I began keeping a calendar in elementary school. Those squares, equal and even, gave me comfort. I marked each box with an “X” before bed, satisfying proof that I had made it another day. In this ritual, I methodically marched along in feigned command, able to combat the uncontrollableness of being in Korea one day and America the next or the unpredictability of an uproarious argument between my parents that cracked the walls of our glass house. Life is capricious, but calendars are predictable.
It was not until I adopted my oldest son that I learned that we have calendars inside our bodies, calendars that mark loss and pain better than any paper calendar could. During his first year with us, every month on the date he left his foster mother, his body rang out, an alarm for everyone to hear. At first, we tracked this phenomenon on our calendar, but after a few months, we stopped and let his body tell us the date.
Our family therapist explained that trauma is stored in the body, and that on the anniversary of significant loss or pain, our body will react without our conscious awareness. Though she was talking about our son, I felt like she was talking about me. Growing up, I had never been aware of my body enough to notice this in myself. I felt severed from my body, this foreign shell from oceans away. Like a hermit crab, I believed I was just renting a Korean casing until I could upgrade to a white one. However, with time, I worked to accept my body, and I began to notice each year, around various dates, heart palpitations would appear and sadness would snuggle in around me. When I began cross-referencing these times with dates of trauma in my past, they always matched.
So, with three adoptees in the house, our bodily calendar is like a minefield, little pockets of explosive emotions peppered around the squares of each month. Is today the day one of us left Korea for good, not our good, but for someone else’s good? Or is it the last day we inhaled our birth mother’s earthy smell, her breath, her skin, her sweat? Or is it our birthday, the day we are supposed to be celebrating ourselves but mostly feel the absence of her? Or maybe, as it is today when I write this, it’s Mother’s day, the day we think about our birth mothers, adoptive mothers, foster mothers and wonder how we can have so many mothers, but feel so unmothered at the same time? These days are notched in our bodies with bright neon flags, warnings to remind us of the explosions lying in wait, and as I look at our calendar I see a fluorescent sea screaming caution.
As any human ages, these days of loss begin to mount. I remember my grandfather telling me not long before he passed away, “When you get to my age, every day is the anniversary of someone’s death.” For those of us who endured loss early and often, we start that march towards a calendar filled with dark anniversaries at a young age. Maybe that is why adoptees have a higher risk for mental health challenges and that suicide is four times more likely for adoptees than non-adoptees.
And so what do we do with all these days, these damn days, marking our pain, stirring it up, letting it froth, boiling our nerves, threatening our health? The best I have come up with is cocooning tighter than ever with those who understand the complications of those days. We say no to the obligation, and yes to self care. We read, watch movies, eat nourishing food, and play. We try to find the simple joys that cannot be taken away, even by pain, like spying rabbits in the evening light, or laughing at our baby girl walking around in dad’s shoes, or cuddling with our dog who embodies unconditional love. Among the screams of caution, among the flags of loss, we find a cozy space to hide until the reverberations of that day’s explosion finally cease, until the calendar inside us tells us it is safe again.
On Anniversary Reactions: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/how-be-yourself/201609/5-ways-deal-anniversary-reactions
On Mental Health Risks for Adoptees: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00787-020-01553-0