I drive down to New York after work, in the dark. The trip is so familiar. The traffic heavy at times, although not unexpectedly so. When I arrive, it is late, but my aunt offers to make a meal for me, which I have to decline several times.
I will stay with her tonight, then in the morning, make my way to Brooklyn, where I will spend the rest of the weekend on my own. A kind of bliss in solitude, both as space to clear the noise from my head and as a reminder, too of all that I have in the company of the people I love.
(The way that to truly see a thing is to look away and then look back)
To be reminded, in a sense, of all that is at stake in living.
I sleep lightly and wake early. Make breakfast for us both and sit with my aunt at her kitchen table. I ask about her friends. She tells me about the woman who thinks she is in love with a man who is dying. How she hovers around the edges of his life, his family. There are grown children, ex-wives. She was close to him decades ago, but not since then. She re-enters his life with unwelcome ferocity. Visits him in his home a thousand miles away. Sends gifts to him, to his family.
This is not about him, her friends suggest gently. Perhaps this is something that you think you need to do, but it is not.
But who among us can truly hear the admonitions of our friends when we most need to?
My aunt tells me how she has been visiting the dying as a hospice volunteer. She tells me how sad she is all the time. “I don’t think this was a good idea,” she says. “I’ve not been happy in my retirement.”
I tell her she should try to find something she has waited all these years to do. When she was younger, she had painted. A stack of canvases in our basement. There are photographs of her standing near an easel on which a half-finished oil painting of sunflowers waits. She has her long brown hair caught back in a striped scarf. She is looking over her shoulder at the camera.
“I’ve looked at a few things,” she says, “but nothing has grabbed me.”
Perhaps, I suggest, you have to be the one to do the grabbing.
“I know,” she says, “I know you are right, but I just don’t know what to do.”
Our conversation meanders. As it winds down, I ask her something that I have wanted to for some time. I am not certain how to ask it, so I say it directly:
“Why was it so important to our family narrative that I was the good child and my sister was not?”
The question does not seem to take her by surprise.
“I don’t know,” she says. “It’s how it has always been.”
You were always so good in school. You excelled at everything. But with D., it was not like that. Your mother was always sending it notes, making excuses. But not for you. You never caused a problem in all those years.
“But this can’t possibly be true,” I say. We remember the things we want to remember. This can’t possibly be true.
“It was,” she says. “It was.”
I press her. Even about our adoption, we were set up like this. I was born in Seoul and I was healthy. My sister, in a distant village and sickly. I was wanted; my parents killed in a car crash. My sister, found abandoned. I lived in a foster home in the kind care of strangers. My sister in an orphanage, neglected. “But our paperwork is the same,” I say. Everything about our histories is recorded in the same way. “Found abandoned at the Dongdoochun Home for Babies.” Where did these stories come from?
“I don’t know,” she says. “That’s what we were told. I don’t know.”
“All I know is when your mother took you back to Korea, she was told that there was a woman there who wanted to see you. And the people at the agency told her no. Don’t let her see you. That’s what they told your mother. They said: Don’t complicate things. You don’t know what the child remembers.”
The morning is crisp, the sky a pale blue with high scattered clouds. I take the west side all the way down to the Battery Tunnel. I am anxious driving this part of the trip; it is unfamiliar and the traffic around me seems impatient, unforgiving. One lane of the tunnel is closed, so it is narrow and I am a bit tentative.
As I adjust to the tunnel darkness, I see the headlights of the car behind me are close. The tunnel is long and winding. I feel a tightness around my heart. I take a deep breath to still myself, remind myself to keep breathing.
It is difficult to remain calm, but unreasonable, I know, to panic. I keep driving, uncertain of when it will end, the car behind me so close, propelling me forward at an uncomfortable speed.
Another deep breath and another, until finally, I see a bit of sky.
Two and a half miles, I learn later.
Later, there are reports of a car accident nearby. A young expectant couple killed on their way to the hospital to deliver the baby. The baby survives.
Who will take care of this baby?
I arrive at the hotel early in the evening. I am more tired than I had thought I would be. I try to read, but am distracted. I try to write. Instead, I sleep.
I wake with my head aching.
The friend of my aunt, who is trying to save the dying man, has a younger brother. I don’t know all the details of this story, but he was adopted as a child, but never told. Everyone in the family knew except him. It was not until both their parents passed away, a few years ago, that he learned this.
Soon after, he found his brother. It turns out that his brother lives close by – a mile or two away – from his own home. They bond to each other immediately and intensely. Their families gather for holidays. They talk all the time. The sister, my aunt’s friend, is devastated. She tells him: “First I lose my mother, then my father, and now you.”
When I first hear this, I want to say: “This is not fair. She is not being fair.” I want to shout it, really. How dare this woman say this! Her brother has been lied to his whole life, and now he has the chance to learn something about himself, to find some part of himself that has been missing. It is cruel to say this! It is unfair!
But then, I think in matters of love - in matters of the stories we tell ourselves about who we are and who we love, and why - who among us, really, can be fair?