Unique – being the only one, a being without a like or equal
I always hated this word, it is such a lonely word. It makes one feel like an island and humans are social creatures not meant to be stand alones. Nevertheless, I found myself in the unique position of being a being who has no like or equal again. But watching Umma sleeping, I was startled as to how much I looked like her. It was a mirror into my future self and it took my breath away.
Nearly halfway into this visit, I have to admit, I was struggling, stifled by ugly words in my throat. I was beginning to find flaws in people who I had no right to judge. To look at them, Umma and my brother, and wish they were more like me really was so unfair. I was seeing them through a lens they could not conceive. Even if I spoke to them in Korean, I don’t think they would understand. They would feel the emotion, my anger, my sadness, my frustration but really, what could they say?
The misunderstandings were piling up. On this day, my brother started to talk about his plan to study more Englis. Typical doer, I took that idea and ran with it. A simple statement of thought to come back to the US some day and improve his current station sent me on a frenzy to figure out how to get some English lessons under his belt before leaving for Korea again. After presenting this offering to him, he shut down and said, “No, I will be fine.” He brought a book with him (a dictionary of sorts) and simply made a promise that things will be different when he returns to Korea. My first thought? Bullshit. I knew that wouldn’t happen. I pressed him. He was in America and should take advantage of proper English classes, even if it was only a month. I was pushing him to consider this as an opportunity. He said no. He didn’t want me to pay for classes, he was fine. I was angry at his pride and took it as lack of motivation. From that lens I began judging and it was not pretty. Every day our mornings began with emails from his friends complaining of no work. Finally after days of this, I asked him if there wasn’t any other job they can do – grocery shop clerk, taxi driver, delivery man…he pondered and said nothing. I pushed again – surely there was a job somewhere. If construction was not providing it, there had to be something else. No response. He will worry about that when he goes back. In my mind, that was imminent. If it was a difference between zero dollars or ten dollars, then why wouldn’t you try for ten? Any job? My frustration mounted and silence deepened. We are at an impasse. I was beginning to sound so very American in my ‘can do’ attitude. Obnoxious really.
My only soundboard was George. He is not a man of many words, but when he speaks, it is worth listening to. He put things into perspective for me, my brother’s perspective. Right then, all my brother could see was that I was the lucky one, the one who got out. Motivation was a luxury. My brother grew up with nothing and probably a crappy family. Really, I have no idea what sort of a mother Umma was to him. He grew up in an abusive home. His father beat both of them. He grew up with a shell of a mother and an angry absent father. And then it hit me, I could have grown up there.
Again with the “what if.” If I went back to my birthmother, I could have been raised by my brother’s father, an abusive, harsh man. He would have been my stepfather. I would not have had a college education. I would probably have married an abuser…the statistics prove that. I would probably still be me and busting my ass to work and make ends meet. In minutes George was able to put such a real life in front of me, I saw it all. I tried to imagine what it would be like to be hit hard. I couldn’t do it, it wasn’t like a spanking a child gets as discipline. I wondered for a few more seconds who I would be not knowing all that I was right then. I couldn’t do it. It was completely alien to me. So, I let it go. I stopped pushing. But it was eating me inside.
What had not changed in all the weeks they were here was that I was still the third wheel. I was still an outsider. Umma and my brother had a relationship, a meaningful one, they were a family of two. I was still not included in their conversations. Simple things like what I cooked for dinner was a conversation without me. Their perception of mystery meat was contemplated between the two of them. “It looks like fish”, “no it’s chicken”…Not a word or question to me. They sat each and every night sullen, quiet and talking between them about the food, about the kids, about me and not one word was uttered in my direction. And then there was the damn ketchup. I know I should not have been insulted, but I was. After an hour or so in the kitchen thinning cutlets, egg, flour, fry and pasta and salad…they bring out the ketchup. Really? Without even trying it they have deemed it inedible without that damn red stuff. Hot sauce I didn’t mind, but the ketchup bottle pissed me off. In my vain attempts to participate in their discussion, I just looked like a lunatic, hands flying, English splattered in to make the sentences complete gibberish. The reminder that they didn’t understand just added fuel to my anger. “Talk to me!” I demanded, “Don’t ask each other, talk to me, ask me…” They looked at me with a blank stare and a pale offering that all was well. Instead, my Umma went for a second helping of food, knowing that this would hurt her stomach. I tried to stop her but she insisted. Great, the martyred mother was eating her child’s food to show her love. I can’t take it. They were suffocating me. I felt stifled and unable to breathe and so I withdrew…back to the quiet shell, back into that darkness that lived all my letdowns and frustrations. I was the third wheel. I was not her daughter or her sister. In this place, my home, I was a meal, a warm place to sleep, someone with more than they. They have learned nothing about me really. Actually they probably thought I was the biggest toddler ever, temper tantrums and stomping abounding all over. They have asked me nothing of my past, of what I think about, what my life was like. I am struck by how much my Umma can say but she never chased it with questions of me – what are you thinking, how are you dealing. I just got statements – if you are happy I am, aigooo life is so hard for you, you are so busy…she has offered nothing, not even herself.
I wrote these words late one night. At my darkest hour, halfway through thier visit, I was mourning. The mother I wanted did not exist. It is laughable at the very notion that anyone gets what they want. But this want of mine, this want of a mother figure who got me, who would TALK to me, who would give and take from me….did not exist. In my frustrated silence and growing aloneness, I was back to that five year old child waiting to hear a mother’s call and feel safe. These middle weeks were filled with flashbacks of the most visceral kind. I found my outreached hand that quickened when my Umma came close, to keep her at bay, a startling reaction. I found myself in tears of wonder as to how much love could one offer with the painful knowledge that grown ups can truly leave a child behind and never look back. I was brewing a resentment toward Umma. I was feeling indignant that her statements of love were not enough for me.
Time kept marching on though. And with each week ticking by, I was beginning to learn that this journey had become less about my Umma and me getting along and more about me feeling things I never allowed myself to feel, giving them air to explode and letting go. Every time my Umma looked at me, I saw the love there, the yearning. I continued to feel as if my skin was inside out but the wincing had stopped.
Always resourceful, Umma and I met with an old friend who Umma met over ten years ago. Kay was a translator on a tour with me and she was the one who gave me the first interpretation of my story. (Just an aside, Kay too was divorced and lost her sons for over 17 years as they went to her ex-husband. She reunited with them and shared candidly how challenging that reunion was and continued to be. She had a special empathy for my Umma.) At this meeting my friend Kay reiterated how happy Umma truly was to see me, the life I created and my little family. She only came to the US to see for herself, to see her daughter. I began to accept that this was really her singular agenda. I was becoming less incredulous at the sheer simplicity of it. Kay allowed me too the space to explain some of my thoughts. I finally told her that I never expected to have her here for three months. Looking back, it went quickly, but then, it was too much. I also shared my struggle with reconciling the time warp we were experiencing. I had been on this journey relatively alone so now to hear Umma talk to me and express love felt like an intrusion. I shared how much it unnerved me that they just sat in my apartment all day and did nothing. I was troubled by their presumed boredom and wanted to fix it. Alas, from their eyes, they were on holiday and perfectly content and were amused by my constant motion. A much needed laughable moment.
And so, I began to just live my life with silent witnesses observing my every step. I took Umma and my brother to work with me, a conference at NYU where I was presenting. They got to see me working, happy and in my element. At days end my Umma said she was proud of me. I never heard that growing up and in just six short weeks, I heard it gushing from Umma with every nerve and muscle in her face. This time I was unnerved but in a good way.