Less than an hour after the brief Skype conversation with Arun and Anjali the advertised email with a handful of pictures pings into my meticulously curated inbox. I hate having unread messages in my inbox, it feels like dishes pilled on the counter, calling for attention, guilt by neglect. The normal nag of this red dot was tempered by my shear terror and disbelief of what lay beyond the click.
Friday, the day prior to the wedding, was busy with normal pre-wedding activities. Friends arriving, reunions ensuing, and I was quickly, and thankfully, too distracted by pie making and finalizing ceremony logistics to worry about what lay beyond the tap of my thumb.
It took me 10 days to open that email. Those 10 days were unremarkable in many respects. I felt the same existential angst about reunion I’d felt for years. Reunion still felt far away, like a concept, not a near reality. I rationalized ignoring the email by saying I didn’t have the time or emotional bandwidth to dig into what the email had to offer. Among these repressive and suppressive ignorances was the assumption that the contents of that email could do untold harm to me, or at the very least, would require all my emotional fortitude to withstand.
This undercurrent of suppression was joined by an almost panicky sense of terror. The terror resided in what I would later learn was a deep dread and fear of a total mental breakdown. I now believe that this fear is something that has shaped how I view my emotional capabilities throughout many aspects of my life. Living with the specter that one, very specific, experience could undo me entirely has led to a destabilization of how I formed and perform identity. This specter makes my emotional capabilities feel fragile and untested.
Fragile. Untested. Immature. Unpredictable. Naive. Juvenile. Unhinged. Incompetent. Unimaginable. Unfathomable.
I’ve been scared of reunion for as long as I have wondered about it. I’ve been scared what it might do to me. To conceptualize this potential I’ve created an emotional experience incomparable to anything I’ve ever experienced. The exceptionalization of this anticipated experience has served as a barrier in my ability to consider other forms of emotional trauma (death of loved ones, heart break, anxiety, depression, etc) as instructive to my abilities to cope with reunion. The lack of referential experience has made the possible outcomes of reunion feel dangerous. This narrative, somewhat unconsciously, has framed any level of reunion or re-connection with Indian family as a potentially earth shattering and emotionally traumatic event for me.
Part of this narrative relies on the assumption that in reunion there will be an emotional connection, innate, between myself and a relative (normally visualized as my birth mother). This connection, once reforged, would be so great that it would cause an emotional or mental breakdown. Even though I have moved beyond, at least intellectually, this assumption, I still believe it important not to read my visceral emotional response to a situation as the same as the emotional impact it may have on me long term.
Ten days later, I’m sitting in Dr. R’s office, anxious to share, but feeling defensive. I recount the news of receiving the Skype call and the pride I feel in my decision to share with my friends at the wedding rather than holding those emotions to myself, that act of selfish sharing feels like a triumph. I haven’t looked at the pictures yet, I explain. I’m scared, and haven’t felt the right opportunity arise to dig into this next step in the process. Dr. R asks if there was a reason I couldn’t open the email right then and there. It caught me off guard, so much so that I did’t have a rehearsed response. I mumble, “I guess I could” while slowly reaching for my phone.
As I wait for my little digital rectangle to recognize my thumb print it dawns on me that if I wasn’t going to engage with that email here in therapy that I most likely would’ve opened that email alone, at home, in my dark, although cozy, garden apartment. Maybe that wasn’t a good space for me to engage with this new information. Maybe therapy is a better alternative space. I tapped on the Gmail icon, my heart kicked up a notch as I scrolled through my unreads looking for Arun’s name.
I don’t remember if I was talking as I opened the email or if I read the email aloud, or if I even ultimately showed her the pictures. The email was short. No fluff, just a reiteration that they believed the woman they tracked down was my mother and that she denied my existence, or at least her role in it. There were four images attached.
It felt patently absurd that 20-odd years of waiting, wondering and speculating were about to come to a head through the simple act of opening a god damn email. I guess that is how shit rolls these days, but it feels ridiculous and out of proportion with the amount of effort/work required to get to this point.
There are five pictures attached. The first is of a typical brick/adobe finished home with a corrugated metal roof, white exterior walls and a clothesline hung across the front. The second picture was of a very old looking woman with a nose piercing and red garments. The third pictures contains the first woman and another smaller older looking woman. The last two pictures were of Anjali and what I’m pretty sure is the orphanage in Trichy.
I was quiet opening and scrolling through each picture. I then went back to pictures of the two elderly women. The one in the red clothing must be the one Arun said was her. It was strange looking at those pictures, trying to make sense of what I was seeing and it it ultimately meant to and for me after all these years. The first thing I remember thinking and saying aloud was, “I don’t recognize her.”
It felt shameful not to recognize the woman who brought me into this world. I felt guilty. The that the innate connection I’d prophesied was not fulfilled. Relief and disappointment swirled together.
Relief radiated throughout my consciousness. I swear my body eased up, I could almost feel tension releasing in my shoulders and back as I continued to share and dig deeper. I hadn’t broken down. I hadn’t imploded. My heart hadn’t exploded. My mind wasn’t in tatters. I was still there, as me, sitting in therapy like every Monday. This sense of relief has settled in and taken root over the months since first opening that email.
Over the past few months I’ve continued to probe this experience and it has led to a monumental shift in the way I see, perform, and recognize myself. As may have been predictable, yet obscured from my original vantage point, searching and the baggage I have carried with that process stretch far beyond the actual interactions with birth relatives or Indian culture.
This primary sense of relief comes from dispelling the notion that my identity is built on a corruption or fragility that could be upended through reunion. Although I have not actually entered into reunion, the act of seeing a picture of a birth relative feels like huge step in that process. It feels empowering to still be standing after that experience. I don’t feel invincible, but I do feel far more confident in m ability to continue to walk down this path without it wreaking havoc upon my emotional and psychological wellbeing and that feels like triumph.
I didn’t really address or unpack the whole, “not recognizing” an Indian person as being related to me here, but assure you the complications of that dynamic have not escaped me. This experience and the subsequent process that I am now living will accompany me for the rest of my days and I look forward to sharing more.