By contributor Joy Leiberthal Rho
I always say I am in reunion with my birthmother because it has been a process, an evolution of getting to reknow this woman who gave birth to me, who searched for me. I wonder now whether I will ever really know her, but she has become a presence in the deepest recesses of my heart and that part aches whenever I bring her into my consciousness.
It was not always that way. But I recall with vivid hues the moment I realized she knew my soul in a most profound and intimate way. I was sitting in a hotel room in Korea on a tour with adoptive families when my birthmother came to visit me on my one free day. The tour guide, K, was kind enough to stay and translate for me. Even though I can speak Korean, in my birthmother’s presence, I seem to be incapable of communicating. I feel so fortunate to have known Kate as she honored both of us with her unique skill in a way that helped me find my birthmother for the first time in my heart.
K became more than just a translator of language, but a teacher of life for a Korean woman in the 1970s. She also suffered from divorce and was able to intimately know the pain my birthmother had suffered in losing me. Prior to our meeting, K explained to me that when parents got divorced, the children went to the father’s family and the mother had no rights to see her children. She spoke candidly about how it was a struggle for her to stay connected to her children and the challenges she continues to overcome in getting to know them as adults who now choose to be in her life. She shared with me the pain and anguish of not being a part of her children’s history. With all of that on my mind, I met my birthmother again, a woman under very similar circumstances.
At the time, I was engaged to be married. My birthmother and I were going over my fiance’s family photos as she was asking about my wedding plans. Since I was marrying a Korean man, my birthmother seemed to be wisely concerned about my relationship with my new in-laws and my blind navigation into a culture landmine. I responded in my usual light way trying to joke about my concern for their acceptance and continued by laughing about my lifelong floundering desire to do things right. It was intended as a lame self-depricating joke. My birthmother leaned over on her corner of the bed and said very quietly, “you have always been that way.” It was a simple phrase, a reminder of a characteristic, something I am sure all mothers remind their children about. To hear it from this woman who remembers me as an infant and a three year old child, it felt like she took her hand into my heart and cradled it. At that moment, my heart really hurt and tears welled. I have never heard those words outloud…a confident knowing, loving phrase of recognition of my soul. It was a comfort I have never felt before and it was at this moment that I realized why so many adoptees search. To be known by the person who gave you life.
I walked away from that meeting for the first time understanding how painful this reunion experience must have been for my birthmother. She has held onto my little soul for all these years and has been searching for it. I wondered what she must think when she sees it inhabited by this grown up girl? And in an instant, I was so sad and I had to admit that I had an immeasurable feeling of loss I really never felt before. In her plain acknowledgment of my inner thoughts, my inner angst and all the wonder I held quiet in my head began to heal …she perceived them and owned them. In a moment, she confirmed that my way of being was something natural, I was born like this.
Thinking about all of this again still makes me sigh with an aching heart. Ahhh, this is what mourning feels like. I wanted for that moment to crawl into her arms and just be held by her. I wanted to breathe at the same time as she did. I never wanted that before.
I have finally begun to mourn the loss of my birthmother. And as I have learned to sit in that uncomfortable achiness, it lessens each time and I am able to more quickly transition to the moments we now share. And while I try to call regularly, I feel like I am playing catch up to be the daughter I was not able to be for her. She pervades my thoughts at random times, and it is with a mix of sadness, wistfulness and joy that I know she is still here.
Lest you think that the rose colored glasses have yet to come off, here is the reality of the situation. Korean language in tact and still I will never have a mother-daughter relationship with my birthmother. The standard I have dreamt of for all these years will pale with anything I have now. She is still not a completely real person to me. She has captured my attention and has helped ME become a real person, one who is born just like everyone else. Despite all the questions she has answered, there will always be more where they came from. Not having a shared history leaves me still wondering – her favorite color, song, book, prayer. I wonder what makes her laugh, who is her best friend, what’s her politics, what’s her passion and what did she wish she’d become when she grew up. I wonder too what kind of mother she is to her son and could have been for me. I realize too that in the mere wondering of these things, there is forever a gap of culture that makes many of these questions unanswerable. She is Korean, I am just a little bit. What I have learned is that she is a kind person, a person of devout Catholic faith, hardworking, complains hardly at all and speaks frankly and honestly. She is tenacious and keeps things close to her vest. She plays things over and over in her head and wonders them aloud. She has never asked for anything. She has clearly stated that she has no intention of asking me for anything. She has no desire to meet my American parents nor learn about my childhood, never asked to see a single photo of when I was young. While it makes her extremely sad to have missed those years, she seems to enjoy me as I am now. There seem to be no strings with this relationship. I feel for both of us that meeting each other has just made our lives sweeter.
I know I have gained more than she has. I think that the reason I am ok with the way things stand right now is because it reflects very much the way I am. I realize the qualities I have most recognized of my birthmother are the qualities I most recognize about myself. Now the quest is to figure out what part of me is her and how being adopted has influenced my sense of self.