Now Reading
The Grip of Gratitude

The Grip of Gratitude

The first time I met her, I was seven weeks old. Summoned by a whispered prayer of thanks from the stranger who found me on the street, she trailed me like a guardian angel, determined to ensure my deliverance. She stroked my cheek with her knobby knuckle as we waited for hours in the police station. She snaked her fingers through the slats of the crib in the orphanage so I would not be alone. She gently pressed her worn palm over my mouth when my foster mother had enough of me crying. And when I was placed in my adoptive mother’s arms, Gratitude gripped me with all her strength, forcing me erect and alert. 

“Stay small, stay still, and stay silent,” she whispered, her fingernails digging into my left upper arm, branding me with a criss-cross scar and a lifetime mantra. 

Gratitude arrived with me to America as my steadfast companion, and the universal glorification of my adoption by others only fortified her strength. Family, friends, and strangers would see me beside my white family and immediately say, “Aren’t you the luckiest?” They consumed the story of my adoption as if it were pulled from the pages of a Disney storybook, swooning over how I had been plucked from the streets of a war-torn, peasant country and dropped into the American dream. This only strengthened the grapple of Gratitude, as every comment made it clear to me that there was no space to feel anything but grateful in this fairy tale.

So, I marched forward at the urging of Gratitude’s saber, heeding her advice no matter what happened and no matter how much I hurt. When my mother threw words like punches to my face, her knockout blow, “You ungrateful, bitch,” leaving me flat on my back every time, I stayed small. When my sister, fighting against the Gratitude of her own adoption, ran wild against our family, I stayed still. And when I squeezed my eyes shut in our family’s shed with that man at six years old I stayed silent.

In all of these moments, Gratitude wriggled uncomfortably, but never relented in her dogma. She coiled around my neck, and murmured lovingly, “Remember, you are one of the lucky ones.” I believed her and, as a result, shame multiplied inside me, rotting me black to my core, because I sure as hell did not feel lucky in those moments. 

By the time I reached adulthood, Gratitude had oozed into the sinew of my muscles and leached into the marrow of my bones. Breaking free from her would have required the extermination of myself. The perverseness of Gratitude is that though I suffered so much carrying her weight, I also benefited. She made me a determined perfectionist, an accomplished student, and a fastidious lawyer. The world loved who she made me. I loved who she made me. So, I surrendered to her. 

I preached the benefits of Gratitude, the abundance of amenability, the beauty in self-sacrifice. I worked myself relentlessly in Gratitude’s name. And, naturally, I followed that path right back to adoption, a wellspring of Gratitude, and adopted two sons. At first, I relished the role as an adoptive parent. I let people tell my sons how lucky they were and let them tell me how wonderful of an adoptee I was to pay my good fortune forward. I squeezed the venom of Gratitude, drop by drop, into my sons’ fragile veins.  

My sons and I could have easily continued this pattern of infection, Gratitude beaming beside me like a proud Korean halmoni, doting on her grandchildren with her warm smile and firm hold. But my sons possessed an unrelenting resilience and resolute belief in their right to express their pain. They wailed with anger, they fought with hate, and they mourned the loss of their birth family, their foster family, their language, their culture, their country, and, mostly, their innocence. And rather than ignoring, punishing, or explaining away their behavior, I allowed their siren calls to awaken the little girl who lived in me before she was stifled by Gratitude. 

Now, as I grow my own stunted self alongside my sons, free from the grip of Gratitude, I think about how many of us are struggling with its pervasiveness. For those of us who have been bullied by Gratitude, the noble expectation to bear loss with a smile, to bear pain in silence, and to be grateful for what we have overcome leaves us feeling entirely unseen. 

Sometimes I miss Gratitude’s company and the world she built for me, the one where things were simple, where adoption was simple, where my life as an adoptee and adoptive parent made inherent moral sense. I miss her approval, her pride, and her simple life motto. But anytime I am tempted to slip back into her warm grasp, I rub the scar on my left arm, the one she left the day I arrived on American soil, and I walk the other way. 

© 2022 VISIBLE Magazine. All Rights Reserved. Branding by Studio Foray.