Last year, while grieving the loss of her mom, adoptee Lee Henggeler discovered a box of adoption paperwork that helped her reconnect with her through the journey she took to become a mother. It also sparked an idea for a journey she herself would take to honor her late mom. This story originally appeared on Lee’s blog, thecampsarehere.com.
Deep loss can bring you face to face with what was missing when you thought you had everything …
A DARK PLACE
(written February 4, 2020)
On April 2, 2019 at 9:24 pm, a woman I had never met called to tell me my mom was dead. My husband, 4-year-old and I were driving on I-95, all our belongings in a moving truck, less than an hour from Charleston, SC — uprooting and relocating after eight years in Washington, D.C. to spend more time with Grama CeeCee. But just like that *snap* she was gone, and with her all of the time we had every intention of spending — and there was nothing we could do.
Losing her, and the timing, sliced deeply. Only three months into being a wife, and three years into being a boymom, I spent the next six months withdrawn from both roles, and often responsibilities, alternating between sporadic breakdowns, directionless anger, and other times just emptiness — really ugly kind of emotions that make people uncomfortable and keep conversations short because they sense you are fragile.
A lot of days that seemed the same went by and it was time to start “healing” (or so said my grief share booklet), but I felt stuck. Stuck and unable to move forward — any momentum felt forced. If I laughed, I felt guilty. Moments of joy seemed disrespectful, as if my judgey conscious was shaking her head saying, “so thoughtless of you.” Even the steady stream of condolence (useless word by the way) cards had stopped flowing in at some point, days maybe weeks prior, but I couldn’t tell you — I wasn’t counting.
After weeks of sorting through her things, I found a sealed container tucked away on a top shelf — pristinely preserved adoption paperwork. Every single transaction, pamphlet, piece of correspondence on an orphan, baby girl she held for the first time on February 6, 1987, all carefully packaged and chronologically ordered — that baby girl was me.
And for the first time since she died it felt like she was close, connected again through the things she had saved on her journey to becoming a mother for the first time. Within weeks of finding the records, and a building curiosity about the chain of events that led to my adoption, I opened a birth search attempt for my biological mother in South Korea.
For a while I couldn’t sleep — nightly insomnia — so I would think about how I ended up with my mom as my mom, the chance of my adoption. But seriously, how does it work? Was there an orphan order catalog? First come, first serve? A middle-aged lady with glasses making matches solitaire-style on an oak desk? I considered all of these … but the more I dissected it, the more impressive it seemed our paths ever intertwined at all given the odds — she was forever a part of my story, and I hers.
Deep loss can bring you face to face with what was missing when you thought you had everything. And I began to see the root of the pain was not so much the quantity of time cut short when she died, as it was the mediocre quality of the time I spent with her when she lived.
My mom was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes at the age of 12, and that terrible disease was something she managed meticulously the rest of her life. For as long as I can remember, she never ventured more than a few reasonable miles from her home, and when she did it was out of necessity. She spent over a decade maintaining her residence, fortifying the bunker, perfecting every process possible so she could ‘live’ as efficiently and independently as possible… She was on a first-name basis with the UPS delivery man and he would regularly change expired light bulbs.
I wish I had less memories of her eccentric, impressive survival methods and more of her with her only grandson — he deserves to know her, she was a brilliant Ph.D. I wish she would’ve taught me about watercolor shadowing looking at real snow-capped mountains instead of a printed picture from the internet — she was a gifted artist. I wish more than anything she could’ve been with me, just present, when the pregnancy stick read positive and I was terrified, when supportive friends threw us a baby shower, or the day Camon came into the world, or when Andrew got down on one knee and our son was holding a ring, or the first time I tried my wedding dress on, the bridal shower, ANY of Camon’s three birthdays — but she didn’t, she couldn’t… Those moments never happened.
How typically do we alter our path in life outside of our immediate circle of circumstance? Evaluating my own life… never really. We do a thing and it leads to this thing, or another slightly better thing, maybe we switch up little things, but what about the really big things? What about the big things that you dismiss as unrealistic because they go against the grain of traditional social norms, that you write off as childish or irresponsible given the stable, promising professional career you’ve procured, that you simply just brush aside with the justification of “it’s not good timing”… What about the ‘maybe one day’ things?
What if you spend your whole life working towards that ‘one day’ when you’ll go to that island because you want to see water clearer than diamonds, or that ‘one day’ you’ll visit that national park because you love mountains, or ‘one day’ that isn’t even monumental or grand — just ‘one day’ where your life is finally in perfect order so you can focus your attention on people who have been waiting for it all along… But then you never make it there?
What if your ‘one day’ could’ve been any day, a hundred times over if you had only made it so?
… and right there, the spark turned into fire.
MAYBE THE PATH FORWARD, IS A NEW ONE
Time. The most precious, finite resource in existence. You only have so much, how much you don’t even know with certainty, and however you spend it, no refunds, no exchanges, no do-overs.
When I look at my husband and son, I want to give them everything (standard feels for wifeys and mamas, we say it all the time) but beyond the necessities of food, water, a roof, security, etc… What is that exactly? What do I have to contribute? After crafting multiple iterations of my personal definition of ‘everything’, I’ve concluded that every single thing of real worth, not value, that I have to offer the most important people in my life cannot be purchased.
Being truly present in moments and not just milestones, creating and nurturing the small connections, seeking new experiences and learning together, finding and partaking in lots of genuine laughter, even moments of weakness — rich and full minutes in exchange for one poor and empty hour.
… And if I’m honest with myself, I’ve fallen short of giving that everything to Camon.
When I think about the time I spend with him, I can easily recall pockets of quality time, but that’s just it — pockets. With close to four years having flown by, I imagined more than just pockets of real time. After talking to my husband, I found he felt the same — both about his time with Camon and even our time with each other.
We realized we do just enough to get through the day. Just enough parenting, just enough acts of love, just enough family time, throw-in-a-spontaneous-trip-for-ice cream-to-make-the-day-special, to get to tomorrow and we always feel behind. The constant pressures of adult-ing, careers, personal goals, peripheral interests and hobbies — pressures we choose to put on ourselves, convinced they’re good things — they all chip away at the integrity of the time we have together.
In our grind, with the focus on whatever it takes to get to the next thing, to check the next box, to get to that ‘one day’ where we’ve finally achieved success and the key to a comfortable family life… We’ve lost sight of the journey and the joy inherent within it — just like my mom.
How do you get off of a train that is powering full-steam ahead? Where do you find a clean slate, a reset button? How do you deconstruct a routine you’ve spent years building and start over in favor of something more selective — choosing to give 110% to a few things rather than 60% to ten? What would our life look like a few years down the road if we chose that path?
So exactly six months from today, the path we take forward will be a new one — ten months, 64 countries, just us three. We’ll pause careers (caveat: there was a lot, a lot, a lot of consulting and ideating with the hubs before anything was realized… more on that later), familiar suburban life, literally everything we’ve known, to GO and DO and SEE and LIVE a little more, together.
Amazingly, the search for my birth mom has continued to progress through stages despite the fact a high percentage of search cases are closed immediately after inquiry — search success stories are rare. But who knows what the months ahead will bring. I’m starting to believe anything is possible.
So if you’re watching, Mom, we did a big thing — we made a fam journalog and we’ll fill it to the brim with quality time and share it with others. If you keep watching, Mom, then soon we’ll do that even bigger thing — instead of a ‘one day’ it’s only ‘182 days’ away and counting down as we speak.
If you’re watching Mom, I wish I could talk to you about ALL of this in person (I know I will one day) — this one’s for you.
SO MUCH CHANGE
(update written February 4, 2020)
Well COVID-19 happened… It’s still happening.
Uncertainty, disruption, isolation are all too familiar words and it’s hard to believe that in a matter of months the world, daily life, everything has changed.
Our family journey is up in the air. In the early days of the spread, we spent hours negotiating, re-booking, formulating backup plans for scenarios A, B, C, D, but within a week we had to step back because things were too unpredictable. We’ve been mentally preparing to forego a part of the trip, or worse, the entire journey. The only certainty is that COVID-19 will impact our plans and that has been extremely tough to swallow. These next couple months will be critical in revealing what we can salvage from the itinerary we poured ourselves into creating, if anything at all.
Yet, even in the face of everything unknown, we’ve surprisingly found what we needed most… right in our home.
This past week, my manager asked our team to share one silver lining of quarantine to wrap our weekly Webex call. And as I waited for him to cue my turn, the more I thought about it, the more I realized it would be a challenge to choose only one…
You see, in quarantine, what started as a restriction evolved into more and meaningful time together. Quality time. In quarantine, we’ve found we can do just as much, sometimes more, with a lot less and a little creativity and imagination. In quarantine, we’ve found that a lot of things have happened that would not have happened otherwise — at first just little things, but then noticeably bigger things.
Food in the back of the pantry came out of hiding and went into meals eaten as a family at a previously neglected dining room table. We’ve spent less time on social media and more time reading books or playing games. We’ve become less dismissive of the little things, things we took for granted, and more appreciative of everything else — sunshine, fresh air, a hot latte from a local coffeehouse.
Camon and I built a snowman with a real carrot nose in the middle of the workweek. On a Tuesday, we made chocolate chip pancakes with Mickey Mouse ears for breakfast, which prior to quarantine, would’ve been granola bars in the car at best. We’re more rested, more engaged, more present in each day than we’ve been in a long, long time — it’s refreshing. In quarantine, life has become less about what we can get and instead, more focused on what we have, at the heart of it all, each other.
For the first time in a long, long time, we can breathe. Corona has brought isolation and uncertainty to our doorstep, but it has also given us a reset button, the fresh start we needed, the moment we’ve been looking for to refocus, re-center ourselves, and our lives, on what is most important — the quality of our time together. These uncertain, indefinite times are difficult and horrible in a lot of ways, affecting so many, but I cannot help feeling immensely thankful for the silver linings we’ve discovered. And I truly hope that some of these treasures we’ve unearthed in quarantine will continue to stay with our family when all of this is over.
As for our journey, it will happen, we believe it will come to be… It’s just the when begging a little flexibility given the circumstances. For so long, Mom remained close to home believing it was best for her health and now, here we are, five weeks into doing the same as is most of the world we planned to see… The irony isn’t unacknowledged.
And yet, a lot can change in 107 days. Heck everything could change, and in even less time, so maybe we will find ourselves leaving on August 3, 2020 as planned… But even if our journey doesn’t start right on time, we’ll continue to be hopeful in our hearts, living forward toward our big “one day thing” because someday we’ll look back on our big “we actually did that thing” knowing it honored my Mom, and her memory, in best way we knew how.
Lee Henggeler | Holt Adoptee