“Call me back as soon as you get this,” the woman said on my voice mail, her voice tense. She was the director of Korean adoptions at the agency we had used to adopt our son. He had just turned four.
Andrew and his younger sister, Grace, who was two and also adopted from Korea, sat in their booster seats, bowls of macaroni and cheese and pear slices in front of them. Grace picked up a pear slice with her fingers. Juice ran down her arm and chin. Andrew clutched a plastic spoon in his fist, scooped up some noodles, and shoveled it into his mouth.
My mind raced. Had something happened to Andrew’s birth mom or foster mom? Was his birth mom pregnant? Would we be asked to raise Andrew’s sibling? We had just finalized Grace’s adoption a month before marking the end of a stressful five years of fingerprints, home studies, and tracking down notaries between the two adoptions. We lived in a small, two-bedroom house. I planned to return to work full-time in the next year or two.
“All done,” Grace said.
“Me too,” Andrew said.
Both kids raised their arms so I could wash their hands. I wrapped each small hand in a warm washcloth, wiped cheese and pear juice from their faces, and set them on the floor. Andrew went to play with cars in the living room, Grace to an oversized coloring book and box of crayons.
I called the agency from the kitchen. The woman answered.
“Just so you know, this is highly unusual.”
The summer sun poured through the kitchen window onto my shoulders.
“Andrew’s birth mom reached out.”
My chest tightened; my stomach burned.
“She would like an update.”
I had sent monthly updates until his adoption was finalized at seventeen months, a little more than six months after my husband and I had taken custody. After that, I had sent updates around his birthday. I hadn’t gotten to it yet that year. “About? I thought the kids had to be older before they could …”
“How he’s doing. What he likes. Usually, it’s adoptees who search and they are usually teenagers or young adults. But birth mothers can ask for updates at any time.”
I sighed, all of the air I’d been holding in rushing out. I was not being asked to raise a third child. This was good news, great news. Ever since I had decided to adopt as a teenager I had longed for open adoptions for my kids. An open adoption would provide access to my kids’ roots, their birth culture, and language, and health history. They would be able to know what an intake form couldn’t provide—who their birth parents were.
Andrew turned wood blocks on their side and spaced them evenly, just enough space between each set of blocks for a toy car. I imagined a woman who shared his round cheeks and eyes that disappeared into lines when he laughed, his short and wide fingers, each knuckle marked only by a small dimple.
“You don’t need to decide right now,” the woman said. “We’ll completely understand if you say no.”
Sweat pooled in the crease of my elbow. “Can I? I know.”
“Why don’t you talk to your husband first? Take your time getting back to us.” If I did send an update and Andrew’s birth mother wrote I did not have to respond. “Don’t use any names,” she said,” just Andrew’s case number. Just to be extra safe.”
A stack of blocks crashed. Andrew’s face contorted. Before he saw me watching him, I turned to face the refrigerator. I pressed on a curled corner of preschool artwork displayed on the bottom door. Salt crumbled under my fingers and fell to the linoleum.
“But I know,” I said, “this is what we want. How much should I write?”
“Are you sure? Just a paragraph or two, just one photo. Why don’t you take a few days to think about it?”
I picked at a spot of dried milk on the counter with my fingernail.
If you change your mind, it’s okay. Just let me know.”
I was eager to write the update right then. I imagined writing letters until Andrew was a teenager, then meeting Andrew’s birth mother, seeing how they resembled each other.
“Hey, Andrew,” I said sitting next to him on the area rug. I picked up a block and put it over one of the parking spaces to make it a garage. He drove a car into it, his tongue puttering against his teeth.
“Your birth mom wants to know how you’re doing. I’m going to write to her.” I built another garage and another.
He puttered another car into a garage, then drove it out and along the duct-taped roads I’d made on the area rug several days before.
“Your tummy mommy. Your first mommy.” We had talked often about adoption and looked at photos of his foster family, but at four he didn’t fully understand where Korea was or how he could have fit in anyone’s body. “She wants to know what you like. Is there anything you want me to tell her?”
Andrew crashed two cars. He grinned. “I like fire trucks.”
I tried to remember my mother, the sound of her voice, the feel of her hands in my hair as she combed it after baths when I was a little girl, her pinky nail separating my hair into sections to go into curlers. In my early 30s, my memories were faded and worn. What I remembered most of my mother was the shape of her back as she walked away, the slope of her shoulders, the quiet shuffle of her slippers on the shag carpet down the hall, the hiss of the master bedroom door closing, the soft click of the lock.
I try to remember my mom protecting me from my dad, try to remember her turning around when I cried, try to remember meeting her eyes. I remember the red that rushed up my dad’s neck to his cheeks and forehead, the way his eyes shook, his hand tight around my wrist, twisting my arm behind my back, pushing me into the wall, to the floor, the sound of his voice echoing off the plaster walls, “I’m disgusted with you! You disgust me.”
I can only remember my mom’s silence.
Years later, at sixteen, in a police station where I reported my dad for abuse, I watched my mom cry. I had never seen her cry. I watched her from the opposite end of a long hallway, watched her collapse into a social worker’s arms, watched her accept a soda, watched her accept hug after hug, tissue after tissue. She had never checked on me after one of my dad’s outbursts, never hugged me.
“You ready?” my social worker asked. It was time to meet my first set of foster parents.
I stood up, nodded brusquely, and marched through a set of double doors. My mom was no longer my mother. She was just someone I had known once.
About six months after I wrote, Andrew’s birth mother responded. It was December. Andrew was four and a half. She was glad he was doing well, glad he had parents who loved him. She could tell he was happy.
He makes us laugh, I wrote. I am honored to be his mother. Thank you for writing. We sent a photo and a drawing Andrew had done of a family of stick figures, her stick figure holding one hand, mine holding his other hand. He likes superheroes and fire trucks.
I didn’t tell her that Andrew had been diagnosed with autism and mild developmental delays, that trimming his hair and nails were often too much for him, that changing his schedule or having a fire drill at preschool could give him nightmares for a week, that we often left playdates or birthday parties early because Andrew was overwhelmed. I didn’t want her to reject him.
Shortly after Andrew turned six and started kindergarten, another letter came. He unfolded the air-mail paper and studied it. He turned it sideways, upside down, then right side up again. He pushed the letter into my hands.
“This is Korean writing,” I said. “These are Korean letters.” I looked for the characters that I knew were his name and pointed them out.
“Okay. Read it to me.”
I flipped to the English translation on the second page. “Andrew is growing so well. He looks healthy,” I read.
“Someday when you visit Korea, I would like to personally make my own meals for you.”
“She wants to cook for me? What do you think she’d make? French fries?” Andrew jumped up and down. “Can we go today?”
I laughed. “I think she’d probably cook Korean food. Mandu, bulgogi, ddeokboki.”
“I’m hungry.” Andrew walked to the front door.
“Korea is a long way from here. We’ll go someday. Not right now.”
Over the next few months, something changed. The curiosity he had after previous letters evolved into an intense need.
“I need my birth mom. Right now!” he yelled at bedtime. “I won’t go to sleep without her. Promise me we can go. Promise me!”
I told myself his reaction was due to autism, that before long he would move onto something else. That summer and fall I took the kids to museums and parks, and a pool often. In the water, he calmed down. He dove for toys, crawled with his belly on the bottom of the shallow area, and came up grinning. I bought a Korean cookbook and attempted dumplings, soups, and barbecue beef and pork.
At bedtime, he still screamed. “I need her!” In a desperate attempt to stay awake, he tapped his legs and belly, knocked his head against the wall, and rocked back and forth.
In school, he sat with his arms crossed over his chest and refused to answer questions or participate. He erupted into tears and told his teacher he missed his birth mom. He cried so hard several times that he vomited.
“Your birth mom loves you,” I said over and over. I couldn’t imagine traveling then. “I know she’s thinking about you.” I tried to pull him onto my lap.
“I don’t want you to hug me! I want her.” He jerked away from me, slammed doors, stomped his feet, and screamed, “I need her.”
Andrew’s need didn’t fade; he didn’t move on. That next November, when Andrew was seven and Grace was five, in first grade and kindergarten, we landed at the South Korean airport outside of Seoul. Eric and I had been awake 24 hours. Each of the kids had slept a few hours on the 13-hour flight from San Francisco to Korea.
We followed a group from our flight to a train that would take us to customs and baggage claim. The train stopped at a large empty lobby. The walls and floor were gray marble that shone as if it had just been cleaned. Above us, a vaulted, arched ceiling featured can lights in a curved pattern. Women in heels rushed by us along with men in suits. They looked straight ahead or at their phones and moved toward an escalator. I held Andrew’s hand and pulled our carry-on bag behind me. Eric carried Grace asleep on his shoulder.
“Fire truck! Fire truck!” Andrew’s high-pitched voice echoed against the marble. It was his safe phrase. I led him away from the escalator. His eyes were wide like a doll’s eyes.
“What? What happened?”
He pointed to the escalator, his finger accusing. “I can’t. No! Fire truck!”
“It’s okay. I’ll find another way down.” He hadn’t been on an escalator before, hadn’t had any reason to. “Deep breath, okay?”
I searched for a gap in the marble walls that might lead to stairs or an elevator. The walls were smooth, seamless. I took a deep breath and looked at Andrew. He held his hands over his ears and rocked slightly. His eyes were squeezed shut. Over and over he said, “Fire truck.” Somehow, I had to get him down the escalator.
For the past nine months, I had taken both kids to weekly counseling appointments at a local adoption agency to help them prepare for the trip. At home we talked about crowds in Seoul, the subway, meeting Andrew’s birth mom, staying with Grace’s foster family, eating food we hadn’t encountered before. We had gone over phrases we might need. We set up chairs in rows and played airplane going over and over what might happen. We bought Andrew a set of headphones to block out the noise on the airplane and in the city.
“Andrew? Can you look at me?” He rocked and cried. I lifted one of his hands off his ears slightly. “Andrew?”
He wailed and looked at me in terror. I backed up.
Eric waved at people in the next train group. “English? Elevator? Stairs?”
People glanced at him, at Andrew, at Grace sleeping on blankets on the floor, at me, my head back against the cold marble, dark circles under my eyes, my hair falling out of a loose ponytail. One by one they disappeared down the escalator.
Finally, a man paused. “Sorry. No elevator. No stairs. Only escalator.”
I thought we were prepared, that I was prepared to help Andrew through everything. While Grace was in her appointment, Andrew and I pretended to hunt lions and bears in the office building where the adoption agency was. Every so often he’d pause.
“What if she doesn’t like me? What if she forgets?”
“It’s scary not knowing what she’ll be like isn’t it?”
He peeked around a corner, then jumped back.
“There’s a lion.” His eyes sparkled.
“Oh no! What color?”
“Mom and dad will be there the whole time.” I peeked around the corner over him.
“I think it heard you. Shhh.” Andrew tugged on my shirt to pull me into a crouch.
“We can take a break or leave if you don’t feel comfortable,” I whispered.
He sat on the floor next to me and grabbed my hand. “What if I look the same as everyone else? What if you lose me?” He stood up and twirled my hair around his finger. “What if you think another boy is me and you end up taking him home instead? What if you decide to leave me in Korea?”
The feeling of being alone and lost engulfed me. I remembered the hours I spent hiding in my closet, my knees pulled against my chest, holding my breath at every creak in the house, afraid. I remembered the house going dark, hearing the master bedroom door open, and my mom’s footsteps down the hall past the bathroom and the laundry room. Each time I waited for her to stop at my room, ask if I was okay, if I wanted a snack. She walked by her head bowed forward, her back rounded.
She didn’t stop, didn’t look back.
Tears filled my eyes. “Andrew, I am your mom,” I said forcefully. “It is my job to keep you safe. I don’t want another Korean boy. I want you. I love you.” My voice rose.
“But, what if, in a crowd …”
“I’m scared too.” I reached for his hand and swung it gently. “I will hang onto your hand, your coat, your collar, whatever I have to. I will not let you get lost. This is what moms do.”
I wanted to be the one to help Andrew down the escalator, to keep him from getting lost in his fear. I reached for his hand, tried to rest a hand on his shoulder. He flinched and burrowed deeper into himself.
Grace stirred from her sleep. “Mommy, where are we? I’m hungry.”
“We’re at the airport.”
“Still? How long have we been here?” She rubbed her eyes and looked around.
“Why? Can we go eat now?”
“Pretty soon,” I said.
I walked toward Andrew. I tried upbeat. “Hey, Andrew. Your teacher will be so excited when you tell her you rode an escalator.”
He shrugged and turned away from me.
I tried empathy and choices: “Mom gets scared too. It’s okay to be scared. Do you want to hold my hand or daddy’s? Do you want to go first, hold the side, hold your blue dinosaur?”
“No.” Andrew slid down the wall to the floor in defeat. “I can’t do it.”
Grace stood up and slipped her coat on. “I’m starving. Can we go?”
I took a deep breath. We had been in the lobby for almost an hour.
“Andrew, we can’t stay here.”
He swiped his hand across his nose smearing mucus on his cheeks. I held out a tissue. He swatted it away.
“Let me talk to him,” Eric said. He walked to the other end of the lobby by a wall of windows. Andrew followed. The sun was setting, the sky deep blue with a tinge of orange above the horizon. Eric leaned over. Andrew nodded, shook his head, and nodded again.
I resented Eric’s help, that Andrew seemed receptive to Eric. I needed this trip to prove I was a mother, a very different kind of mother than the one I’d had. I wanted to be strong, self-sufficient, not weak.
Grace’s stomach growled. She headed toward the escalator.
“We need to wait for Andrew and Daddy.”
“I’ve been waiting.” She snapped around, her jaw set, her hands on her hip. “I want to eat now.”
Eric and Andrew made their way back.
“Just a minute, Grace.” I held her hand; she pulled against me.
“He says he’ll try it if I can hold him and he can close his eyes,” Eric said, weaving with exhaustion.
Andrew nodded his mouth slightly open. In a lull between trains, Eric led Andrew to the edge of the escalator. I pulled the rolling suitcase, Grace’s hand, and followed.
“I’ll count to three,” Eric said. “One, two … .” Eric stepped onto the escalator.
“No, Daddy, no!” Andrew writhed against Eric’s firm hold. “Go back! Fire truck!”
“Almost there,” Eric said through clenched teeth.
Andrew punched Eric’s chest, his face, grabbed for his hair and tried to throw his head toward the ground. Eric kept his head back and pursed his lips, his cheeks bright pink. At the bottom of the escalator, he set Andrew down and sighed.
Andrew scanned the long, carpeted hallway, and the signs that read customs, immigration, airline staff only, baggage, restrooms, and airport transportation in various languages. Grace and I stepped off the escalator.
“Mom! Did you see me? Did you see? I did it.” Andrew grinned and grabbed my hand. He swung it back and forth. I let go of Grace. Andrew jumped up and down. “Dad counted to three but went on two. He tricked me! Dad counted to three. He went on two. I was scared but I did it.”
“What sign do we need?” Grace called from a few yards ahead.
“It has a C, a big C.” I shook Andrew’s hand loose and headed after Grace.
Andrew looked back at the escalator, his eyes going to the top and down, then back up. “Can we do it again? Dad, can you count to three again but go on two? Can we?”
“Maybe later,” I said.
Despite the anger I had toward my mom and how she abandoned me, I longed to be mothered. As a teenager, I wanted to ask a woman about my changing body, relationships, to discuss college and ideas for a future, to be held on days when I argued with a friend and it felt like we might never speak again. As a young adult, I wished someone could help me understand more serious relationships, budgeting, and other life skills.
In every book club, in every babysitting or housesitting job, in women I’d known from summer camp as a kid, I searched for a mother, someone who would guide me into adulthood and provide the nurturing I didn’t have. While I remained distant, too scared to lose anyone else, I fantasized about conversations, coffee dates, walks. If I could just do and say all of the right things, and none of the wrong things, shower her with affection and praise, surely this woman would embrace me. This camp counselor or choir leader would enjoy being around me, see me, love me.
I studied each woman’s beliefs, likes and dislikes, and nodded eagerly in support of their political candidates. I shared details about me I knew they’d agree with and support. I gave them gifts, homemade photo coasters, photo calendars, wrote for them, trusted them. In turn, they invited me to family dinners, let me come over when I needed a break from the dorms, taught me how to can or quilt, gushed over my photography and writing. I glowed.
Sometimes gradually, sometimes all at once, I felt safe. I let down my guard and disagreed or mentioned abuse, said something about foster care. One by one they backed away. When I went over, I found the house dark. They stopped answering my phone calls, texted to say they needed time with their own family, emailed to let me know they were busy with their kids’ school, their choir, a new exchange student. In each woman, I saw copies of my mom, women who turned their backs, who forgot me.
Finally, I stopped. I no longer wanted any woman’s help or touch. I would take care of myself, become the mother I needed.
Too anxious to wait in our hotel, we arrived early. Not long after we took our shoes off and filled two gift bags—one for Andrew’s birth mom and one for the social worker who would translate—she was there.
I heard her shuffled footsteps first, then her laugh, the same boisterous laugh Andrew had. My skin jumped. I peeked through the small window in the conference-room door. Two women peered back at me, one a mirror image of Andrew. The other woman was older, Andrew’s birth grandmother.
I opened the door and stared. Andrew’s birth mother had the same round face as Andrew, the same square chin, and forehead, the same wide, sloping shoulders, the eyes that narrowed into thin lines when she laughed.
I bowed hello and rushed toward Andrew’s birth mother. Before I could remind myself that it was too soon to hug, I wrapped my arms around her waist, my arms not quite reaching around her, my head awkwardly near her breasts. She stood stiffly, her arms at her sides. She grunted softly; I let go and stepped back. She pointed at Andrew and whispered something to her mother.
“Mom, are you sure this is enough tissue?” Andrew turned around. For a moment he froze, then he took a few tentative steps. He scanned her face, her hands, her feet, and looked at me.
“It’s okay if you don’t want to hug her,” I said. “You don’t have to get close if it makes you uncomfortable.”
She squatted and stretched out her arms. He walked into them and rested his head against her shoulder, closed his eyes, and took a deep breath. I blinked fast. His grandmother nodded her approval.
The social worker came into the room, flipped a light switch, and stopped. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know. I thought …” She looked at the clock, at us, the clock. She spoke fast in Korean. Andrew’s grandmother spoke fast too, their words running over each other. Andrew’s birth mom stood and rested her hand on Andrew’s head.
He smiled and whispered, “It’s her! It’s really her.”
“We haven’t been here long,” I said to the social worker. “They just got here.”
The social worker nodded absentmindedly at me, then continued talking to Andrew’s birth family. The three Koreans walked toward a pair of facing couches and a chair that sat near the end of both couches. Andrew’s birth mother and grandmother took the couch farthest from the door; the social worker took the chair. She spoke fast, her hands moving wildly. Eric and I followed silently; we sat on the other couch, yellow vinyl.
Andrew stood near the social worker looking back and forth from me to his birth family.
“You can sit by your birth mom if you want,” I said.
Before I finished my sentence, he bounded toward his birth family and plopped between his mom and grandma. They laughed. His birth mom clasped her hands tightly in her lap, her fingers pulsing. Her nails were painted orange, her fingers short and wide like Andrew’s, her knuckles marked by small dimples.
“He looks a lot like his birth father,” the social worker said interrupting my thoughts. “The color of his skin, his hair, his eyes.”
I laughed. “I was thinking he looks a lot like her.”
Andrew’s birth mother leaned back and studied Andrew. I patted my cheekbones, my nose, my shoulders. The Koreans examined Andrew’s features. Andrew grinned, exposing a missing baby tooth. His birth grandma ruffled Andrew’s hair. He beamed.
I caught his eyes and held my thumb up, a question. Are you okay? He nodded and gave me a thumbs up. I relaxed against the back of the couch and turned to check on Grace. She was sitting on the opposite side of the room busy with toys from one of her favorite Korean cartoons.
Andrew looked at his birth mother’s hands, still clasped. He unfolded them, turned one over, and traced the lines on her palm. He turned his palm over, an almost exact replica but smaller. Line by line he studied his hand and hers. Later, I knew, he’d tell me in detail what he noticed.
He turned her hand palm down and placed his next to it. One by one, he poked her knuckles, then his. He slid his hand under hers and wove his fingers into hers. With a heavy sigh, he leaned against her. She gasped. Tears ran down her face and dropped into Andrew’s hair.
Andrew breathed deeply. I snapped photos.
“I need to go to another meeting soon,” the social worker said. She said something to Andrew’s birth mom and grandma too.
I handed Andrew’s birth mother a slip of paper with my email address on it. It sat untouched in her open palm. She looked at me confused.
“We’d really like to write,” I said. “Email is easier than regular mail. We want Andrew to know her, for her to know Andrew.
She set the piece of paper on a coffee table between us and leaned against the back of the couch. She said something to the social worker and looked into her lap. Andrew’s birth grandmother nodded slightly.
“She can’t,” the social worker said softly.
Andrew’s birth mother looked up at me, her eyes filled with tears. I understood. She couldn’t keep in touch, couldn’t say goodbye over and over. She had come to the meeting but could do no more.
“Work hard in school,” Andrew’s birth grandmother said through the translator. “Be good for your parents.” She blinked hard and stood up to leave.
I had tried to give Andrew what I hadn’t had and instead would support him through grief similar to mine. I knew he’d have days when he’d need to push me away to make more room for the mother he longed to know, the mother who looked like him, who had the same hands, the same smile, the same eyes. I hoped I could help him remain open and trusting despite his pain. I hoped he’d let me hold him on some of the hard days.
“Mom!” Andrew cried on the walk back to our hotel. “I forgot to tell my birth mom that I learned how to ride an escalator.”
He smiled at the late afternoon sky, gray clouds blocking the sun, and took my hand.
I swung his hand playfully. “She would be proud of you,” I said. “I know I am.”
Shawna Ervin is a Pushcart nominee. She attended the Mineral School residency thanks to a Sustainable Arts Foundation fellowship, is a poetry reader for Adroit Journal and founding faculty of the Tupelo Press Teen Writing Center. Shawna is an alum of Bread Loaf and Tin House workshops. Recent publications include Bangalore Review, Tampa Review, Cagibi, Synkroniciti, Rappahannock Review, The Maine Review, Sweet: A Literary Confection, and elsewhere. She lives in Denver with her family.