I remember thinking I'd go on forever knowing that one day I'd once again see all the people I've lost along the way -- my college roommate, who died in a tragic accident a year after we graduated, my best friend, who passed away from breast cancer at the ripe age of 27, my first vocal coach, who made me realize that if I breathed from my gut I could sing a high A, and my grandmother. While they were here with us, I always thought they were too good, too divine, to be of this planet. So, it seemed almost written on the wind that they would move on to another place before I was ready to say goodbye. I think of them whenever I marvel at the depth and fragility of humanity. I daydreamed about them often when I was in Seoul, Korea last month searching birth and adoption records for some part of my history to bring my existence full circle.
During my time in Seoul, my life flashed before my eyes multiple times, and I recalled a few close calls I've had. Suffice to say I flirted with danger quite a bit when I was younger. Why? You could say I was in constant search of life-affirming adventure. Some would call it being naive and lucky. I don't disagree, but I like to think of the outcome as a result of being loved and protected.
Though I've calmed down a bit, every now and then I need something or someone to rip me from the sky. Fortunately, when this happened in Seoul I had a soft place to land, which was in the hands of Molly Holt, the chairperson of Holt Children's Services of Korea and the daughter of the late Harry and Bertha Holt, the founders of Holt International. Molly's spirit, kindness, and tenacity remind me of my aforementioned loved ones who have passed on -- my guardian angels.
As angelic as she is, it's clear that Molly is meant to be on this planet, in Korea to be exact. We met on a blue-skied Friday afternoon just northwest of Seoul in Ilsan, where she resides in a community of orphaned Koreans, many of whom are adults living with physical and mental disabilities. Sick with cancer and shingles and moving delicately, she answered the door to welcome my friend and interpreter Hyeonsuk and me into her home. I felt undeserving in her presence.
Dedicated to working with orphans, Molly arrived in Seoul on October 3, 1956 and has been there ever since. We talked about her time in Korea, Korean adoption laws, Korean family values, and the Korean government. It seems that while a lot more Korean mothers are abandoning their babies, the government doesn't allow this information to be known. The government doesn't want anything interfering with their new laws.
"There are good things are them, and there are difficult things," said Molly. "It always seems like laws seem to be that way."
"At least your government hasn't shut down," I said.
"The trouble is that mothers that used to come to us and other agencies to relinquish their babies, they have this seven-day business. They have to put it on their family registration, and they just abandon their babies instead of that. When the abandonments take place, the government just closes off information to that. We have no idea how many [babies] are being abandoned. We used to be able to adopt abandoned children. You weren't abandoned but..."
"I was told I was left on the police station steps the day I was born, but it turns out that's not the case."
"For goodness sake. Is it written in your documents?"
"No, let me get my file for you."
I showed her the medical chart that the foster home sent to the U.S. with me when my parents received me. It was signed by Dr. Cho, who was sitting next to Molly.
"That's my signature," said Dr. Cho in a thick accent. "That's me."
"Wow," I exhaled. "After all these years, the paper is still in tact and so are we."
I reached into the file to pull out another document. This one displayed my foster mother's name and picture. The counselor at the adoption agency in Seoul gave it to me. The American arm of Holt International, which is now separate from Holt Korea, didn't have this information. The representative I spoke with in the U.S. said most records from the "70s were lost. Once again, the answers were not lost. They were simply disconnected or buried.
"Our foster mothers in Seoul love those babies," said Molly. "It's a precious sight to see."
I was hoping to meet my foster mother and my natural mother. I still am. I found out my natural mother gave birth to me when she was 39 years old, and that she didn't abandoned me; she relinquished me. And well...that's more than I knew a month ago before I arrived in Korea.
Thanks to my dear friend Hyeonsuk, a reporter with Yonhap News, South Korea's largest news agency, wrote a piece about my trip to Seoul. We're hoping if anyone has any information about my foster mother or natural mother, they'll reach out to us. I'm still in touch with my adoption agency, even though I have yet to hear back from them about how I can fill out paperwork to request that the Korean government do a search for my birth mother. If anyone from Holt Korea is reading this, I'll be calling your office next week.
When I decided to go to Seoul I told myself that my intention was to thank the person who saved my life. By the end of the trip, I was able to thank two -- Molly and Dr. Cho. It was one of the most life-affirming experiences I've ever had, and I didn't even need to jump out of an airplane.
Underneath all the bravado I've touted, I've always felt that something was missing -- that some piece of my heart wasn't there. I've been profoundly insecure and utterly immature. In my quest for adventure and answers, I didn't see that I was enough. It took trudging my way through a dark, unfathomed cave to discover what I've had all along. I've had guardian angels who I still call on and learn from day to day. And I've had three mothers -- my natural mother, my foster mother and my Mom. This is the new triple threat, the beginning of my new story.
Not every child who is adopted is as fortunate as I've been. Some babies are adopted by abusive families, and sometime these individuals never recover. The activist group ASK (Adoptee Solidarity Korea), which co-founded by my friend and filmmaker Tammy Chu and a group of adopted Koreans living in Korea, was created to address problems linked to overseas adoption. It's mortifying to know that there are defenseless children in the world being put in the hands of danger, due to a fallible screening process. For this reason, organizations like GOAL strive to help ensure quality birth family search for adoptees and birth parents, and advocate and inform the public on adoptee affairs.
The search for my foster mother and natural mother has just begun, but the search for the missing piece of my heart is over.
I'd like to dedicate this story to all the great mothers of the world, particularly my Mom, Kay G. Rowley. Thank you for standing by me, for supporting me and all my crazy dreams, and for showering me with your unconditional love. I shudder at the thought of where I'd be if you and Dad hadn't chosen me. I move from city to city. I travel the seven seas. But I am forever your little girl in pigtails, as you are my eternal North Star.