In South Korea, the BBC reported, a rash of cases tore through a doomsday sect to one leader’s “deep regret.” In South Korea, according to the South China Morning Post, a sixty-three-year-old man died in a locked ward with no known family or friends—no one to be contacted about the matter of his ashes. The paper referred to his death as “lonely,” and it was not without poetry that it was observed the dead, weighing ninety pounds, “barely took up any space in this world.”
What my students would have seen in my house in March was the brick of fireplace façade and never-removed Christmas garlands. They might have seen that their professor’s provisional kemptness was ceding to distinct unkemptness. I considered whether the life of the woman who had given birth to me was a flagrant one, one whose disappearance would be in some way regarded. Might this wondering, I wondered, amount to the whole notice of her death?
Would there be anyone to contact about the matter of her ashes?
The mother who had kept me and the father who had kept me were in Massachusetts. Early in the pandemic, there was a case of the virus in their building, and I sent raging text messages to the building management company that had not sanitized the halls as promised. The mother who had kept me had taught me a particular manner of confrontation that will be familiar to Boston stock, the kind that women teach their daughters when someone cuts ahead of them for a Market Basket parking spot when they have a couple of hungry kids, a bad case of fibromyalgia, and a Nor’easter coming. The tone of this manner of confrontation was: “Mess with mine and you’ll be sorry,” and usually everyone was sorry, and no one was apologetic, and though I’ve often thought I’ve abandoned it, there are moments still when the old heat comes to my face and in a sort of temporary amnesia I believe that my righteous fury can fix it all.
“What is wrong with you?” I asked when the mother who kept me said she’d tried to go to church. We were supposed to keep each other safe by staying away.
By the end of March, South Korea had flattened the curve. In New York City, now the epicenter of the pandemic in the United States, Dr. Colleen Smith told TheNew York Times that Elmhurst Hospital had procured refrigerated trucks to store dead bodies. “We’re supposed to be a first-world country,” she said.
Under the governor’s orders, we were meant to remain inside unless our movement was “essential.” We were immobile, but the dates somehow still moved. In April, a friend called from Berlin and asked me to check on an ex-girlfriend, a woman I’d never met, to whom other faces, reachable, touchable faces, were nearly medicinal. Failing to drink herself to death, she had declared she was now going to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge. The ambulance reached her before I did.
I was thirty-three, unmarried, childless, and already prone to eating microwave burrito lunches for days on end. Little of what I did was “essential.” What I did was read articles about people who had made the kinds of choices that mean you’re not “supposed” to die alone dying alone. I imagined their confusion in those last moments, strung up by a question: Why have you forsaken me?
When I say that it recently occurred to me that one of my mothers might be dead, it is accurate, but it is not all. Such a thought had occurred to me many times before, and though there must have been some resulting emotion, I had never been able to determine what it was. Many other strangers had died during my lifetime, and outside musings on the tragic brevity of human life, I could not reason why her death should strike me differently. I had not known, anyway, if I’d know when this death happened, or whether it already had. I had not known what it meant to lose an absence, if a deepened absence mattered.
For most of my life, what I knew of my birth mother was what the mother who’d kept me and the father who’d kept me had said: My birth mother was five-foot-seven, and I was born in Seoul.
I was not born in Seoul. I was born at the Song Obstetric Clinic in Taejon-city, Chungchongnam-do, according to records held by the Eastern Child Welfare Society. My birth mother was 160 centimeters tall, approximately five-foot-three.
These discrepancies might be attributed to many factors, but I think it’s not unfair to say that the mother who kept me and the father who kept me and I had all accepted a mode of vagueness by which my given name, Seon Ah, could become my middle name in America—and later, when I was beside myself with confusion over how to complete the ethnic origins part of my family tree school assignment, could become “Shauna,” a name which the mother who’d kept me pointed out was Irish, so obviously, I was Irish, though no one at school believed this and that, too, made me beside myself. We accepted this mode of vagueness, presuming it to be unconditional love. In unconditional love, there was no space for petty details. The detail that mattered was we chose to be a family.
In another interpretation, our vagueness could be seen as a condition of love. But the interested parties would deny it. The mother who kept me would recall how once, when a taxicab driver began saying abusive things to her, I, a child then, stamped my foot down hard against the floorboard, shouted, “Don’t talk to my mother that way,” then immediately began crying and the driver let us out of the car, and we ran down the street in our mutual bulldog protectiveness. There is this, too: When I was an adolescent and we disagreed, the mother who kept me would say, “I’m the mother” and “You got it so bad? Save it up and tell it to Oprah. Tell her what a rotten mother you had.” I never said the thing you might expect in these situations; that is, I never said, “You’re not my real mother.” The detail that mattered was we chose to be a family.
But what about the matter of her ashes?
For most of my life, what I knew of my birth mother was what the mother who’d kept me and the father who’d kept me had said.
The truth is that for much of my life, I’ve circled around people who do think the details matter, people to whom the notion of biology’s significance is immaculate of doubt. I am thinking of my friend, a mother of two, who implored me to admit that blood holds meaning, that there is an immutable and inimitable connection between a mother and the child she births. I needed to remind her: “I wouldn’t know anything about that.”
You know everything, the father who kept me said once when I asked him a question. The question was what he believed happened after death. In heaven, he predicted, you know everything, the full contents of every book ever written, the minds of every genius. Anything you’ve ever wanted to know.
At the time, we were living in a rental house in Amherst, New Hampshire. My brother and I slept on blue striped mattresses that folded into mushy chairs. The family owned a CD player but only two CDs: an Andrew Lloyd Webber Greatest Hits album and a piano sonata compilation. In melodramatic moods, I sometimes listened to Rachmaninoff on the latter and considered the possibility that death was total knowledge, and when I did, I tried to think up what I would want to know about the mother who did not keep me. I did not even know how to know what I wanted to know.
If it is true that I have wondered recently about whether my birth mother has died or will die alone, whether she is dying alone currently, it is also true that I’ve done little to ensure an alternative. Many of those adopted want to know if their biological parents wanted them, which I’ve been apt to treat as materially insignificant information. I have never much been interested in wanting alone. Perhaps it is literal-minded, but I’ve tended to be more attracted to wanting enough to. And with regard to finding my biological parents, it seems, I have never wanted enough to.
Two years ago, after I’d moved to a new apartment, something did happen, though. I began vibrating one day. It began simply enough, with the sense of remembering I’d forgotten something. I remembered I’d forgotten where I’d placed an object. I looked around the apartment, and there was white light, and there was a bird of paradise plant, and there was the wool pelt hung across a chair. There was the beautiful black dog, a denim quilt, a shelf of books I loved. But I was vibrating with loss.
What I’d lost was a folder.
I’d found it in my family’s home when I was in college. It was only a slim, green folder with seven documents, including my Korean passport and a letter from the Immigration and Naturalization Service of the United States Department of Justice. The folder was what protected papers stating that Seon Ah was somehow “a cute and mild-tempered Korean baby girl” at around two months of age but also one who’d “push herself upward when crying bitterly . . . in a loud voice.” This folder was how I knew that my mother was 160 centimeters tall, that I was born not in Seoul but Taejon-city, and that my biological parents had been, according to the Eastern Child Welfare Society, “in much troubles caused by bio-father’s untruthful life attitude and disparity in characters.”
If the documents were missing, it did not mean the information within them was, and it was not lost on me that the phrase “disparity in characters” had offered more questions than explanations. Yet when I could not find the slim green folder, I vibrated, and I opened things, and I threw things. I opened and threw things until I remembered that the folder was not gone. I had hidden it away in a box to keep it safe.
When I found the papers that recorded how Seon Ah “tries to hold up her head but feels uneasy,” however, I did not do anything except lock them away again, this time with previous years of tax returns. I thought, contrary to the terms of my new lease, it was not unreasonable to sit quietly on a fire escape bowing from broken flower pots and hanging wires, believing: Wait long enough and you will know what is right for you.
Applying language to paper has become the way I know how to approximate clarity, and so because I did not know what to make of the vibrating, what had caused it, or where to put what had caused it, I sometimes imagined writing a book about a particular man and a particular woman who I did not know. I had written about other people. Some were famous and some were not and some were made up, and the ones who were real sat across from me, answered my questions, and then, when time had passed, there was a story about my idea of their lives. It was not, then, a flight into pure fantasy to imagine writing about people I had not met who lived in another country. I imagined it like a noir in which the mystery was a birth instead of a crime.
But to begin is never simple.
Many of those adopted want to know if their biological parents wanted them. I have never much been interested in wanting alone.
For a while, I imputed to knowing more feeling with more acuity. I had thought that with sufficient information, I would know what to write, and then I would know what I felt. I had thought if reasons accumulated, some balance would tip, the arrow would point north. I wrote to the people who would know, and they wrote to me.
Dear Tracy O’Neill
Neither of the birth parents’ addresses can found. There is information about them in the file, but they are not found at all. KAS could not find them by the second try. We feel sorry for this disappointing outcome.
We wanted to provide you with some additional information in the file : the birth father was a married man and had 2 children from his wife, the birth mother got divorced from her husband 5 years ago from you were born and was living alone while running a coffee house the birth mother had dated with the birth father secretly, who was a regular customer at the coffee house, later, she got pregnant. As she was dating just with the birth father. the birth father was running a farm and wanted to borrow money from the birth mother, so she lent him. But he seemed not repay her the money. The birth mother told everything to the birth father’s wife, therefore the birth mother received some of the money.
These are all we can give.
These are all we can give, the email had said. But, rather fancifully, I never believed the email was the end of what I’d learn. I had that long fount of ever more information as a theoretical resource, the delayed gratification.
Later, I mentioned to an acquaintance that I thought the email was “interesting.” We were having a drink that day. We were sitting at a table with an umbrella. He smiled as though he’d caught me.
“You sit here and speak of it, so cavalier,” he said. “It can’t be real.”
In fact, my attitude was real, but it was not cavalier. I simply believed that to seek connection was a matter of wanting enough to, which I believed manifested from knowing enough to. There was intrigue to a woman living alone. There were angles of life available to her that were not to women who’d made other choices, freedoms and shapes I could not fully identify. I had begun to wonder which happinesses the life of this woman living alone, the mother who did not keep me, included, but I was still not certain what this stranger’s happiness had to do with me.
Sitting across from the man who thought something in me was not real, I could see he presumed I would feel a connection to this stranger, that I would sense the stranger and I were suspended together in destiny by genetics, but I still didn’t feel anything I knew the name for. I decided that when I determined the name for it, when I pinned down a word for the feeling, if I did, then I would know how to act and I would.
And though every child lives with the imminent fact of their parents’ eventual deaths, I figured that if I ever wanted enough to, I would find one of my mothers, the one who did not keep me. I would remind her, “We’ve met once before.”
It was only after reports of the novel coronavirus in South Korea that I realized I might never learn what the mother who did not keep me thought about dying, or whether she wished to be remembered by me, the person who could not. It was only then that I wondered if she was afraid to die alone, and discovered I was afraid she was afraid.
I do not know what it means to die well, but I do know that dying alone is a common fear. I have heard it with frequency: I am not afraid to die, but I am afraid to die alone. We tend to construe the tragedy of death thickening in solitude. Sometimes this fear clings to the social orders of living people: Life has not been well-lived enough, which is to say familied enough, for anyone to be present at death. Other times, the fear relies on the sense that there is succor in company, even at the moment when an individual confronts the possible, irrevocable obliteration of their consciousness alone. And the fear can stop with itself, too. There are no further reasons behind it. There is simply the cold heat radiant in the stomach: indivisible fright.
As it happens, I am afraid to die, but I am not afraid to die alone. Though I love living amongst people—love a cocktail party, love a city, love the damp crush of a nightclub—I have never apprehended how dying amongst people offers any consolation. Still, I was moved when I read about the daughter who listened to her father dying for a day and a half on the phone. “The terror I’ve felt today is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced, and I can only imagine how hard it has been for you, Dad. I’m so sorry you are going through this nightmare,” she wrote on Facebook. Later, she recounted that in his final minutes, she spoke to him about her memories of the songs he once played as they sat around a campfire. She thanked him.
Would the mother who did not keep me wish to hear the grateful voice? Or would she, like me, be too afraid even to accept these final comforts?
Sometimes we wait to know the name of a thing in us and the name does not come.
For most of my life, I have not known whether the mother who did not keep me was alive, and I still don’t. It is possible this mother is a woman whose fortune is evident in the fact of her old age. She would be seventy-one or seventy-two now. She would be someone who in love has given things that were not returned, and she would have survived these losses. It is less simple to surmise whether she would harbor preferences about her death, or whether she ever thought: Wait long enough with a question and you will know what is right for you.
When we were first ordered indoors, there were jokes. Most writers I knew joked that they’d been socially distancing before the virus’s spread. It was a useful delusion to tell ourselves that being unable to see another face or hold a hand was more or less the same as choosing not to. That we would not have improvised new connections anyway. I believed that delusion, too.
Early in the pandemic, with that irritating gravitation toward positive cliché, I told myself that the country would collectively stay at home for a few weeks or a month. It would be a period to meditate on what we wanted enough to do. Then there would be a fresh start. Somehow along the way, I’d come to fancy my own vagueness as one with the zeitgeist. I supposed that social distancing might be a quiet time in which, finally, some clarity of thought could emerge: a name for a feeling, the sense of the correct action. But why?
Others did not need to think longer to know what to do. The mother who kept me wished to pray. A man in my circle wanted to take astonishing drugs in the seizing light of a club. And when I said that I’d wept reading an email subject line: “I would like to have a family”—from an institution working on behalf of thirteen-year-old Zyaier, who didn’t think a family required two parents, and thirteen-year-old Miah, who loved animals and hoped a family could be okay with her gender identity—a friend told me I’d be a good mother.
Every day of the pandemic, I have learned of different notes of isolation and helplessness. I read about the farmers who confess to feeling “truly helpless.” I read that death projections can make us feel helpless. I read a text message from a friend who snapped that of course nothing is new; nothing can be new when you don’t see anyone. Tomorrow does not present a fresh start.
In these days of lockdown, though, I continue to read the articles, because there are fewer ways to touch the world. I cannot take an airplane to another country. I cannot appear on someone else’s doorstep, or carry flowers with mourners to a grave. The mother who did not keep me is still an absence, but I no longer think that what we do is a matter only of wanting enough to. I think that sometimes we wait to know the name of a thing in us and the name does not come, and the possibilities, if they ever existed, close to our tardy recognitions, whether we are aware of it or not; and by the time waiting to know has become an answer, what is right for us may no longer be a choice.
Tracy O'Neill is the author of The Hopeful (2015) and Quotients (2020). She was a 2015 National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honoree and a 2012 Center for Fiction Fellow. Her writing has appeared in Granta, Rolling Stone, The Atlantic, the New Yorker, LitHub, BOMB, Narrative, Guernica, Bookforum, Vice, VQR,Austin Chronicle, and Catapult. She attended the MFA program at the City College of New York and the PhD program in communications at Columbia University.