When a person comes for a visit, there is always a lot to do – places to go, gifts to buy, sites to see. As the host, you are up earlier than usual and planning for three meals a day, making sure the fridge is always stocked and that snacks abound, linens are always available, and well, you are always “ON.” By the third week, I was fried. I was getting close to being done with all of this. I felt I had guests who were literally just bodies eating and sleeping in my house. The few moments of happy were quickly replaced with drudgery. I dreaded coming home to another pile of laundry , another meal to prepare and lots of quiet stares. I am sure if we had more than two rooms it would have been easier, I could adjourn upstairs somewhere and not see them. Well, that’s an excuse. We were all walking around on eggshells. So, I continued to just stay in the kitchen cooking for hours elaborate meals to keep my hands busy. But the resentment and wonder of “what do they want?” was brewing.
Lucky for me, I have some really great friends who made sure I had dinner out with them at least once to recharge me. There, I was subtly reminded that a mother just wants to feel of use and so perhaps I should reconsider doing FOR my Umma and take her offer of help and have her do some things for me. It felt like such an alien concept to have someone help me with my day to day life, so independent is my nature. I struggled to believe that I needed to let go and accept my Umma’s comfort in small ways to allow her to feel connected to me. Low and behold, dinner was really in preparation for the next day.
Appallingly organized at times, I had scheduled a session with a mentor, a Korean American woman, who is also an incredible therapist; she agreed to translate for me and help me listen with a new ear. My Umma and I went together, my brother bowed out. The first question was posed to my Umma, “what do you want J–(me) to know?” and with that a flood of words. Just as the wise women from the night before said, she was struggling to figure out how to be of use. She admitted to thinking too simply about this visit and felt like a burden to me. In Korea, I learned, a mother goes to visit her daughter’s house to help her and do things for her so she can have a bit of a holiday. She never realized how busy I would be and doesn’t know how to help. And there you have it. And from this point on, my Umma did the laundry, all of it, folded and put it away! And, I no longer have to wash the dishes! This was progress.
During that session, my story was presented to me from start to now for the last time. The details of the first five years of my life I know loosely from the many trips to Korea and my Umma’s keen interest in letting me know just how hard she tried to find me. Much was confirmed and affirmed for me, but the way she felt, how she handled the situation was all brand new. Perhaps now that I am a mother, I heard her words differently, but my heart felt like it could not continue pumping at times. It is virtually impossible to imagine how she was able to continue living knowing that her child was gone forever and living with another family in a foreign country. Harder still, finding her child and yet knowing nothing of her child. She shared for the first time the depths of her depression, not leaving her parents’ home for days, sleeping all day and all night. She shared how her smile left her face and never really came back and how much she was chastised by her siblings for not doing enough to find me. This went on for months and the only thing her mother could think of doing was to marry her off. She married my brother’s father, a widower and father of two girls. She couldn’t really remember what it was like to raise those step daughters of hers and she has no relationship with them. She said the one thing we all tell our future generation of adoptees – ‘there was never a day that went by without a thought of you.’ It is one thing to know this and quite another for the words to actually pertain to me. As a mother, I can believe this and yet at one point, I tuned out and actually felt like I tuned out to stop the ache in my heart. There was so much pain and sadness in that room, I could barely breathe.
What was really hard for me listening was comparing those months and years to my months and years. While my Umma was suffering, I was living here, getting educated, dancing, creating my own destiny, finding love and creating a family. While I will openly admit that my life could have been a whole lot better in the way of comfort, safety and love, these seem like luxuries at this point. So guilty I felt for wanting more in my life…
I think the newest piece of news was just how involved the directress of my orphanage was in the course change of my life. I never knew my Umma and she met and actually talked. I learned that not only did this directress tell my Umma she sent me away for adoption, but admitted to changing my name and birthdate and told my Umma my new identity. But she left out one crucial detail, where I was sent. Not telling her what country I was adopted to seems cruel. Umma was told that the orphanage was only filled with babies and as a bigger child, the likelihood of my being adopted alone would be impossible. So, the directress created a false sibling (my current sister) and sent us off together. The facts are plain, but where I was filled with emotion was that all of this was a lie. I was not one of the only bigger kids, I was in a Home that was only with older kids, all of my “brothers and sisters” there were older than me. I remember picking lice of of my “big sister’s hair” as punishment. I remember being put on a merry go round by the bigger boys and spun till I threw up and I remember having to take care of my “younger sister” who is only a year and a half younger than me. This directress was complicit or the creator of a lie, a fiction, rather, that didn’t need to be. And to add to the wonderment, when I lived in Korea, she kept asking me if I returned to find my birthmother and I had to keep reminding her that she told me that my mother died. Was it guilt that was eating at her? She only found out years later that I was reunited with my Umma in a letter I sent to her.
I left our session emotional. I was really struggling to contain my furor. For years I thanked this directress, my parents thanked her and donated my Christmas gift money to her orphanage. I considered her my savior and the grandmother who gave me my life. I struggle to see her in this light anymore, uncertain and unable to see she did this for me. I will not deny that my life in Korea would not be what is my reality here in America. My sons, my husband, my sisters….all who I love is here. Still, what would have been my life with my Umma? We were two peas in a pod apparently. She said that at three, I was very independent, verbal and the big cousin taking care of all my other cousins already. I lived with my Umma and her family, was in her family’s fold and could have remained there too. Or so Umma truly believes if only my birthfather had done the right thing and let me live with her once the divorce was final. And yet, we know the law was not in her favor. This could have been possible. I was missing the possibility of that reality.
There is sweet irony to all of this. The directress of the orphanage has passed, my birthfather has passed, my birth-maternal grandparents passed….all the people who were most directly involved in this story, the game changers have passed away. It is my Umma and me who remain alive and now we are together. We are the lone survivors! And there is my brother who has been probably the greatest gift of all of this. He too has found family in a way he never imagined.
So, another breakthrough! The rainy bus ride home felt so new. My Umma felt lighter, much happier. Me? Lots of emotions not quite sure what to do with them all.
Not to leave you with such heavy thoughts, I leave you with a great image. For dinner that night, we had pizza, kimchee, bib bim bap, and coca cola. Now, that’s living in America!