It’s All Relative is a weeklong exploration of all the different ways of being a family in the year 2019. With this in mind, we asked four writers to answer the question: What is a family? The answers will appear each morning.
The offer was kind, straightforward, nothing unexpected from my brother-in-law, yet it still managed to surprise me. He was going to southern Oregon to see friends that weekend. “Do you want me to check on your mom? See if she needs anything?”
My sister Cindy and her husband, Rick, live in Portland, a five-hour drive from the tiny town in southern Oregon (population: roughly 4,500) where my mother has lived — alone, for the first time in her life — since my father died. My dad had been gone only a few months; my brother-in-law knew I worried constantly about my mom from my home across the country. I told him he didn’t have to stop by to visit her — “but,” I wrote, “if you have time …”
I’m not good at asking for help. I grew up as my adoptive parents’ only child, and I’m used to thinking of them (why do I still refer to them in the collective?) as my responsibility, no one else’s. Certainly I don’t think it’s the duty of my biological sister or her husband, who are technically no relation at all to my adoptive family, to step in and offer assistance.
“It’s not a problem,” my brother-in-law said. “I’m happy to do it.”
“It’s so wonderful that you two found each other,” my mother said when I learned of Cindy 11 years ago.
People still say this to us all the time, as if our reunion were the result of pure chance, as if we just happened upon one another on the street. An intermediary retrieved my sealed adoption file and reached out to my birth family for me, a months-long process of petitioning and paperwork and bureaucratic hoop-jumping and waiting — and that was only after I spent years wondering if I’d ever have the nerve to search. Once we found out about one another, my sister and I began talking daily. My adoptive parents didn’t seem remotely anxious as Cindy and I grew closer and made plans to meet; they were excited for me. Sometimes I wonder if that was partly because the idea of sharing me with a sibling was so different from sharing me with another parent.
It’s now been a decade since I found my sister; since our correspondence and our first careful, hopeful overtures gave way to one visit, then many more. We’ve spent holidays and vacations together. Our kids are close. When we see one another, it feels like we’re recovering lost treasure.
For several years after our reunion, though, my birth and adoptive families remained separate, in my mind and in my life. I would go stay with my sister in Portland, and our father might drive from his house to see us; or I would fly into my tiny hometown airport in southern Oregon to visit my adoptive parents. I never attempted to combine the trips or get everyone together, even though they all expressed curiosity and a willingness — if not a pressing eagerness — to meet.
Logistics, geographical distance, were part of it, but not all. My relationship to each family was so different — one lifelong, the other brand-new; one based on choices others had made, the other on a choice I’d made — and I often felt as though I had yet to figure out my precise place in either. I had gained much through both adoption and reunion, yet I felt so conscious of the losses, too; all of my inadequacies, all the things I believed I lacked. I was still working to help my adoptive family understand my complicated feelings about my adoption, compounded by the fact that I was the only person of color in our family and had been the only Korean I knew growing up. And I never felt less Korean than I did when I was with my birth family, so aware of the heritage and history I’d grown up without.
I loved everyone, and I knew they all loved me. But it was impossible for me to picture my two families meeting or blending, spending time together as if we were one big family, because I didn’t feel like I knew or understood enough to be any sort of bridge between the two.
In the summer of 2016, my husband and kids and I made plans to fly across the country to visit my adoptive parents. That year my father had contracted a vicious infection, one that could have killed even someone not weakened, as he was, by dialysis. He eventually beat it, but only after an operation, aggressive antibiotics, and several weeks in the hospital.
I couldn’t allow myself to think seriously about him dying. Every time I tried, in the name of “preparing myself,” I got stuck on the childish No, it just can’t happen.
Still, I understood there was nothing fair about his illnesses. And I knew he wasn’t getting better. One day, before I was ready, my father would be gone. I kept thinking of the future visits I hoped to spend with him; all the time I’d missed already. The things I still wanted to say, to both my parents. One of them was, Mom, Dad, this is my sister.
So when Cindy and Rick offered to drive down to visit us in southern Oregon and meet my parents, I agreed. We spent the day together, watching my daughters and my niece run around and dip their toes in the creek near my parents’ house. As I watched my sister and parents make the friendly small talk of the newly acquainted, I could tell that my parents were both happy to meet Cindy, whom they’d heard so much about. They clearly liked her, trusted her, already — because she meant so much to me? Because they saw her as an extension of me?
Either way, it was a beginning, I told myself. We’d get more chances to be together like this. At least a few.
There is always that shocking moment after a loved one dies when you remember that grief rarely comes without a lengthy to-do list. Extended family members usually step in to help the people whose loss is greatest, organizing and planning and doing for those who are too shell-shocked from grief to do for themselves. But when my father died last year, I came to understand just how frayed the bonds within our extended family had grown, strained by time, distance, poor health, long years between visits. None of my dad’s four siblings were able to attend his funeral. My mother had only one sister present, and she was largely focused on my elderly grandmother, who experiences increasing dementia. My husband was there, too, solo-parenting our anxious, tired kids while I tried to be there for my mom.
We would have been so alone if my sister and brother-in-law hadn’t made the five-hour drive to be with us. They’d only met my adoptive parents once before, yet they were the ones who took time off work to make the trip, appearing just in time to support us — offering to run errands, assist my husband with the kids, pick up dinner, help me clean my mom’s house. They even cheered us a little, their steady presence reminding my grieving kids and me that we still had family who loved us. At my father’s grave site, after my mother and my husband and I had all taken turns dropping earth over his coffin, my sister and brother-in-law were next to take the shovel.
Before they left, they hugged my mom and told her to let them know if she needed anything in the weeks to come: “We’re not that far away, you know.” I could tell that my mom was touched as she thanked them and told them they were welcome any time. Suddenly it was so much easier to envision future family gatherings that might include all of us.
Ten years ago, when I met Cindy and we decided to be part of one another’s lives, I couldn’t have known she and her family would become such a steadfast source of support in all things, the kind you’re fortunate to receive from relatives you’ve known your entire life. When we buried my dad, I realized that my sister and her husband weren’t there to stand in the place of our absent family. They were there because they were our family. I’d known they were mine, of course, and I’d known I could count on them — I just hadn’t grasped that their love and care for me could be extended so easily, so generously, to my adoptive family.
I imagine that will have to be the bridge between my two families, if there is to be one. Maybe it never had anything to do with my ability to fit anywhere in particular, to prove I belonged in both families, or to be some kind of go-between, explaining and justifying one to the other. Maybe it had and has everything to do with their shared capacity to love, and their unflagging love for me.
Nicole Chung is the author of All You Can Ever Know.