By Katie Zdunek
My childhood was periodically sugar-free. Sporadic impulses led Mom to purge the house of junk food, disfiguring the pantry with Kix cereal and Nutrigrain bars. Kix tastes like cardboard spritzed with sugar water. In 2% milk, the thin coat of hope is rinsed off.
Mom hid secret stashes of candy. The “usual spots”: cabinets above the oven, above the fridge, and the top shelf of the cup cabinet. Hidden in serving bowls like contraband. I ate a few weeks’ worth of candy before the kitchen was dry.
I’d found a bag of Snickers under my parents’ bed once. That’s what made me think to go to their room. There was nothing under the bed. That’s why I looked in the sock drawer.
A manila envelope sat on top of the neatly rolled socks. There was no address, no indication of what was inside. I’d forgotten the candy. I opened the envelope and pulled out the contents. Faded typewritten ink read “05-18-93 12:35 PM”.
To my daughter Jee Youn,
It has been almost 10 months since you left.
When we were younger, my older brother and I wanted to switch middle names. Mom said no, our names were gender-related. It was foreign to us, like the Asian festivals our parents dragged us to before Mom found out she was pregnant with Christopher.
I hope you will not regret the decision I made for your life.
We grew up on Tom & Jerry Saturday morning cartoons, street hockey till snow fell. Mom stopped putting bows in my hair when I started pulling them out and losing them on the driveway.
My biggest concern is how you will accept my decision when you get to be my age.
Until I was 23, the letter was paper clipped and tucked away in a shoebox with my grandparents’ prayer cards and letters from my best friends. Opening it means opening up my chest. Every time, just for a second, I’m 8 all over again with too much truth in my hands.
I don’t want to justify what I did by saying it was for your happiness or because I loved you.
The file behind the single page letter was my family history and adoption information. Maybe twenty pages. I read them all. My parents were young and they were not together, the file said. I have a sister. She is a year older than me.
I don’t think it is right for a parent to give up their child under no circumstances.
My sister and I were placed for adoption at the same time. The file describes us as inseparable. The file says she always held my hand. One night we went missing, and they found us in a hallway, hand in hand.
But if I held on to you and yet was not able to do anything for you, I think that is not right either.
My birth mother came back for my sister. My file says after my sister left, I stopped talking. The first time I read this, I cried till I couldn’t breathe.
I hope you will learn to love others, grow up in a good environment and learn to think right. If you were by my side this would not be possible.
I was maybe roughly 20% of the minority population in my Catholic grade school. In high school, I was one of a dozen. I wonder if my birth mother knew about southern racism in the United States. If she ever worried about the chinks others would try to put in my armor or how heavy her decisions would weigh upon a toddler.
As you grow up don’t think you were abandoned or that I didn’t love you.
My adoptive family is Irish-Polish. Dad taught me how to count to 10 in Polish. I learned the jitterbug standing on the tops of his shoes. We biked to Dairy Queen in Middletown in the summer. He always got a chocolate-dipped mint bar.
Also you were too young for me to care for you alone. I will pray for your happiness.
Mom eventually came back upstairs and found me on her bedroom floor. I thought she was going to be mad. I heard my voice shake as I asked her why. She thought I was too young, but she didn’t argue when I took my history with me.
You will always hold a place in my heart. I hope you will do well and stay in good health.
I stayed mad for a decade. I went through so many phases before I gave myself permission to be. I re-read the letter when I was 18.
To my love Jee Youn, I have so few words to say.
If I saw my birth mother again, every last wall would come down. I never hated her. I used to look at the stars as a kid, like it was the only space we would share.
I will pray for your happiness from a distance and not forget you even though I could not raise you.
I have no memory of my birth mother, no pictures of my biological family. I have opportunity. I have 277 words that will always have me hanging on, framed on the wall of my bedroom.
You are a very happy and good child. Lastly I don’t want you to do anything that will hurt others, love others and don’t forget your smile.
I want to learn Korean before I try to find her. I don’t want an interpreter. Even if I have an awful American accent. I want to tell her, “I love you. I’ve missed you every day of my life.”