter, from the doorway, asks to borrow a sweater. “The perfect soundtrack for snow,” M. says at the record player and I listen for the first few strains of what he has chosen. Familiar, melancholy, haunting. “Yes,” I tell him. Yes it is.

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.

finders, keepers

What do you think it would be like, I am asked, to be found?

What a question to ask, to consider. In the act of being found, there is the suggestion, is there not, that you are not where you are supposed to be.

If you are found, maybe you were lost.

If you are found, maybe you will be taken back.

Once as a child, I got separated from my mother in a crowd. I don’t remember where, exactly, but we were packed tightly, and there wasn’t much room to move around. I was holding her hand, and then I was not. I was moved along in the crush of bodies and I remember reaching out a bit blindly. I saw the yellow sleeve of a shirt. I remembered my mother to be wearing yellow and so, I made my way toward that. I grabbed at the arm in the yellow sleeve. I held it, brought it to my cheek, kissed it, clutched it. I felt the arm stiffen, pull away. I looked up and it was not my mother.

Can you be found if you don’t know that you are lost?

I am thinking still about the birthparent search and my own long resistance to it. Perhaps it is this: I don’t want to search. I want only to be found. I will stay here, you come find me. A children’s game. Here I am. Discover me.

Close your eyes. Count to 10. Find me.

There is the danger, of course, of not being compelling enough a subject to be sought, found. I watch my son play with his friend in the park. They lean against a tree to count, and hide in bushes, squat down behind low stone walls. After a while, inevitably, one of them will lose interest after several rounds of hiding, seeking and hiding again. One will count, begin searching then be distracted by a bird, or a tricycle, or a pile of sticks. And the other one, in time, will come bursting out of his hiding place, eyes wide and wet, on the verge of tears: Why didn’t you come find me?

To find requires intense curiosity, interest. Single-mindedness of purpose. Focus. To find requires dedication. An urgency. A kind of love.

Many years ago, shortly after my divorce: I had just taken Z. to spend the month with her father in New York, as per the terms of our agreement. I had never before been separated from her for this long.

It was summer. The heat was oppressive. It was difficult to sleep. All the windows were open wide. In the middle of the night, M. and I were awoken by the sound of a baby crying. We sat up in a panic. The crying – heart-wrenching, relentless – went on for a long time. We got up, put on our shoes. We walked outside in the dark night, trying to follow the sound. Our searching was so cautious, so tentative: we did not know that we wanted to find what we thought we might. I thought the worst: Trash can. Dumpster. In a basket on someone’s front porch with a note. Our hearts raced. We will find you, I called out silently to this child. I will find you.

After a time, we called the police. The baby was safe in his home with two weary parents who were desperate for sleep.

I went back to bed, shaken, bereft. I stayed awake for what seemed like a very long time.

Back in the park, there is that wonderful moment of discovery. My son’s friend, alerted by the sound of muffled giggles, will peek around a tree, and then my son will pop out. You found me! They embrace briefly, awkwardly, shuffling into each other, all limbs. And then, they will do it again, the roles reversed.

There is that kind of being found: You know that you are being sought. You can leave clues. You can peek out to check that the searcher is still there. Wave your arm a bit. Let him see your sleeve.

I think there is another kind of finding, of being found. You don’t know what you are looking for. You don’t know that you are being sought. A kind of stumbling into. Falling in love, I think, can be a little like this.

Finders, keepers.