Orphan: The Plural Form

We grow up hearing ourselves called Orphan. The word conjures, for some, images of dirty, ill-clothed children from the nineteenth century. Dickens. It is an old-fashioned word. Technically most Korean adoptees are not orphans — our parents did not both die in most cases.

As a side note, in Microsoft Word, “adoptees” is underlined in little red Vs that look like the stitching that ran across some of my dresses when I was younger. Word does not recognize the plural form of adoptee. When you control-click on adoptees, the first word in the drop-down list is Help. Then comes adoptee, adopters, adopted, adopter. For some reason, Add is grayed out in my list and I cannot add adoptees to my Dictionary. I can, however, Ignore All. Or AutoCorrect or click on Spelling … both of which bring me to the aforementioned list. How odd. When I typed refugees, amputees, tutees … they all remained unlined.

Orphan is a beautiful word. The first syllable or reminds me of gold ore, or simply the word or, which means the possibility of alternatives, the certainty that another choice is to follow the little word or.

It was my belief growing up that I was certainly from a poor mother who was from a poor country. My American mother told me that the poverty was so severe during the time that I was born in Korea that the government made it legal to abandon your child to an institution such as a hospital, police station, or social agency. She wanted to explain to me that my mother or parents made a socially sanctioned and even encouraged choice to give me a better life. This seems to be more or less true. The problem was that the story ended there. The story of my country’s struggles and my mother’s misfortunes began and ended there, rings around the planet-word Orphan.

Orphan is a beautiful word. The first syllable or reminds me of gold ore, or simply the word or, which means the possibility of alternatives, the certainty that another choice is to follow the little word or. English has so many of these tiny words and mean so much — and, the, an, if, so…

The word orphan probably comes from the Latin orbus, which means bereaved. I love how when you want to indicate the word itself you italicize the letters. The word gets dressed up, leans into the wind, gets seemingly darker, moves forward, speeds itself to mean The Word and not the word.

When you type in the word adoptee into the online Etymology Dictionary search, you get this: “No matching terms found.” But of course it’s from adoption, L. adoptare, “to choose for oneself.” Adoptee then implies that one has been chosen for someone else’s self.

Adoptee is a word that sounds unfinished. The long double ee sound resonates against the hard palate inside the pink, ridged cave of the mouth, the tongue lying down, the tip touching the back of the bottom front teeth, the jaws slightly open, the lips apart. The skull vibrates for just a moment after the sound itself is gone. It is a word that refers to a permanent exchange, it refers to the choice of the adopter, it defines the adoptee as an artifact, something created by the will of the adopter. The mother or father or parents do not have any word related to adopt attached to them. The best we’ve come up with is birth parents, biological parents, and more recently, first parents — except it’s usually just about the mother because the father in many cases is unknown, shut out of the exchange, or a hostile entity to the mother and unborn or born child. A unique scenario, perhaps with common features, exists for each mother, father, and child. It is an undeniable triangle, even if the child and father never meet.

This triangle has always seemed to me to be something like a miniature Big Bang. Matter exploding and drifting away from each other. I have no idea what happened to my mother and father — they may be married with other children, they may be married to other people, they may be single, they may be dead. What is more or less certain is that this triangle will never be reassembled. I don’t know if my father was able to “choose for himself.” I don’t know what factored into my mother’s choices, or if they were choices at all.

So, what are the adoptee’s choices? (There’s that red embroidery again, or perhaps it’s like a line of red ants carrying away a sliver of bread.) How is one to make sense of all of these ghostly relationships?

“How can I heal if I can’t feel time?” ponders Leonard Shelby in the Christopher Nolan film Memento. Shelby has anterograde amnesia, which means he is unable to make new memories and retain them. He remembers everything up to the concussion and traumatic event, or so he claims.

How can I heal if I can’t remember what it is I’ve lost? It is irretrievable, not only because I can’t find my Korean relatives, but because it’s in the past.

It’s already happened. It won’t ever un-happen.

I keep thinking that if I keep trying to get closer and closer to those non-memories that I will go back in time and change the course of events. But there’s nothing but blankness. A kind of blackness that fades outward, but it has a sound. It has the sound of a wall, a thick wall, and I can hear muffled voices on the other side. They are so close, if only they knew I was here, in this room.

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