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My mother is a ghost. She lives and breathes in my mind, in made-up memory. I’m not talking about the flesh and blood mother with blue-green eyes and short, permed brown hair. The haircut that has always signified motherhood to me even with its hint of masculinity--long straight locks cropped and curled to keep from the surprisingly strong and investigative grasp of toddlers. My tangible mother wears this sign of motherhood to replace the other sign that she never displayed—a pregnant belly. Scars from her surgery write lines across her stomach where stretch marks should have formed from skin laden with the weight of life and giving it. It is not this mother, but the one I was modeled after who now occupies my thoughts, who haunts me even. The woman who, I suspect, looks like me—the same slight frame, the same large-lidded, almost-black eyes, the same big cheeks and small breasts. Or perhaps I look like my father, but I'd prefer not to believe that.
I've heard how I came here, how my real mother, when she was about the age that I am now, conceived me with my father, a Korean businessman twice her age. My mother then gave me up to a Catholic adoption center because the shame of the pregnancy was too great. Perhaps it would have been different if I had been a boy, but that is doubtful because my parents adopted a son who had it worse. My dad told me the tale of my origin sometime in college. Since then it has become the myth of my life. Despite the relatively unremarkable events that I had lived in a white, middle-class home, this revelation was a big clue in an utterly mysterious past—one step toward the fountain or the fruit.
Questions (not even philosophical ones) have pervaded my life since the day I could recognize a difference between people. Have I ever had the chicken pox? Do I have any half-siblings? Does she ever think of me? Did her family make her do it? What would my life be like if I were still there? Was I meant to be here? Then clues, intuitions, consolations come: A circular mark on my right cheek, what looks like a minute pox mark. "She must have loved you to give you up for a better life," they say. Perhaps her family did force her, but I can't blame her. Who can say what one would do to feel loved, to be claimed or at least not disowned?
I try out the scenarios. Did hot blood and rebellion run through her veins? If so, our blood does not seem to run the same. Perhaps as an adolescent she'd ditch her after-school activities, running through the busy streets, between glittering stalls in the fish market, jostling men in suits, women in heels, and elders carrying their day's work from place to place. She would laugh at their irritation, her school uniform rolled again and again at the waist, exposing ample thigh. Perhaps, in college, she met him at a bar, acting older than she was to impress him, excited by his age and his seeming success, accepting his drinks at first, but not his advances.
Perhaps he was a friend of her father's, a businessman himself, a work colleague they would see from time-to-time. He made her feel uncomfortable by the way he looked at her. A patronizing manner, yet there was something about him that conveyed a shared secret, one that she was not in on. She would find out later what that secret was. "You cannot tell anyone," he would say. "You know what it would do to your family, don't you? To your father?" She knew and so she silently became an accomplice to her own crime and condemnation.
Maybe she was in love. Rather than domineering stares, his eyes spoke kindness. He was not like the men in college, who only cared what they could get out of her, or the boys she grew up with, many of whom worked with their fathers on the docks. He was intelligent (and so was she), established, mature. He was even unlike her father, who cared little for her opinions, but when she spoke, this man, my father, would listen. What she loved best was his rigid exterior that hid their love and reminded her that she alone had access to the softness within. When alone, they’d watch baseball and slip into the anonymity of a dark theater. They watched Top Gun in Korean; Tom Cruise was her favorite. He liked her innocence and her smile, especially when she showed her teeth. That smile manifested itself slowly and infrequently at first, but went out like shock waves washing over him; it reverberated, breaking into a million tiny pieces, scattering and reflecting light like a broken bottle in the sun. But when she became pregnant, their love was swallowed in the shadow of his immense honor, their hearts eclipsed to blackness.
So many names--the ones she gave me, the ones I've since been given. They've been shuffled, like a carnival game, their significance shifting. Meanings seem to elude me, magically disappearing the moment I make up my mind--Find the meaning under the right cup and win an identity! I think of who I am: a Korean heritage wedged between an Irish and a Swedish name, all equating to an American. Wife to a Caucasian man born and raised in Utah (add another name); it makes me wonder what of her is left in me? I’ve heard of psychological studies that reunite parents and children, separated at birth, who exhibit the same habits and mannerisms as each other, even though they’ve never even met. I wonder, when I crack my elbows, is there a woman in Korea cracking her elbows too? Does she hate the feeling of wet socks? Does she dance when she has to pee? Does she love the feeling of hot water on her feet? Can she sleep with the bedroom door open? What is Korean and what is just human?
Did they let her hold me before they took me away? Maybe she did not want to because there was too much pain in holding what you cannot keep. Perhaps she was disgusted by the sight of me. The name she gave me was Soh Won, now my middle name. I’ve tried to discover the meaning of those words, but was unsuccessful until recently. I try to imagine that moment when she named me. Perhaps she was ashamed, perhaps guilt-ridden, exhausted after the exertion of birth and the stigma of the past nine months, and then from her lips came the last word in any language, Korean or otherwise, that I could imagine a woman in her circumstances saying. She called out and christened me Hope. This name and its meaning came down upon my head like a blessing from her lips. Her life as she saw it at that moment may have seemed hopeless, and perhaps she saw me as her hope to change all the bad to good, that karma would somehow find her. The love that she lost, the grace, the honor, the hope. The name is a responsibility. Hope is what she gave me—both to fulfill and to possess. She gave this same gift to a woman across the world, who prayed for children but could not have them. I think of this woman who gave me life, who gave me the best of what little she had to give, and I wonder, if she saw me today would she be proud? Would she see in me all that she may have seen 22 years ago? If she could see my life and all the love that I have experienced--the love of friends, of family, of men, of God--would that restore love to her? If she could see my own mistakes and sins, my own pleadings and forgiveness, would that restore her grace? If she could see what little I have made out of my life so far, would that restore her honor? If the world could become a crystal ball, and from the milky, swirling mists she could somehow divine my future, would she find what she was looking for? To this she answers me in her own words, with what I know of a certainty she possessed. To me she says, I can only hope.
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