20 years ago, I began putting together pieces for a collection of literature about adoption. Poet Tina Cervin was my coeditor and we spent years passing shopping bags full of manuscripts back-and-forth to each other. Yes, no, maybe? Finally, in 1999, the book was born. We were so proud of it, of the beautiful works by first time writers as well as rock stars like Isabel Allende, Charles Baxter, Dan Chaon, and even Joni Mitchell. (her poem/song “Little Green” is about the daughter she relinquished for adoption)
It was a gorgeous, powerful book, but was never a huge commercial success. It went out of print and then briefly came back into print about 10 years ago. Finally, it seemed to draw its final breath and the only thing left was a few cartons of remaindered books in my garage. A few months ago I received an email from a woman named Kaia in Minnesota. A Korean adoptee herself, she had discovered the book and said it had moved her deeply. She wanted to adapt it into a theater presentation for her high school students. I was stunned. I was not able to attend their production in January, but when they heard that I was coming to Minnesota for AWP, they invited me to the high school so that we could meet.
It was wonderful to meet another adoptee whose life had been touched by this book. Kaia felt like an old friend immediately and we sat and talked in the teachers room and then I went to visit a creative writing class, where I had a great discussion with the teacher, who also happened to be an adoptive dad (small world). Then I went to the drama room to meet the theater kids.
Even though they had not performed or practiced in months, the kids decided that they wanted to put on the full production for me in their drama room. They arrived in their Ghost at Heart’s Edge T-shirts and even the sight of that was enough to bring me to tears.
I barely have words to describe what it felt like to hear those words embodied. Even though it was decades ago, I know this book by heart.
Tina and I had read this manuscript over so many times and these powerful and beautiful words mean so much to me. I was absolutely riveted. They brought such life and honest, heartfelt emotion to these experiences. Some of the poems were spliced together and divided into many parts, spoken or even song by the ensemble.
There was music, too, and a lovely segment of dance accompanying “Little Green.” Boys played guitar and one girl with a sweet and voice did some magnificent solos, but really all of them sang various parts throughout, and it was really beyond words how beautiful and moving it was to hear them, often all of their voices together and in turn. Their harmonized lullaby pretty much brought me to my knees.
I was constantly on the edge of breaking down sobbing as I sat there and watched these amazing young people. I could barely keep it together. But I kept blinking and moving from piece to piece, willing myself to stay focused through it all. I did not want to miss a single moment by being overcome with emotion. They ended the performance with the final poem in the book, the poem that I used to end all of our readings with: “There is No Word for Goodbye” by Mary Tallmountain.
What do you say in Athabascan
when you leave each other?
What is the word
We never leave each other.
When does your mouth
say goodbye to your heart?
You forget when you leave us;
you’re so small then.
We don’t use that word.
We always think you’re coming back, I
but if you don’t,
we’ll see you some place else.
There is no word for goodbye.
When they got to this poem, I knew it was the end and I finally let myself cry. They seemed pleased by this and said that it had been their goal: my tears. I tried to articulate to them what it meant to me to see them doing this. I’m not sure I was able to convey it or even if I am able to do it now. I am not sure if I’m getting a huge book contract or winning a literary prize could really even come close to this moment. It was so gorgeous and honest and heartfelt and also incredible theatrical work. I felt so proud. Humbled. Honored and awed.
As a way of giving back a little of what they gave to me, I performed a few excerpts from my own solo show, The Ice Cream Gene. I felt truly seen, received and understood. Once again, they were one of the very best audiences I have ever had the chance to perform for.
I left them with some little goodie bags with postcards from the book and some chocolate hearts. It was just a little gesture. Sweet, small hearts wrapped in colored foil as a way of saying, you did something amazing for me. Something so big. These are the moments, so seemingly ordinary and small. A dozen teenagers in high school in Minnesota. A teacher whose experience of adoption was validated and moved by the words we had put together so long ago. These are the moments that we writers live for, right? Having our words received, recognized, felt.
I’ll never forget yesterday. There are no words for goodbye.