In the final chapter of the Birth Siblings series, Whitney discusses the difficulties surrounding a birth family in reunion and how, because of her brothers, she almost didn’t go through with the first meeting.
I have discussed in previous posts in this series how my deep interest has always been in my birth brother(s). I was curious about my parents, too, of course, but I always wondered about my older brother in Korea. When I found out I had a younger brother, too, my fascination with the idea of birth siblings doubled. Along with that news, though, came confirmation of something I had been deeply concerned about. The boys had no idea that I existed. I had been a family secret for 23 years. What would that do to my brothers and their relationship with our parents? If, in the end, we didn’t get along and our relationship was isolated to one meeting, would it really be worth it to destroy the boys’ trust in their mom and dad? Was I making a selfish decision to satisfy my own curiosity?
I remember lying awake, tossing and turning, the night before I was set to meet the Jeons. I was thinking less about how I would react to the introduction and more about how I would feel if I were in my brothers’ shoes. I knew nothing about their personalities and could only guess at their thoughts. Would they be angry at Omma + Appa? Would they feel betrayed? Would they wonder why I was initiating contact after so many years? Would they hate me?
Would they be angry? Would they feel betrayed? Would they hate me?
The questions plagued me endlessly and, in hindsight, I am so glad that I only had 24 hours to prepare for that first meeting. I would have driven myself crazy if I’d had much longer to analyze the situation. Of course, that first chapter of our story has already been written. The meeting went fine. They didn’t hate me. They weren’t suspicious of me. They welcomed me with open arms. I did get to talk with Hyun-bae about it later on. I asked what the experience had been like for he and Seong-bae. He told me that the boys never communicated much when Hyun-bae was away at university in China. But once they got the news about me, they were texting non-stop. “What do you think? Are you OK? Can you believe mom + dad kept this secret for so long?” Hyun-bae said he thought the experience really brought them closer. The boys both went through a stage of shock > regret > anger towards Omma + Appa, but that process has long since been completed and our current situation is now just the new “norm.”
For me, there were a few complications after that initial meeting. I discussed in Part I the grand expectations I had for my older brother, which I now realize were quite unfair. Seong-bae has the personality of a typical eldest Korean son. He is not cold, but he is also not emotional. He is caring, but not overly demonstrative. I can remember being disappointed one particular weekend when I visited because I didn’t get to spend any time with Seong-bae at all. I was so fascinated with my “new” older brother but I failed to realize that he had a life that had to go on, too. I think he was away for a weekend visiting a friend, but I was so crushed that he wasn’t at home spending time with me. I remember meeting my friend and fellow English teacher in Seoul that Sunday evening to catch the train south back to our weekday workplaces. We were both listening to our iPods and relaxing on the hour-long commute home. As the James Morrison song Love is Hard came on, I watched a little boy and his younger sister playing with their toys across the aisle. I was listening to the lyrics as I watched them interact.
It kicks so hard, it breaks your bones.
It cuts so deep, it hits your soul.
It tears your skin, and makes your blood flow.
It’s better that you know.
Love is hard.
If it was easy, it would mean nothing.
The older brother was so careful and watchful around his little sister, making sure she was safe and jumping down to grab her toy whenever it fell down. I suddenly felt heartbroken that I’d never had that bonding time with Seong-bae. We had to try to forge a relationship now as adults, but was it 23 years too late? I was struck with grief and mourned that time I lost with my brother. I remember not realizing that I was weeping until my friend turned to ask me a question and showed such alarm on his face. “Are you OK?!,” he questioned. “Don’t you feel well?” I was embarrassed and quickly wiped my tears away. I smiled sadly and told him, “It’s complicated.” He caught my gaze and nodded his understanding.
During one of many late night talks with Hyun-bae, I learned how desperate my family’s financial situation had been twenty years prior. I was asking questions about his childhood so I could try to piece together in my mind an image of what I had not been around to experience for myself. I recall him lowering his voice and speaking tentatively. “Things were really bad back then,” he said. “Mom and dad probably don’t want to tell you that. But I remember that we couldn’t turn on the heat in the winter because it was too expensive. That house was so cold. We all had to lay together on the floor and huddle for warmth. It was terrible.” He went on to describe their filthy living conditions and how unhappy everyone was then. Our parents’ relationship was very tense and Omma even left for awhile. “I was such a sad boy,” he told me. The grief hit me again, strong and sharp. It seemed so unfair to me that my brothers endured such difficulty at such a young age. I should have been there to care for my younger brother. I should have had to huddle for warmth, too. I should have been able to sneak him extra rations of food off of my own plate. I should have just been there for him. The guilt was suffocating and the sadness so deep. “Ahhh don’t feel bad!,” he tried to comfort me. “That was before. Now, since you came back to our family, everything is so happy. Life is really better now.” That just made me cry harder.
I never know how to describe my relationship with my birth family. It’s so joyous but sometimes so sad. It is light but it is heavy. It is wonderful but it can be heartbreaking. It’s a dream come true but it’s not perfect. I guess it was best described on that southbound train five years ago…
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