Tag Archives: grief and loss

landslide

You know, words often fail to give the deepest of meaning to our emotions. That’s probably why I connected so strongly to music when I was a kid and still do today. I was unable to put words to my feelings. It was too scary, and I just didn’t have the vocabulary. Music became my refuge. It let me feel what I could not say, and it was safe. If we could just sing or play a song to express our deepest fears, joys, struggles, anger, what a different world we might live in.

Lately, I’ve been listening to a lot of ‘throwback’ tunes – tunes that I grew up listening to as a teenager. I’m a little bias, but the 80’s really did rock the best music ever. My first music concert was RUSH at the Shreveport Coliseum in Louisiana. They were one of my favorite bands along with ACDC, The Eagles, April Wine, Night Ranger, The Police, Genesis/Phil Collins, Fleetwood Mac, The Scorpions, Journey, Van Halen, Pat Benatar – well the list goes on and on. And then there was the British pop wave – Duran Duran, (who else was in love with Nick Taylor?), Thompson Twins, Pet Shop Boys, Human League, etc. I digress…

A couple of years ago I attended an Adoption Conference at St. John’s Univeristy in NJ. Social worker, Robert L. O’Connor, gave the keynote address. I can’t remember exactly what he spoke about, but I do remember him talking about having an ‘adoption song.’ He adopted a song that gave meaning to his personal adoption experience. As a musician I thought, ‘why hadn’t I thought of that?’ So on my commute to work today, I was listening to a favorite song, ‘Landslide,’ by Fleetwood Mac, sung by the lovely Stevie Nicks. ‘That’s my song!’ I thought. It describes much of what I feel as an adoptee. If you love music from the 80’s as much as I do, you’re probably familiar with ‘Landslide.’ Here are some of the lyrics:

I took my love, I took it down

I climbed a mountain and I turned around

And I saw my reflection in the snow-covered hills

‘Till the landslide brought me down.

Oh, mirror in the sky, what is love?

Can the child within my heart rise above?

Can I sail through the changing ocean tides?

Can I handle the seasons of my life?

Well, I’ve been afraid of changing

‘Cause I’ve built my life around you

But time makes you bolder

Even children get older

And I’m getting older too…

Obviously, the song can be interpreted in many different ways. But I see so many metaphors and parallels to my adopted self. Growing up I didn’t like the reflection I saw in the mirror – as I’ve said many times, I had a a real struggle with identity. And, a feeling of uprootedness haunted me. I look back and see what a deeply insecure, lost child I was, detached. It was a fearful time in my life. Sometimes, I regress and feel as though I’m that insecure lost kid again despite the fact that I’m 51 and have worked hard to overcome a lot across the years. It’s almost paralyzing. It typically occurs when I feel fearful of a situation or a person, but has certainly decreased as I’ve gotten older and gained a greater sense of self.

I think in a poetic and meaningful way, the lyrics to ‘Landslide’ describe the seasons of one’s life and how difficult they are to navigate at times. Until well into my thirties, I still had so little self-awareness and just could not express what I was feeling. It was like I was numb. I think the numbness was a mask for feelings of fear. It was frustrating for others in my life. And, it wasn’t until I found my lost adoption papers that I slowly began to ‘come out of the fog’ and realize that there was a whole part of myself that I’d disengaged from in an attempt to blend in with those around me. ‘Landslide’ reminds me of the self-loathing, denial, fear, anger, lostness, loneliness, and disappointment that I once felt and hid. But with life experience, maturity, and coming to terms with who I am, those emotions have slowly evolved into compassion, forgiveness, determination, and self-acceptance. Every once in awhile, that insecure, lost child resurfaces and things turn kinda grey. There will always be loss in my life as a result of adoption. It’s complicated. But music brings peace and tenderness. All you have to do is listen in perfect silence. And then I’m reminded of how much I’ve learned and accomplished as a result of the hard things I’ve experienced. If you could choose a song to give voice to your adoption experience, what would it be???

Photo by Mayur Gala

 

what every adoptee wants to know

When I was growing up in Louisiana, one of the questions I was most often asked by others upon learning that I was adopted was, so who are your “real” parents? It was fairly obvious that I was adopted, as I looked nothing like my white parents. I had straight black hair, almond shaped eyes and skin the color of my dad’s morning cup of coffee. Nevertheless, I was always incredulous at such a question each and every time it was asked. My typical response was, “well my parents are my real parents.” Like, duh…My adoptive parents were the only parents I knew. The only parents I would ever know. I have no doubt that many adoptees have encountered such a scenario and perhaps felt the same sentiments. What strikes me now as most peculiar, 47 years after my adoption, is the lack of curiosity I had about my birthparents. It was an apathy I think perpetuated by the secrecy surrounding adoption at the time. My adoptive parents never ever talked about my birth heritage, including the family whence I came. When I was placed for adoption, it was the beginning of the end of my connection to my birth country and to the family I was born into, and after my adoption, all cultural ties were ultimately severed. I would never know that my birth parents were from China, but forced to leave the country and build a new life in Taiwan, that I had two older sisters and an older brother. I believe that my adoptive parents did everything possible to keep my past hidden from me, and for years, it would remain so. Then one day, the truth came out. And when it did, it was the beginning of a new chapter in my life, a journey of discovery. I have never turned back since.

This afternoon, I went with some friends visiting from California to see a movie, ‘Philomena,’ starring Judi Dench and Steve Coogan. In a word, it was extraordinary. What does a movie have to do with my previous ramblings? Mainly, adoption. It is based on the true story of Philomena Lee, an Irish woman who, as a teenager, had a romantic fling with a boy at a carnival and became pregnant. Rejected by her own family, she is sent to a convent where she gives birth to her son, Anthony, and is forced to work in the laundry room with other young girls to work off the penance of their sins. The girls are allowed to see their children for only one hour a day. Here is the gut-wrencher – Philomena, one day, watches helplessly as her three-year-old boy is taken away by a rich American couple without as much as a goodbye. The convent was in the business of selling babies to wealthy Americans and having the young mother’s sign contracts that they could never find out the whereabouts of their children. Fifty years later, Philomena is still tormented by the loss of her son and the desire to find him. She unwittingly connects with a dejected political journalist, Martin Sixsmith, who agrees to help her find her son primarily for the tabloid possibilities of a human interest story. What follows is a tender story of loss, reconciliation, forgiveness and ultimately acceptance.

Judi Dench’s portrayal of Philomena Lee is heartwarming and simply outstanding, as is Steve Coogan’s. I do hope she wins the Golden Globe for Best Actress and Coogan for Best Picture and Screenplay. I loved the film. It’s depiction of the tremendous loss experienced by a woman whose child was taken away from her was so real, I felt the loss as if it were my own. So often adoption is portrayed as a happy event, yet rarely do we see the other side of adoption from the perspective of the birth mother who is forced to relinquish her child. I don’t want to give too much of the film away, but one of the most memorable lines comes when Philomena decides to go to America with Martin Sixsmith in hopes of finding her son. Philomena says, “I’d like to know if Anthony ever thought of me…I’ve thought of him everyday.” Since learning about my birth parents in Taiwan, I’ve wondered if my birth mother ever thought of me. How can it not be so? Philomena answered this question for me. The separation between a mother who is forced to give up her child and the child who is relinquished is a wound that, like all wounds, heals with time, yet leaves a tender spot. I will never know my birth mother – she and my biological father died before I had the chance to meet them. I have often wondered about her, like what her favorite color was, what kind of music she liked, what kind of personality she had, was she happy, did we bond at all while I was still with her? I was told by my sisters in Taiwan that she was a teacher, she enjoyed learning and classical music. Unbeknownst to her, her husband, my biological father, placed me for adoption without her consent. I often wonder how it all happened, if my biological father felt anything at all when he placed me for adoption. My sisters tell me that our mother never talked about what happened, but it deeply affected her. One woman’s sorrow became another one’s joy.

Philomena eventually learns that the life her son attains after his adoption is much more affluent than anything she could have ever provided for him. She recognizes this fact and is happy that he grew up having opportunities that he would not have had otherwise. This is the reason why many adoptees are placed for adoption, including me. It’s quite the phenomenon when you are given everything you could possibly need and want, yet still feel a hole somewhere inside of you, like there is a part of you that’s missing. It’s still there to this day, and it’s Ok. I’ve learned to accept it. There are many other things that make my life fulfilling.

I think that many adoptees wonder why they were given up or abandoned. Questions like, “was it because I was unwanted, was it forced, was I ever thought of afterwards?” are not uncommon. Unfortunately, many adoptees will never know the answers because of a lack of documentation (as in the case of abandonment). Finding my birth family brought me one step closer to the truth and to answering some of those questions.

In the movie, Martin Sixsmith quotes T.S. Eliot toward the end of Philomena’s journey, “The end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”  I thought how very apt this quote was. Philemona started her journey of discovery at the convent and, in the end, returns to it. This resonated deeply with me. My journey began in an orphanage in Taiwan. Two years ago, I returned to the city of my birth to be reunited with my biological family. I arrived at the place where it all started, yet only just began to know the place for the first time. Though I will never be able to meet my birth mother, I believe that she thought about me. There is no longer any doubt in my mind.

If you’re looking for an exemplary holiday film, go see ‘Philomena.’

‘Philomena’ Movie Trailer:

an interview with author, mridula koshy

koshy authorIn my last post, I reviewed Mridula Koshy’s debut novel, Not Only the Things That Have Happened. I was so intrigued with the book that I asked Mridula if she would be open to an interview, and she graciously said yes. I hope that you will read the interview below in its entirety. Mridula shares not only her thoughts on the book, but on important social issues  especially as they pertain to women (including video footage). I would like to thank Mridula for taking time out for the interview. 

Could you tell us a little about yourself and what led you to writing?

I grew up hearing I would become a writer. This was presented as an inevitable future for a talker like me. What scared me was the other connection drawn – to my aunt, Mary John Thottam, a well-known poet in Kerala, India.  I was frightened by this idea of writing as a family trait surfacing in the same way a pudgy nose might every generation or so. What if my parents were mistaken and I wasn’t nearly smart enough to be a writer.

At thirty-five, it was no longer an option to turn my back on something that felt like my re-entry ticket to home. Back in Delhi after a twenty year stay in the US, this talker no longer knew anyone in a town so intensely alive with talk that ‘belonging’ depended on gaining entry into the conversation. I was home with my youngest child, my dear daughter who had just turned three a year after joining the family. It was too soon to enroll her in school and to seek full time work outside the home. I began writing as a way to enter the conversation and found to my relief that writing is no more dependent on inherited genius than it is on inspiration. Paper, pencil and disciplined engagement is all it takes.

What inspired you to write, Not Only the Things That Have Happened?

The ethical and legal problems with inter-country adoption were hard to escape once I became intimately aware of them through my experience of adopting my daughter. When I began work on Not Only the Things That Have Happened, I knew a critique of inter-country adoption would be one of the book’s reasons for being. I also knew this book would be would be a fictional work, that is to say it would not be my family’s story. In fiction I could access the historical and political story of adoption, and as well characters whose circumstances called for more courage and more imagination than I have ever had to summon.

In the story, “time” is a character. Can you talk about how this character is central to the theme of the story?

Toward the end of my protagonist Annakutty’s life she lies on her deathbed struggling to see her life. Her eleven-year-old niece, Nina, tells her that although the sun is indeed too bright and wavery and impossible to see, she can draw it. She draws the sun not by trying to see it as it is, but by trying to see it as she imagines it is. So she draws it “with two eyes and a nose and a smile on its face…by imagining about the sun.”

Not Only the Things That Have Happened is not a book about life as it is. It is about how I imagine life is – for Annakutty and Asa and a host of others. One reason the book is structured in a somewhat non-linear fashion is because linearity is only one way to imagine life. By imagining it anew I open myself to the possibility and usefulness of the many other ways in which it can be imagined.

Asa’s story is the story of someone plucked from the narrative of his life, displaced from the story he tells himself about himself first in his mother-tongue, Malayalam, when he is a baby, then in Hindi as a four year old street child in Delhi, and finally in English when he is adopted as a nine year old by his American family. Time is born and dies with each of these narratives as Asa is effaced again and again. There is no linear order for Asa and inevitably there can be none for the writer or the reader.

Can you tell us more about the title of the book and its significance to the story?

I remember the first stories in my life were always about ‘Once upon a time’ and this phrase I think is an important marker of the effort to contain the uncontainable, to contain the things that happened. The best of the stories hinted at or at least begged the question of what happened twice upon a time and thrice. They hinted at how untidy stories actually are.

The story of inter-country adoption is a contained and tidy story. It has a ‘once upon a time,’ the act of adoption, as its arbitrary beginning and permits itself no other ending but ‘happily ever after.’ This story of the things that have happened begs the question of what might be found if one were to look at ‘not only the things that have happened.’

Outside of literature, when a young adoptee asks the adoptive parent ‘Why did she leave me,” or “Will I ever see her again,” or “Is she alright,” and “my brothers and sisters, are they alright, do I have any,” the narrative breaks. The compassionate adoptive parent answers these questions with an attempt to comfort even as she imparts the painfully uncomfortable truth, “I don’t know.” In fiction, it is possible to complicate “I don’t know” with knowing. Though Asa doesn’t know whether his first mother lives or dies, the reader knows. Though Annakutty doesn’t know whether Asa thrives or suffers, we know.

The young Annakutty falls in love with a young man who does not marry her and then has a child out of wedlock. She experiences stigmatization and is ostracized by her family and community, her head is shaved and at one point her clothes confiscated to keep her under control. How common are such practices?  

Annakutty walks naked through her town in a dangerous act of defiance.  This cannot be characterised  as a common form of protest, but neither is it unknown. Here is a video of a woman who as an act of protest walked in her underclothes through the city. Notice the baseball bat in her hand. http://ibnlive.in.com/news/woman-strips-walks-in-city-against-dowry-demand/44089-3.html. Perhaps the most famous image of woman using their nudity to protest their oppression is this one in which a group of Manipuri women protest the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which allows the Indian Army to act with impunity in some parts of the country where civil rights have been suspended, resulting in rape and other atrocities by the army. http://www.commondreams.org/headlines04/0719-03.htm

It will take too long to answer the question of how women are oppressed in India. Suffice it to say patriarchy is alive and well here, as elsewhere, although it takes some unique turns here. But whether manifested uniquely or otherwise, patriarchy looks different in different parts of this huge and diverse country. For example, the birth ratio of baby girls to boys is skewed by selective abortions in one half of the country but not in the other half. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2013/oct/10/indias-women-mixed-truth/?page=2

Annakutty raises her son alone and eventually makes the heart wrenching decision to relinquish him around the age of four to tourists passing through. What is it, ultimately, that forces her to make this difficult decision?

The long answer to the question of what forces Annakutty to relinquish her son is in the 350 pages of the novel. The short answer is she relinquishes him because someone shows up to adopt him. She withstands a tremendous amount of pressure to be done with her child, pressure that includes an attempt to kill her child in the delivery room, and pressure that has resulted in her terrible isolation from her family and community, isolation she fears will be visited on her child as he grows. But until someone comes to adopt her child, she continues to struggle with the circumstances of her life, agonizing over what to feed him on his birthday as any mother anywhere of any circumstance will. Absent the pressure of adoption, she would in all likelihood have continued to struggle to provide for him.

Annakutty regrets her decision throughout her lifetime as she remembers and even tries to search for her son. How does this story speak to other birth mothers who are forced to relinquish a child(ren)?

Annakutty is left with little besides regret. What legal recourses does she or any birthmother have? How does her economic poverty and the beliefs of those around her equip her to fight for her child? It does not. Of course, as readers will find, Annakutty does not stop at weeping over her loss. She may not be able to rewrite the rules of the engagement, but engage she does with life, above all by grappling the question of how she will live with her loss.

I think regret is real for everyone in the triad. Adoptive parents are regretful and even remorseful that the very circumstances which allow them to become parents are also the circumstances which leave them unable to answer their children’s most anguished questions. Loss marks all the relationships in the triad, and this loss extends beyond the triad.  Recently, the Australian government apologized to women who were coerced in the past to give their children up for adoption. This coercion was cultural and political. The apology is an acknowledgment that regret is not just a birth mother’s obligation. It is from the owning up to our regret that we can step toward the kind of legal reform that is needed in inter-country adoption.

Annakutty suffers many losses in her life, yet possesses a certain strength and dignity despite her painful circumstances. From your perspective, what gives Annakutty such resilience in the face of her experiences? Would you consider her a heroine? If so, in what ways?

Annakutty’s powerlessness is not far from the experience of most women on the planet today.  I’d like to believe she is a heroine in the way most women are: she tells the truth, the complicated truth, regardless of her inability to command an audience for it. She does not, for example embrace the idea her neighbours offer her – that her child is lucky for being adopted,  that he has gone to “a good life such as none of us can give our children.” She fights for the return of her child whom she herself handed over to another family.  Gretchen, who is the child’s first adoptive mother, is another example of this courage I admire in women. Late in life she voices the difficult truth that “she made a huge mistake.” The child she saw calling to her in her dreams, the child she was forced to abort, cannot be replaced by a child she adopts. Gretchen has no one with whom she can share her regrets, no way to correct the mistake she made. Her courage is evidenced in the endless calls she makes to random toll-free numbers in India, an attempt to find the child she adopted and lost.
Asa, Annakutty’s son, struggles to remember the events that led up to his relinquishment and is frustrated by the lack of information available to him. This manifests in anger and a deep sense of loss, which greatly affects his life and relationships with significant others. From your perspective, how do the losses experienced by adoptees shape who they become?

I don’t believe Asa is condemned to a life of anger and nothing but anger. He is shown in the novel attempting to love and to be loved, for example in his relationship with his daughter. This work of loving which is painful and filled with risk for most of us is made more painful for Asa by the fact that he has no narrative to explain the loss of his first love, his mother.  Barred access to this narrative, he needs at least an acknowledgement of this loss if he is to ever sustain himself in the work of loving his daughter. Even given such an acknowledgment, many adoptees will struggle with anger as they encounter each new loss life brings them. Some of the new losses will be related directly to the original loss. Other losses (the loss of a lover or a job) may not be directly related to the original loss, but will recall its helplessness.  Some adoptees do not accept the idea of loss as a recurring event in life. Others are vocal in their acceptance of this idea. And certainly society with its celebratory embrace of adoption cannot accept the idea that loss is a part of adoption.

At the end of the story, Asa decides not to go to India to search for some of the missing pieces to his past, yet leaves the airport having gained some insights about his life. Do you foresee Asa returning to India one day to search for answers? And, in the book, nearly all of the characters experience some sort of loss, including Asa’s adoptive parents, Marge and David. How does loss factor into the theme of the story?

Oh my gosh, I really don’t know about Asa returning to India. I write to discover answer to the questions I don’t have answers for. I would have to write another story to find out if Asa ever makes it to India. In writing Not Only the Things That Have Happened, I wanted to answer a different question: how can a person live with profound loss and disruption? And of course I wanted to know, how can a parent leave their child? Can a child recover?  I found in Annakutty’s story a remarkable example of someone who lived and lived well by allowing loss to remain with her, to keep faith with that loss. She does not give in to the pressure to put it behind her. Whether Asa is scamming old ladies into adopting him or scamming himself into thinking that he need not be a parent to his daughter, his life seems to be a dizzying scramble to escape loss.

Readers will quarrel with the disappointment of not being able to see Asa return to India. Instead of the music soaring as the curtain falls there will only be the static of CNN’s botched weather report, the man snoring in the seat next to Asa, the whoosh of the revolving door ushering Asa out of the airport and  into the rest of his unknown life. In the first pages of the novel, Anakutty’s niece Nina exits the stories Anakutty likes to tell about her Lost Boy because Nina dreads the way they all end in the unknown.  I hope that forewarned by Annakuttys death on the first page, readers will know this is not a story about reconciliation. I hope readers will wonder as I did what one can take away from a story that ends in the unknown. Perhaps uneasiness. And uneasiness is useful. Perhaps a little bit of the sense I gained writing this book that even the unknown future is not entirely unknowable. Annakutty certainly believed in keeping faith with her loss, which cannot be read as anything but faith in her future.

What would you like most for readers to take away from the book?

Two things actually, the first is a political and the second a literary/philosophical objective. One, we need to reform inter-country adoption and two, our narratives must of necessity be as complicated as the stories we hope to tell.

Visit Mridula Koshy’s facebook page here

Purchase Not Only the Things That Have Happened on Amazon.com

book review: not only the things that have happened

“If it is real, you can remember not only the things that have happened, but also the things that are going to happen.”  —Annakutty Verghese

Harper Collins (India, 2012)

Mridula Koshy’s debut novel, Not Only the Things That Have Happened, is not a tale for the faint-hearted. It is a story that explores the impact of adoption, oppression, loss and identity. Koshy’s prose and storytelling is hauntingly beautiful and speaks directly to the heart. It is not a quick read, but one that invokes thought, and as such, is an important and compelling work.

At the center of the story is Annakutty Verghese, an aged, dying woman who desperately clings to life as thoughts of the son she relinquished 30 years ago linger within her memory. Annakutty was coerced into giving up her beloved son and regrets this decision the rest of her life. She constantly relives her brief time with him by telling stories to her niece, Nina. Annakutty’s greatest hope is that her Lost Boy, Madhu, will return to her, a hope that never diminishes even until her death.

Divided into two halves, the story takes place in Kerala, India and in the Midwestern U.S. and spans a period of 36-hours. The story of Annakutty is featured in the first half and that of Annakutty’s son, renamed Asa Gardner by his adoptive parents, in the second. We transition back and forth between the present and the past as the memories of various characters whose lives intersect are recollected. This can be a bit confusing, yet it is through this interweaving of past and present that Koshy so masterfully creates a multi-layered story of memories, loss and longing.

In Part 1, we travel back to Annakutty’s life as an adolescent. The sixteen-year old Annakutty falls in love with a young man from her stepmother’s village. Her family, particularly her stepmother, disapproves and Annakutty is sent away to a convent, but not without first suffering much degradation and scorn. At the convent, she has a child out of wedlock with a priest, which brings more shame upon the young Annakutty. Eventually, she is convinced to give up her son when he is four years old. She later takes in her niece, Nina, and even marries, which brings a certain happiness back into Annakutty’s life, though she never gives up hope of finding her Madhu.

In Part 2, we travel a world away to meet Asa Gardner, formerly Madhu, who is now a grown man. We learn that Asa’s life has been characterized by instability. After his relinquishment to a German couple visiting India, he becomes lost at the train station where he and his new family are to depart. We are led to believe, however, that this was not an accident. The young Asa soon joins a group of homeless boys, his “brothers,” who live on the railroad platform until he is rescued by agency workers. He is eventually adopted by an American couple. Asa’s struggles continue even after his adoption, and he has great difficulty assimilating to his new life. After a devastating family tragedy, Asa leaves home for good only to return to what is familiar- living on the streets and begging. Time passes and Asa marries, but becomes estranged from his wife and has a disconnected relationship with their young daughter. At the root of Asa’s turmoil is the lack of any tangible history, in essence, a lack of true identity. With only fragmented memories of his past, Asa wanders like a lost soul, searching for missing pieces and reinventing stories to fill in the gaps.

On a much deeper level, the story of Annakutty and Asa speaks to a larger issue, the social institution of adoption, and begs the question, is adoption really the best option for children from disadvantaged backgrounds? I have conflicted feelings on this issue. The point of contention for me begins with the separation of a mother and her child due to coercion, or because an unwed mother feels that she has no other options. Furthermore, that such exorbitant fees are required to adopt a child from another country is difficult for me to grasp. I cannot undo my own past and recognize that I had privileges growing up that I would not have had otherwise. On the flip side, I will never know my birth parents, nor ever feel fully integrated into my culture of origin. It is an emotional injury that rears its ugly head now and again. Although adopted children flourish in adoptive homes, the disparity between losses and gains is traumatic. Often the only picture one gets of adoption is a romanticized one. Some adoptees are Ok with this disconnect. For me, it is not that black and white.

In the end, my heart broke for Annakutty and Asa. They both lived on the hope that one day they would reconnect, and there is something to be said of Annakutty’s unwavering hope that her son would return, though this never occurs. I could relate to Asa in many way- his losses and struggle to put a narrative to his unknown past. An element of grief seeps heavily into much of the story, as most of the characters experience a great loss. I didn’t mind the sadness, quite the opposite. There was an underlying rawness that pulled me deeper into the story and gave it a true sense of realism. I encourage you to read Not Only the Things That Have Happened. It is a powerful read and one that will leave a lasting impression.

Not Only the Things That Have Happened may be purchased on Amazon.com.

Mridula Koshy is an Indian writer and lives in New Delhi, India and Portland, Oregon with her poet-school teacher partner and three children. She is also an adoptive mother. Please visit her website at http://mridulakoshy.blogspot.com/.

Koshy’s short-story collection, If It Is Sweet, won the 2009 Shakti Bhatt First Book Prize and was shortlisted for the 2009 Vodafone Crossword Book Award, an Indian literary award.

Next post, an interview with Mridula Koshy! 

those shoes

My first pair of shoes. I found them in the box, the one my adoptive mom hid in the attic with the rest of my adoption stuff. They are so small. A few scuff marks are visible where creases have worn into the toes. Amazingly, the laces are still a pristine white. The shoes smell faintly of mustiness after all these years having been buried in an old attic for who knows how long. On the soles of each shoe, my mom wrote, “Mari, 1st Shoes, Taiwan.” My family and close friends back home in Louisiana called me Mari, except for my dad. He always called me by my full name.

I will never know for sure why my mom hid so many things about my adoption. I suspect that she was being protective. When she died, I truly believe that she felt she had unfinished business. I’ll tell you why. She appeared to me shortly after her death, during a music therapy workshop, of all places. I was in a training class, along with some of my classmates, for The Bonny Method of Guided Imagery and Music (GIM), which is a music-oriented exploration of consciousness intended to awaken a deeper understanding of self. Basically, it’s music-assisted psychotherapy.

During the training, we practiced facilitating sessions with each other, one student facilitating, the other playing the role of client. During my session, the imagery that emerged was of my adoptive mom and another unknown figure. I sensed that my adoptive mom wanted to tell me something important. I saw her face so clearly; it was how I remembered her before she got sick. Her eyes beamed radiantly at me the way they always did when she was happy. I felt such warmth and gentleness emanating from her presence and wanted so desperately to reach out to her. She was nudging me toward something, or someone. A figure appeared before me in the distance wearing a cloak similar to the one we all recognize from the fairy tale, Red Riding Hood, except, this cloak was dark. At first, I felt afraid. The figure was kind of creepy looking and ominous, and I wasn’t sure why it was there. It seemed to be waiting. As the music changed, the figure became less imposing, it took on the stature of a slender female figure. I noticed a pair of long gray gloves adorning her hands and forearms, like those long white gloves that women wore back in the 50’s. It slowly dawned on me that the figure was my birth mother. I’m not sure how I knew it was my birth mother, her face was hidden behind the hood of the cloak,  but I just knew it was her. What’s interesting to me is that before this experience, I had never consciously thought about my birth mother. Of course, I’d never met or seen her before either. At the time of the workshop, I didn’t know that she had passed away several years previous. My birth mother came closer and then embraced me. We stood like that for a long time. She was so elegant and lovely. She told me that she hadn’t wanted to give me up and that my musicality was a gift from her. She affirmed her love for me, not only through her words, but through an unspoken understanding. Much later when I reunited with my biological sisters in Taiwan, I learned that my birth mother loved and listened to classical music, which I also love and studied for many years, and that my biological father had placed me for adoption without telling her. So it was true, she hadn’t consented to relinquish me. She, nor my 2 biological sisters, had any idea what our father was up to.

The imagery was intensely vivid and powerful. I’ve never experienced anything quite like it before. It’s like you’re in a dream-like state, but are aware at all times of your surroundings and what’s going on around you. At the end of that session, I was sobbing and in quite a state of shock. That is the only contact I’ve ever had with my birth mother as an adult, in the subconscious recesses of my mind. We processed with the workshop facilitators afterwards, who assured me that many clients have reported similar spiritual experiences in which loved ones who have passed on appear during their sessions. Was it my way of working through my adoptive mother’s death and the loss of being separated from my birth mother, or was it somehow a real connection spiritually between me, both my adoptive and biological mothers? I struggled to believe the latter, that my two mothers had come back to visit me through some transcendent experience. But in the end, I came to accept it and believed it was true.

When I first found the shoes, I felt a deep pang of loss all over again. The loss of my mom, the loss of my dad, discussions I would never have about my adoption. A disparity between what I thought to be my true identity and the evidence that stated otherwise surfaced in a mere instant leaving me not only grief-stricken, but dumbfounded. Grieving leaves such a huge gaping hole in your heart, a heaviness that weighs down on you as though you’re suffocating. In addition to the grief, I struggled with feelings of guilt over my long absence from home as my mom became more and more demented from Alzheimer’s. Simultaneously, those moments of sifting through the items in that box were empowering. It was as though my mom was telling me it was OK for me to know about my past. I was in a daze for a long time after that discovery as the realization that I was not who I thought I was sunk in.

As I’ve gone back through all the photo albums my mom made, I’ve noticed those shoes in several pictures. My mom dressed me in them often. I found another pair of white shoes similar to my first pair, just a little bigger to accommodate my growing feet. Obviously, it was important for my mom to keep these items. She could have given them to Goodwill, or passed them on to my niece, but she didn’t. She had to have known that one day I’d find everything, my adoption contract, the shoes, the picture of her holding me in the orphanage, the diaper pins and baby shower cards. It pains me to imagine the relationship my mom and I could have had if she hadn’t gotten Alzheimer’s. Would we have been more open with each other? Would she have confessed that she’d hidden my adoption papers and eventually given them to me? Would I have become curious about my biological family on my own and questioned my adoption story without the discovery of  my adoption papers? Would I have had the desire to connect with my birth culture and search for my birth family, or would I have remained ignorant?

I’m glad my mom kept the shoes. I’ve had them setting out for a couple of weeks, wanting to write about them, but not really having the inspiration, or time. They bring back a flood of memories. They remind me of the shy little girl I once was and of a mostly happy childhood with my adoptive family before the turmoil of my teen years. They remind me of growing up in Louisiana. I’m not the least bit bitter or angry towards my deceased parents, adoptive nor biological. There are days when I still question, when I still want more answers, but mostly, I feel at peace knowing that I was loved by my adoptive parents and that they sacrificed in many ways to raise me as their own child. I realize that everything that’s occurred has made me who I am. I’m doing my best to accept what I cannot change about the past and striving to work through my sense of loss and the unknown answers to so many of my questions.