It’s been nine years since my hair went white, all around the outline of my face. Where there is hair, pure white. I can remember when it happened. It was about 2 months into the 3 month visit of my birth mother and brother. My father-in-law, who notices nothing about me, noticed. It was then that I knew I had a problem. Like Rogue in X-men, under extreme duress, her streak of white appeared. I wish I had such a fabulous streak, that could have looked so amazing. Instead, it washed out my already pale face rendering a more invisible visage.
Lucky for me, my sister is a hairdresser/cosmetologist…color specialist extraordinaire! She was thrilled to be able to do something for me, to use her magic other than the occasional hair cut. I was not sure. I liked staying solidly in the lane of my own creation – sans make-up, sans color…all natural. I was arrogant in my insistence in not giving a shit about what I looked like.
In the recesses of my mind and deep down in the depths of my heart, it was safe to stay in that space of resistance. It was safe to not give into the self care my face and body were asking of me for fear of burdening any one and seeking anyone’s gaze. Purposeful invisibility is a cloak I wear pretty much everyday.
Within a year, I began my trips to my sister’s house to get “treated.” It has turned into a ritual of sister lunches and always loving conversations as we both live in middle age and seek each other as more than family, but good company.
Gaze. I have fallen in love with this word. It can sound soft, deliberate, beautiful, indulgent and yet pure. Every couple of months, someone I love looks at me and approvingly sets me free to be gazed at without embarrassment or shame. She even takes a photo of her work but always manages to capture me just as I wish to be seen and not what I look away from.
Gaze. It occurs to me that there is only one person whose gaze continues to make me wildly uncomfortable and seen in a way that no one else sees me. My birth mother. She looks at me like she looks through and deep inside. Our language is not the same because no matter how much I can speak Korean, it is not the language of my feelings, my yearnings or my secrets. Instead, it is her eyes and her gaze that I avoid to match and thus I miss a lot. How do you put a price on what is lost in translation? I heard that in a podcast I can’t recall now, but it struck me so true. I think I continue to pay the price of being lost in translation a lot.
Facebook and it’s memories flashed up that it was indeed 9 years since her visit. She isn’t living with me now, but, for one day out of the year, we make the purposeful moment to “talk” via kakaotalk. The birthday. The real one, not the fake one. The only one that is burned in her memory and her body. It is the one time in a year she writes me first, she initiates. This year, I am acutely aware of my lack of enthusiasm to talk to her. Over 20 years in reunion and I am still finding new emotions in this relationship.
You see, she initiated contact about a year ago and not on my birthday and so out of her character, or at least the character I have known all this time. She messaged me with a request to send her something. It was an innocuous ask, not unreasonable and definitely doable. I figured out a way to buy myself some time. And then she asked again 6 months ago and I still didn’t do it. What the hell is wrong with me? Sending her money is harder than what she really wants; hours of labor to earn it and asking others to help me wire it.
She wants something of mine; something of mine that she can wear and have me with her all the time. So simple. So thoughtful. So sentimental. An adoptee’s dream situation I suppose.
I’m not mad at her. I’m annoyed. Her passivity and pain give me anguish and compels me to always look away. This is the Umma I have been living with. This Umma responds to every call and every message with lots of “I’m sorry” messages and tons of “I love you” texts afterwards. So her asking for something of mine has left me bewildered and completely not compassionate. Very out of character of me.
“No” is not a word that pops out first from my mouth. Like water, I have a tendency to flow around, through, against adversity. A phone call, a lunch date, a reference, a resource, a question; I will always figure out a way to say “Yes.” The calendar is color coded to make sure no one overlaps or is forgotten. So what IS my problem?
Perhaps the problem is that this long standing relationship has had no real ability to grow. Each engagement feels like a reset. The mother, the adult, in me clutches my heart as I know she thought her kid disappeared without a trace. But the primal 4 year old in me says, “I’m the one who was lost!” And from there, the control of give and take has remained 4 years old. I am in action toward this relationship when I want to be and on my terms. The sending of gifts, money, text messages and photos…on my terms. The request assumed something had changed in the dynamics of our relationship and I was not paying attention. We are IN a relationship which means there should be an exchange. She is right to ask of me…which means then I can ask of her? She sees me as her daughter and AS her daughter, she can say anything to me with entitlement and without hesitation. Does this mean I can do the same? Is that what is going on now? Is that why I am annoyed? A new emotion that invites entitlement and position in a relationship? We are IN a relationship and I need to wake up before it is gone.
This year’s birthday wish ended with:
Umma – Send me messages from time to time, I like it. It’s fun, It makes me feel close to you.
Me – Who? Me?
Umma – Yes
Me – ok
And just like that, we are entering a new phase of this very protracted reunion. While my hair is only going to get whiter and my body is showing signs of age, my 4 year old heart is still skipping along trying to catch up with my Umma.