Trigger warning: Mention of infertility.
October 9, 2003. 1:00 am.
On the sixteen-hour flight from Seoul, your spine digs uncomfortably into the plastic flimsy door, hinges shuddering beneath the weight of your fear, as the creature spooned against the jut of your collarbone begins to sob. The fluorescent glare paints the tear stains on her chubby cheeks an angry red. Her lips parted in a rolling wail of protest, eyes dark and pooling with moisture. She lets out a hiccupping gasp, her tiny fist strangling the sleeve of your blouse. There’s a gush of warmth, milky vomit slick on your skin. Your husband, murmuring sweet nothings to another baby, another child—not another child, you tell yourself fiercely. Your child, yours. This one writhes on the Koala Bear Kare changing table. A fuzzy outline of the yellowing marsupial logo glaring up at you in aloof judgment, the pebbled surface streaked with feces and urine, the sting of antibacterial sanitizer coating your nostrils. It’s okay, he whispers. It’s okay, it’s okay, you’re okay . . .
Who are you talking to, you want to say. Me or them?
They scream like they are dying. Like you are cleaving parts of them away, and the world dips and sways behind a curtain of guilt that drapes over you. You wonder if it’s true. If you’re tearing some vital piece of them, the minute the plane touches American soil.
You were standing. Now you feel frail and small, the filthy airplane floor lunging up to meet the knob of your knees, streaked with grime and crusted with a sticky film of hand soap. Congealing to the bunched fabric of your jeans as you clutch this delicate body against your own. Are we making a mistake? They never stop screaming. The words rattle in the cage of her mouth. Before you can confess, a tiny finger curls against a strand of your hair, jerking your tearful face to hers. You feel unmoored, anchorless, as the baby sniffles, before gnawing on the bristling, frizzing tips of brown hair with a mulish chomp.
You look at your daughter’s hair as her gummy mouth attaches to an errant strand. You look for a genetic legacy to tie you and her together, as futile as that may be. The curve of her jaw, the almond shape of her eyes. Pale skin and pink flesh. You see fragments of another woman's nose, another man's hair, and you try to insert yourself in this mosaic of identity. But you feel like an ill-fitting reject of a puzzle piece.
No. You shake your head, as if discarding your doubts in the action. The child is oblivious to your inner musings, and simply whines, clutching harder.
Are we making a mistake, you say. Uncertainty clogs your throat, and the words spill out unbidden. The overhead speaker says: We will arrive at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport in ten minutes. Please return to your seats as we prepare for descent.
Your husband curls an arm around your shoulder, heedless of the baby’s flailing fist. It’s barely a hug—squeeze and release. But his hands are steady. Gentle, always. He grips you like a lifeline, as if you’re supporting his weight, as if you aren’t the one slumped on the floor of a disgusting stall on a red-eye flight to Minneapolis, dragged to the ground by the gravity of your fears.
We’ll love them, he says. And they’ll love you.
You believe him.
October 8, 2003. 8:30 am
An hour before boarding the Delta aircraft from Seoul International Airport, you pull your shoes from the plastic containers on the revolving train, struggling into an Eddie Bower jacket. You see a woman and her son sitting near the baggage train. A young boy crushes a stuffed panda bear to his chest, staring wide-eyed at you, Velcro-encased feet skimming the tiles in a pendulum rhythm.
You offer a tentative smile, trying not to cringe as your baby squalls from the carrier next to you. Resisting the urge to fiddle with the small pink polka-dot rattle tucked in the carrier, willfully ignored by the recipient. Refusing to fidget, as the mother of the boy casts a suspicious gaze, as she pulls her son closer, eyes your daughter with sympathy. With pity.
You tilt your head back, drinking an ocean of a language you can’t understand, and briefly wonder if you should have studied harder—should have learned Where’s the bathroom? or I’m adopting from that Learning Hangul for Beginners booklet you purchased on a wild, clinging impulse, but you dismiss it. A doggy paddle in a tsunami. It does you little good now, and you know what depths of meaning the buzzing mass conveys, even if you cannot produce anything beyond annyeonghaseyo.
Furtive glances and open gawking are a choppy sea that even the most uneducated foreigner can navigate.
October 6, 2003. 2:30 pm
On the day you first meet the babies, you slide your black flats onto a dusty doormat in the mudroom of a small apartment, and the foster home feels like a real home. You’ve called them “the babies” in your mind for twenty-six months, tossing about a plethora of names, all vowels and syllables and photos clipped to official documents. But at the tangible sensation of woolly carpet bristling against the heels, at the sweet-stale smell of human habitation, at the sight of rainbow building blocks and plush pastel animals strewn carelessly in the entryway—you nearly recoil. But the longing in your heart claws at your ribs, urging you to move.
Ja-Il squirms on the leather couch, flinging a ratty duck gutted of its innards, nearly smacking her sister, Ja-Yee, in the face. You have always known that they are twins, that they look alike, but now you really, truly know—and you are struck with a violent sort of fear that you will eternally bungle their names.
Their foster mother smiles when you greet her, but it bleeds fragility. Then she bursts into tears. You look at the floor, intent on studying how the grain of the carpet contains baby-shaped imprints, like ghosts imbedded into the fabric. Eventually, she dabs her grief away, clinging to composure. They aren’t speaking Korean, your adoption caseworker explains as the older woman sweeps the graveyard of toys into her arms. The very image of “motherly.” They call it ‘cryptophasia.’ It’s their own secret language—they’re the only ones that understand.
Meanwhile, the twins wiggle down from the couch, studying the unfamiliar interlopers with measured suspicion. They hurl colored blocks across the floor, fumbling with their plastic play set with casual normalcy. But they periodically dart their eyes up to meet yours, their lips pursed with an awareness that something’s amiss.
Your legs nearly upend the small kitchen table as you rise from your seated position on the floor. Go ahead, the caseworker says. Tentatively, you scoot across the carpeted floor as they exchange mirror glances, and you bite back a strangled burst of laughter. Hi, you breathe. Something wild and giddy bubbles beneath your skin, and you carefully press the pad of your forefinger to the baby’s palm.
Then the one called Ja-Il lets out a squawk of indignation, and your fingers curl into fists, darting back reflexively, watching as she paws for her foster mother’s embrace. The woman nearly lunges to acquiesce, cuddling the child in her arms.
You watch as the baby’s fine tufts of hair glitter with teardrops.
You look away.
August 3, 2002. 6:45 pm
Less than a year before you ever make it to Seoul, you break the news that your plans to adopt are officially underway, and your family is ecstatic. Your friends celebrate. Then, as winter reluctantly relinquishes its grip on Minnesota, your caseworker sends a flood of potential matches and profiles, an infinite sea of faces. You feel as though you are drowning in them.
Until one day, you see an image of twin baby girls, IV lines sprouting from red, wrinkled skin like tentacles. Impossibly small. You had always wanted twins, but when you inquired about the possibility early during the adoption process, the caseworker shot you down. Twins? That won’t be possible. We don’t have twins in Korea. But you scan the profile with feverish intent: identical female twins, twenty-seven weeks premature.
As mountains of paperwork accumulate—strewn across the office desk, littering the kitchen table, pinned to the refrigerator and lurking in the corners of your bedroom, your natural anxiety about impending parenthood is buried by mounting anticipation. Every cell and vein burns with expectancy. It takes months—years—to leap through hoops of eligibility, marital status, criminal background checks, medical background checks, family history, employment history, character references, and more. But as you wait for the shoe to drop, when no thick-soled boot crushes your quietly nurtured hopes, you snatch a paperback on learning Korean from a random 50%-discounted reject pile at Target. Then slowly, gradually, the news trickles out: It’s official. We’re going to be parents.
Nearly a year later, you schedule a round trip to Seoul with the image of them tattooed to your brain.
December 31, 2001. 7:20 pm
Before you even start your initial adoption consultation, news of your intentions have already circulated the gossip mill in the pharmacology floor, the maternity ward, the cardiology wing, and your circle of anesthesiologists and nurse anesthetists. Your husband decide to attend the New Year’s annual gala at St. Luke's, an event you would normally skip in favor of nachos and late-night rom coms. But this year, your husband says, At some point in the future, we’ll be parents all-year round. Who knows when we’ll be able to attend again? So you slip into that strapless satin dress crammed in a shadowy corner of your closet that you haven’t worn since anesthesia school and your husband rocks a tux.
Upon arrival, one of your co-workers, an X-ray technician, hugs you fiercely, and you very nearly cry, right then and there. He and his husband adopted domestically—it took seven years.
Then, as you seat yourself at one of the corner linen tables, colleagues from your floor gathering around you, the topic of adoption inevitably arises. They interrogate you almost as extensively as the first official eligibility questionnaire: Why Korea? Boy or a girl? How long will it take?
The preliminary paperwork should be done by this coming summer, your husband says. His smile is so wide that it's painful, even as he says, We won't be able to meet anyone in-person, or take them home, till the year after that. The warmth of his palm on your shoulder sinks into your bones. Then an orthopedic surgeon from the OR breaks in.
She says, You’re buying babies. You’re separating them from their birth parents and culture, just because you want kids. Her words are knives. How selfish are you?
You try to breathe. You can’t. You feel like someone bludgeoned you with a cement block, and your spoon sinks into the vichyssoise from nerveless fingers. Your tablemates have abandoned their respective plates to spectate, wide-eyed. Knuckles white and clenching spasmodically around his cutlery, your husband opens his mouth to retort, but in an act of sheer will, you jab the meat of his thigh with your nails. He winces.
Excuse us, you say stiffly.
You leave. The car is silent.
Then you cry. But only a little.
June 5, 1999. 8:00 pm
You find out you are infertile. You alternate between rage, self-blame, grief, and then rage again. Your husband doesn’t know what to do. You don’t know what to do. You imagine hazel-eyed, brown-haired babies that you will never carry in your womb. Grief settles viscerally in the pit of your stomach. Your marriage buckles under the strain, bends.
But it doesn’t break.
Months later, you and your husband sip from glasses of boxed wine on the patio, watching the sun bleed red where the earth collides with the void of sky. You bend across the Adirondack chairs, pressing your lips against the stubble of his cheek, and you whisper:
I think we should adopt.
(Two decades from then, you will give a rueful bark of laughter, recounting the disastrous plane ride from Seoul. I will duck my head, embarrassed, but you will simply grin. The memory of fear, outweighed by the joy of it).
(I will carry this memory of your memory. Even when I never truly remember, I will never forget).