snow

stillness

The streets are quiet. The week seems endless. This morning, at least, there is sun.

The writing is halting at best. A few notes before bed or an image on the way home from work that I jot down on a parking receipt while idling at a stop light. This waiting. For the new year to begin.

We returned from Rochester late at night in the cold dark, carried the sleeping boy to his bed, unloaded the car.

A stillness in the house, on the street – even down on the highway. In the office, I clear out old files, make lists, begin outlining the new year’s projects. People chatter in the hallway. They speak of their families and their travels. They tell of grandchildren and nieces and nephews. Their voices are animated and loud.

A soliloquy on stillness from Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge:

O night without objects. O out impassive windows, O carefully closed doors; settings from olden times, taken on, credited, never completely understood. O stillness in the staircase, stillness from adjoining rooms, stillness high up on the ceiling. O mother: O you, the only one who fended off all this stillness from me in the days of childhood. Who takes the stillness upon herself, saying: don’t be frightened, it’s me. Who has the courage in the night to completely be this shelter for what is afraid, what is desperate from fear. You strike a light, and are already the noise. And you hold the light in front of you and say: It’s me, don’t be frightened. And you put it down, slowly, and there is no doubt: it is you, you are the light around the kind, familiar things that are there without any deeper meaning, good, simple, unambiguous.

A comfort in returning to stillness. To the familiar worn objects of the home we have made. After dinner with M.’s parents, we walk them back to their rooms in the assisted living facility they now call home. In each room, there are objects I recognize. Quilted wall hangings, photographs. Books. His mother asks me for a tissue from the bathroom and beneath the mirror, I see she has taped a series of photos of my son and I pause there at the sink to keep myself from weeping.

This time last year, we peeled clementines and ate them standing up in our socked feet, all of us crowded into the kitchen of the family house. It is a bit of foolish sentimentality, I know, that keeps me returning there in my memory, but the end of the year always finds me wistful, vulnerable, all the old wounds open. This season with its expectations. This season with all its promises. The pressures this season exerts on the heart.

We spend Christmas morning at M.’s sister’s house and watch our son as he tears through gift after gift, the wrapping paper crumpled and strewn all over the carpeted floor. He is exuberant, loud. For a time, don’t we all rest our sadness down on his small head? The fullness of him, the roundness of his cheeks, his mouth still sticky from a rushed breakfast of cinnamon rolls and apple slices. He is alive and electric and wide-eyed. His delight.

The drive home is quiet. The rest areas desolate, gray snow piled up in the parking lots. I sleep lightly while M. drives the endless highways. Our boy sleeps, too.

Our families are scattered and we always end up traveling for Christmas. A few years ago, we started planning our own celebration on the weekend before the holiday, so we could have a day in our own home, a day we were all together, our tiny family. We maintained some of the rituals from each of our childhoods – for me, the table covered with sweets on Christmas Eve and for M., waffles for breakfast on Christmas. One year, it was a full week before the holiday, but we didn’t care. It was a Saturday and in the morning, we stumbled downstairs and gathered around the tree in our night clothes, exchanged our gifts. And as we all sit there in the luxury of a few lazy hours, a light snow falls. By afternoon, everything – the sidewalks, the front lawn, the porch steps, the tree branches – is still and quiet and shrouded in the freshly-fallen snow.

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.

scene study

It is only the third week of class. We don’t know each other well, but here we are, flat on our backs on the floor, the lights down low. A confession. In the dark. Tell the class. In those days, there is only one thing I want to tell – one thing I ever want to tell. About the man I followed here from New York. Who even as I am lying there on my back in the dark, is in my apartment, waiting. He has come down from Boston. Arrived at the train station the night before, with his toothbrush in one hand and orange daylilies in the other. In his back pocket, several photocopied pages from a script about a fisherman off the coast of Ireland and the woman who falls in love with him. Here is the monologue you should read, he tells me as he shows me the paragraphs he has marked off with red pencil. “You will be brilliant,” he says. “You will be stunning.”

I am neither of those things, in the end, but he doesn’t stay long enough to find out. I return home from class and he lists the reasons he’s come up with for why “this thing we’re doing” can’t work. It’s something I have heard before. It is not surprising, but it is wearying and so I go through the necessary steps that will take us to his leaving – that will lead to his kissing my forehead, both his hands on it, before he backs toward the door and is gone.

It is just weeks later that we first learn of my mother’s illness. She drives me back to Providence from a visit home one weekend and we have lunch together before she turns around and drives back. I talk to her on the phone after she arrives home and she complains about her stomach. “It must have been something I ate,” she says.

Hours later, I will receive the call from my aunt that my mother has been rushed into emergency surgery for the tumor in her appendix that has burst. And soon after that, I will be on my way back to New York myself, the first act in the drama that will unfold over the months ahead.

My mother disliked C. on sight. “Too old for you, and a little too slick,” she declared, upon meeting him, backstage of the show we were working on together. “And I don’t like the way he looks at you. Like you are some kind of little cake that he’s about to unwrap.”

“You mark my words,” she says, months later, when I tell her I think we’re dating. When I tell her about the flowers he has delivered to my dorm. “He’s only there for one thing and one thing only. You’ll see. You mark my words.”

Cambridge in early autumn is glorious and in those weeks before my mother falls ill, I wander the streets with C. in the bright sun and we duck into the dusty bookstore to browse the bins of used books – the poetry volumes that have been purchased for classes, then returned, with their slim spines still intact.

Along the Charles River, the white sailboats on it, we walk past the boathouse beneath the branches of trees, their leaves so brightly colored they seem unreal. Handpainted. The spires and towers of the university buildings rise up in the distance.

When I think about C., it is those hours that I try to remember. The bright light on the river. The long, aimless afternoons. The secret rooms he sneaks me into one morning, in the stone building to which he is not supposed to have access. I know nothing of the rules being broken here, only that he is all whispers and slow, quiet footfalls as I follow him through long corridors. “Here,” he says, and arranges the square pillows on a velvet-covered sofa. “Right here.”

I return to school later that fall, after the surgery has been successful, we think. But I have missed many weeks and I am distracted, confused. Anxious. I am encouraged to take leave, to go home, spend some time attending to matters there. So I do. The days and weeks pass. The fall turns to winter. The cold, it seems, brings forgetting.

My mother, one afternoon when we are home together, tells me this:

“It was Christmas time, and we had gone into the city to see the tree at Rockefeller Center and all the department store windows, decorated. I was little – maybe five or six. I was all dressed up, of course, to see Santa. My mother had bought me a new white coat with a little white fur muff for my hands. There was snow on the ground, but with all the traffic in the city, you know, the sidewalks were a little dirty, there was slush on them. We were crossing the street to Macy’s, and I could see the giant Santa in the store window. In front of the entrance was the big red kettle for the Salvation Army. And the man standing there, ringing his bell. We were almost across the street – it was wide, I remember – it seemed so wide – and the light must have changed, because my mother hurried me along a little, pulled on my arm. And when she pulled me, I dropped my muff in the street, right there in the slush. I cried out, and when she turned around and saw it, she snatched it up off the ground and ushered us across. It was soaked. Filthy and gray. She looked at it, and looked at me, and then right there in on the sidewalk, she slapped me hard on the cheek. Then she didn’t say anything, just took my hand and pulled me into the store. I held my other hand on my cheek, which was hot and the rest of my face was so cold. I didn’t cry for a long time. Not while we rode the escalators up all those floors to the top. Not while we waited in the long line to have my picture taken with Santa. Not even on the train home. I think it wasn’t until I was home, much later, when I hung up my coat that I sat down on the floor in my dress and tights and cried.”

“Do you know,” she says, her eyes red-rimmed, “that my mother has been dead for almost twenty years now, and I haven’t forgotten that? Twenty years she’s been gone, and this is what I remember.”