There is only one video I am aware of, of my father. I am sure there are others, but only one I’ve seen since he died over 14 years ago. The video is of my sister, when she is in middle school or early high school, interviewing my father about adopting me.
The night before leaving for India, I watched the video. I oftentimes forget the video exists, similar to how I forget my father has died. When I do remember it exists I’m reluctant to watch it, worried it will send me into a more reclusive place than I already am. This evening feels different. I’m searching my files for pictures of myself. Pictures that I can leave or share with Sarai. I’m looking for baby pictures, adult pictures, anything that will represent me to someone I’m hoping to meet for what feels like the first time.
It is a peculiar project, trying to figure out how to present yourself to someone who is supposedly your mother. I want her to recognize me. I want pictures that resemble the son she had, or has, I guess. Claiming her as my mother and me as her son is difficult, it is unfamiliar and I can’t help but feel that those titles and roles have already been assigned, or maybe reassigned in my life. “Do I have space for another mother?” “Do I want another family?” These questions are absurd. The situation is absurd. It feels like betrayal to even question whether or not I have space or want reunion. I was not given a choice in separation from Sarai, but I am now being given a choice in reunion.
More than wanting her to recognize me, I want things to be easy for her. I want her, if she ever sees the pictures I’m picking out, to be able to know, without effort, if the person staring back at her is her son. I am still unable to recognize the woman in the pictures that Arun and Anjali shared with me as my mother. It doesn’t bother me, not recognizing her; as I’ve written before, it was incredibly relieving in a way. I don’t imagine her experience being similar, given the opportunity. I imagine myself in the shoes of a parent and the pain I might feel if I were unable to recognize my child. Relationships and connection are deeper than the ability to recognize each other; nonetheless it feels important to select images carefully. I want to make a good first impression.
I’ve been advised by a friend, one of my former professors who is South Indian, that it is best to leave pictures just of myself, not of my family or friends. That guidance feels right, it feels sensitive. Seeing pictures of me with a white family might be surprising or confusing, so keeping it simple, just me, feels safe. I asked my mom for pictures of me as a baby, thinking that it might be good to include pictures of me as young as possible along with any adult pictures. I pull out a dozen pictures, most of them are of my family, not likely suitable for this particular task but ones that feel meaningful to me nonetheless.
One is a rare image of the four of us just after I arrived from India. My father and mother standing side by side, my father holding me on his right hip and my mother holding my sister on her right hip. The smiles look effortless, genuine. My mother and I are wearing almost matching red sweaters and have inconspicuously similar hair cuts. My father is in worn out blue jeans, faded, the threads washed out from use and time spent in the sun. A button down shirt with a t-shirt peeking out from underneath the unbuttoned top button, carefree, not careless. He is wearing a baby blue cloth belt with a black plastic clip, which I don’t recognize. I have one of his belts; it is black, leather, cracking, with a metal buckle and the Red Wings logo pressed into one end, barely visible. For the first time, I realize this picture must’ve been taken near our house, on the gravel lane that winds its way for just over half a mile, hugging a rails to trails bike path, horse pastures beyond the trees on both sides. Halfway along, The Lane, as we call it, veers away from the bike trail and winds past a now open field where a neighbor once drove his truck out onto some ice and predictably got stuck and needed to be rescued. Retracing The Lane in my mind I still sometimes see the little red rusted Toyota stuck on the ice in the middle of the field, and I remember the mixture of excitement and terror arising in me at the sight. Excited that an adult would try something so daring and scared that someone I know might be hurt.
Other pictures include a few of me presenting to City Council, in a tie and full suit, speaking at a podium, looking quite official. I wonder how much these look like me, which is a funny thought, trying to look like yourself in a way that will be recognizably you to someone who hasn’t seen you in 28 years. There are a few pictures of my sister and niece which are adorable but don’t include me and likely would just be confusing if included in an initial package of items.
I click on the video file in my Google Drive, a hovering red icon, a smooth tiny depiction of a clapper board. The video was taken of my sister interviewing my father with my grandfather’s old video equipment, some time in the early 2000s, possibly 2001. He is seated on a dark blue love seat closest to the camera and she is nervously rocking back and forth in a lighter blue Lazy-Boy. They are in my paternal grandmother’s home. My father’s posture looks somewhat unnatural, rigid and not relaxed, possibly because ALS has already begun to degenerate his muscles, slowly reducing his flexibility, dexterity and mobility. More likely his posture was rigid because being on camera was awkward, especially for him. I imagine him feeling unsure whether or not to look into the camera or concentrate on my sister. Unsure who was the real audience.
He is wearing a short-sleeved button down, one that I kept after he died. I haven’t worn it as frequently as some of the others. This one is faded, striped light colors with a pink hue. They are facing the camera, not each other. Occasionally my father turns his head, slowly, to look at my sister, or she sneaks a glance at him, knowing the camera is catching her every move. My sister seems nervous. Perhaps she feels the pressure of the school assignment, knowing the coming interaction will be judged by her peers. I suspect she is more nervous about being filmed and having classmates see her on film, talking to her eccentric father who rarely makes public appearances at her school activities. Her questions are specific and clearly thought out beforehand. She is a tough interviewer, prodding my father for specificity when his responses are unsatisfactory or she senses an omission. I am reminded, listening to her maneuver around my father’s roadblocks, of her ability to draw stories out of people. I am envious, particularly now, realizing how much more she knows about the lives of family who are no longer with us: my father, three grandfathers, two grandmothers.
I am thankful for her prodding: it reveals more than I would have gotten had I been in her place. The tape runs for about 45 minutes. There are a few blips where my grandfather can be heard asking for brief pauses to fiddle with the camcorder, changing a tape or adjusting a setting. Watching this video the night before returning to India feels significant in many ways. Not being able to talk with him throughout this searching experience has been hard. Not only do I feel unmoored, drifting at times, but he is the only person who was with me throughout the transfer. With him died details about my journey, just as details of my birth died with the adoption. Perhaps the details still exist, floating in the ether around us, bumping into other lost details in a parallel space. A space that resembles our world but acts as a purgatory for lost details, occasionally recalled back into the world of the living, reappearing, aged, familiar, fatigued and imprecise.
This time as I watch I focus on the 15 or so seconds where he recounts an alternative birth origin story to the camera, alternative to what the paperwork says. After he and I had become acquainted and I had warmed up to him, we left Trichy and spent a few weeks in Delhi, staying at a nursing home while my visa and passport paperwork was completed, the final step needed in the transaction, allowing me to move across borders. In the nursing home, as the story goes, some members of the staff seemed to recognize me as a baby, which doesn’t make sense if I was born in southern India. They tell my father that I share the same birth date of a baby who was born in Delhi and sent to southern India. Its a brief story and a short clip. Unremarkable, yet entirely contradictory to the story I’m about to pursue.
This seed of a story sits with me over the next week and a half. It nestles its way into my thoughts, situated in the audience, occasionally jostled into view again, briefly, before receding again. As we are shuttled to and from local police stations, Sarai’s neighborhood, my birth village, an extravagant white church and other locations that hold potential clues, this story follows along, never seeking full attention, but never fully dissolving either.
By the time I’ve finished watching the video any hope of doing anything else remotely productive before bed is out of the question. I feel unprepared in ways that seem unreasonable given the months of notice I had. I’ve taken tomorrow off of work and my flight has been delayed by a few hours so I have all morning to pack, clean, buy something to read and worry about forgetting inconsequential items like toothpaste or enough pairs of socks.
Photo Credit – Max Shannon