The English language has more than a million total words, but somehow it is still not sufficient. There is no English word to describe the feeling of missing or grieving for a person you have never met. There is no word to describe how I feel about my grandparents in Korea, whose names I do not know, who gave my mom up for adoption for reasons unknown to her, but whose DNA makes up a part of me too. The mitochondrial DNA in your cells is passed only through the mother, which means that the mitochondria in Mom’s cells and in mine is from a woman we do not know.
Maybe my grandmother already had too many children and could not afford another mouth to feed. Maybe she was a teenage girl and got scared at the idea of being a mother so young. Maybe she was raped and did not want to raise a baby whose conception was not consensual. Maybe she is dead. I have thought of countless scenarios. Maybe my mom has too.
Mom never had a great relationship with her adopted mother. My adopted grandmother hates all things Korean. She says Korean food smells bad. She once asked my cousin, who is half Korean like me, if she wished she had blonde hair and blue eyes instead of Asian features. Why would she have adopted two Korean girls if she hated Korea?
Sometimes I imagine watching my halmeoni, my Korean grandmother, making mandu at the kitchen table. I only ever watch her from behind, because I do not know her face. I never hear her speak in my imagination, and even if I did, I would not understand her. I cannot speak Korean and it is unlikely that she ever spoke English. She is faceless, nameless, and mute, just scooping a ground pork mixture into a dumpling wrapper. My grandmother is merely a concept, but I miss her presence in my life.
My dad’s side of the family is huge. Whenever we visited his family in New Hampshire, we always saw my grandparents, great-grandparents, great-aunts and uncles, and second cousins. On his side of the family, I have experienced grief in the traditional definition of the word. I have gone to both my great-grandparents’ funerals, and I remember spending time with them when I was little. Every time we visited them, it was like my dad was a teenager again. His favorite pastime was prank calling his grandfather.
“Is your fridge still broken?” he asked my great-grandfather, who was on the phone in the kitchen while Dad was on his cell phone in the other room.
“Yes, I called about it last week.”
“Okay, well open the fridge door,” Dad said, trying to hold back laughter. My great-grandfather did as he was instructed. “Do you see the light going on and off when you open and close the door?”
“Yeah, I see it,” he said, continuing to open and close the fridge door at least ten times.
“Great, now look over in the living room. Do you see your family waving at you?” We all waved at him.
My great-grandfather hung up the phone when he realized it was the same little brat who had been prank calling him for the last thirty years. My great-grandmother was laughing so hard I was worried she might pull a muscle.
Their funerals were sad events, as all funerals are, but they had lived full lives, my great-grandfather passing away at ninety-five and my great-grandmother at ninety-seven.
It was my great-aunt’s death that really shook me. My Aunt Cindy was my grandpa’s younger sister, and she used to play Monopoly with me when we visited, and then as I got older, we used to talk about books together. She would read whatever book I was reading in school, and then we would discuss it over Skype when we were done. The last one we discussed was Romeo and Juliet. She died my junior year of high school a few months after my family moved to the Netherlands. We had talked about going to Germany and France and all over Europe with her, and she had been so excited to come. Unfortunately, a chronic illness she suffered from took her before we got the chance.
My nana — my dad’s stepmom — also died while we were in Europe. Her breast cancer had come back a second time, and this time, it spread to other parts of her body. Visiting my grandpa would never be the same after that. I was afraid he would die from a broken heart. Grief is usually an effect of death, but it can also be the cause.
Though I have experienced the loss of loved ones to whom I was close on my dad’s side, there is also a family member I miss whom I never met. Cindy’s daughter, Mary-Helen, was Dad’s favorite cousin. They were close in age and spent a lot of time together. Dad was an only child, and I suppose Mary-Helen was the sister he never had. From what my family tells me, Mary-Helen was smart and had a bright future. She wanted to be an interpreter, and she had learned to speak several languages in high school and college. Tragically, that dream of hers never came to fruition due to a sheet of black ice and a car that spun out of control one night in 1989. She was twenty years old.
Dad says that I remind him of her. Other family members have told me the same. In high school, I shared her love of languages. I wondered what family reunions would have been like had she not died. I probably would have liked talking to her. Perhaps she would have had children my age. Though most of our family reunions included at least fifty people crowded into some relative’s cramped house, there was always someone who mentioned how much they missed Mary-Helen. In a strange way, I missed her too.
When I first met my fiancé, Dan, he told me about his sister but did not immediately tell me she had passed away. I was excited that he had a sister, thinking that if I ever met her, we would be friends. I hear stories about Lisa from Dan, his mother, and his friends. They all say she was an amazing artist. I’ve seen her drawings and paintings at their mother’s barbershop and their father’s house. I’ve seen the handmade birthday card she made for Dan. It was half scrapbook, half birthday card, with photos of her and Dan as kids. She wrote little notes next to each photo, references to their childhood only the two of them would understand. I think Lisa and I would have understood each other’s primal, sisterly drive to take care of our younger siblings.
Once, at the beach, my siblings were playing in the shallow water when they were swept away by the undertow. They were small — my sister was only six years old, and my brother was maybe eight. I wasn’t very big either, just a scrawny seventh grader with spaghetti arms, but I swam after them without hesitation. It hardly registered that I was swallowing throatfuls of saltwater until I plopped my siblings safely in the sand. The only thing on my mind was making sure my little siblings didn’t drown. I know Lisa would have done the same for her little brother.
Out of all the people I feel secondhand grief for, I feel it for Lisa the most. I think it is because I have seen firsthand the effect her death has had on Dan. Nothing I say or do will ever take away the agony of losing his sister, and I wouldn’t want to take that from him anyway. I don’t want him to be in pain, of course, but as horrible as grief can be, it is proof that there was, and still is, so much love for the person who was lost.
There are days when I’ve wished I could talk to her. I wish I could have gotten to know her. I would have loved to spend the day with her at the MFA in Boston, or maybe do a weekend trip to New York and go to the Met. Maybe we would have hung out in my apartment while Dan was out with friends, and Lisa and I would make Korean food and drink wine and watch movies. I cannot say I miss her in the same way her family does, but in another universe, she would have been like family to me.
I don’t know if I believe that the dead can hear us when we talk to them, but if they can, then I want Lisa to know that I love her brother more than words can convey. I want her to know that whenever I am at her mom’s house, I always make sure to give Doksuni, her old cat, as much attention and affection as possible. I want to tell Mary-Helen that the family still misses her and remembers her. I want to tell my halmeoni that my mom has an American family that loves her. I want to tell them all that though I will not meet them in this life, in this universe, I hope one day we can meet somewhere.
Lisa, Mary-Helen, and my halmeoni are only lost to us, after all, not gone. “Gone” implies that they no longer exist. When I lose an earring, it does not mean that it has disappeared into nothingness, it merely goes on existing somewhere I cannot see it. It is not gone forever. Sometimes I’ll find an earring on the floor under my desk at work or under my bed after it’s been lost for months. When I was a kid, I read a quote in a Harry Potter book, spoken by Luna Lovegood, about how the things we lose have a way of coming back to us in the end, even if it’s not in the way we expect. The people we lose may not come back to us in the flesh, but they can always return in the stories we tell.
Madison Block has a BA in communications and journalism from the University of New Mexico. In 2018, she won the Albuquerque Authors Festival nonfiction writing contest. Her work has appeared or is upcoming in Korean American Story, The Nasiona, and Mom Egg Review. Madison currently lives in the Boston area and works in marketing.