January 16, 1998
The jet roars into takeoff, and I feel I exist in a timeless space…a place in which I can see both the mountains and valleys below me, and the past and future, behind and beyond me. I look back clearly in my mind’s eye to the time, now over two years ago, sitting on cement steps in the tropical evening heat with Ransung, a boy now grown to a man, who is a son to me. I hear our conversation as if it were yesterday…me, spinning my dreams aloud of possible medical treatment in the U.S., yet fearful that impossible hopes will be born. I recall my questions then and in the days after…”Would you be afraid to fly alone? To a different country? It’s very far…very different…no one will speak your language…? The confidence in the reply. “You took me flying once and I wasn’t afraid…I think people are the same everywhere—some are too proud to be your friends, some are your friends for only awhile, some are your friends always.”
I remember snatches of conversation in the following days, sharing a room, waiting to videotape his seizures. “Did you ever know of a person named Paul from your village who was adopted by some missionaries long ago and taken to the U.S.?” And his reply, “Yes, he’s my uncle.” This, although the departure of the first child preceded the birth of the second by nearly twenty years. I remember feeling that, if my son ever actually made it to the U.S., how important it would be that these two meet one another. Paul I have only heard about, a legend almost, told in tales of the past by missionaries of the present, but his story has stayed with me. I recall feeling that, in some future day, this conversation would be significant.
My mind traces the tragedies and the triumphs of the months and years between that day and this, all somehow woven into a solemn, measured dance of joy and purpose. Then the day of finally making contact with Paul. And only two days ago, phoning Jakarta to be sure Ransung had actually made the first leg of his flight and gotten a visa. The squeals of laughter of my daughter and the deep, slow speech of my son in the background as they met again there, just moments after my call. Oh, what a treasure, to again hear them laugh together.
Now, I fly south. Paul will meet me at the airport. We will visit, get acquainted, then meet Ransung’s plane a few hours later. I can hardly believe that this will really happen, yet in my mind’s eye I see it as if it has already taken place. I look forward to it feeling that I know Paul, know the importance of this to him. When I step off the plane, it is as if we are well acquainted already.
He has said he is bringing a friend with him, an elderly retired missionary from Korea whom I will enjoy meeting. He has not said or known that we both have lost children, both have interracial families. As with Paul, I immediately feel that I know her well. He has brought a photo album, as I have, and the next two hours pass quickly as we share pictures and stories. Then it is time to go to the international terminal. The plane is 15 minutes late, then three flights arrive at once, from Mexico City, Manila, and Jakarta.
The rail next to the ramp leading up from Customs is jammed with people of every color and description, and we all crane our necks, leaning over the railing, searching below for that one beloved face. People come in waves, a group of airline employees, a few passengers—families, young couples, parents with babies, an old man alone walking with a cane, a young Chinese girl with a luggage cart so overloaded she can barely make it up the ramp. There is sympathetic laughter from onlookers. As the waves of people come, diminish, come again, I think of the sea tides, turning stones up on the beach from every corner of the earth, rolling them onto the shore at my feet.
The crowds at the rail lessen as families and friends reunite. I find my eyes searching every face, whatever age or color, however unlikely. I replay the itinerary—could he have gotten lost? Detained? Sick? It’s been two years—will I recognize him? I look into the faces of men with wives, with glasses, with earrings. More waves of people come around the corner; the railing refills with people. Forty minutes have passed.
Then, there he is, carrying a small bag with a broken zipper, his hair long, falling over his face, shorter than I remember him, in my world where everyone is a head taller than in his world. “Hai! Kamu! ‘Sung!” He looks up, his eyes meet mine and his easy smile breaks out across his face. I meet him at the ramp exit, the fleeting question of a while ago, not even actually a question, of whether I should give him the reserved Indonesian handshake or just hug him American-style, forgotten as I wrap my arms around him and squeeze him. Laughing, he hugs me back, as I tell him again what I’ve told him before—“If you have an American mama, you have to be hugged.”
I introduce him to Paul and his friend, and we make our way back to our table in the domestic section of the airport. There is a moment’s awkwardness—where do we go from here? Paul asks him about his trip, hands him a bag of gifts—a puzzle map of the U.S. and world, a cap, some postcards, a west coast road map. Ransung takes the bag with quiet thanks—I tell Paul that in Indonesia, it isn’t polite for him to open it before us. To make the transition, I ask Ransung how he is related to Paul, translating his answer. Then Ransung reaches into his bag and pulls out a thick stack of letters, saying that maybe these will explain. He removes two, and hands them to Paul, who is clearly surprised. No one speaks as we watch him open them.
One is from a cousin who works at the hospital. I translate as best I can his greetings in the Lord, his pleasure and awe that this meeting may actually take place, the family news he includes, his invitation for Paul to visit. The other is from his aunt, the sister of his mother who died when he was born nearly 45 years ago. She details the events of Paul’s birth, his first few days, crying constantly from hunger, the decision to take him to the missionary, and his subsequent adoption. “I was just a young girl when you were born. I am old now. Send us your picture. Send us your address. Return here to see us again.”
Paul, his arms on the table, chin on his hands, leans forward, intently listening. The second page of his aunt’s letter is a family tree, the names of his parents, both now deceased, siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles, carefully typed out. It is formally signed with his uncle’s signature and his aunt’s thumb print. Pictures are enclosed, a tiny one of a cousin who is the village elementary school teacher, and a worn color snapshot of the aunt and uncle, a daughter-in-law, and three grandchildren. Paul takes it all and looks at each piece closely, asks a few questions, his voice quiet.
Time is passing too fast. The letters are put in my bag to be translated and returned, the address where he may respond to his family is hastily written down, and we hurry to the boarding gate and snap a few pictures of this memorable moment before Ransung and I have to leave, the last to board. “Come up and see us,” I urge Paul. “This isn’t nearly enough time.” He looks as if it would take no urging. Then, we are on our way.
We find row 13 and sit down, headed for home. I turn to look at Ransung, seated beside me, his profile dark against the lights of the Los Angeles airport. Is it real, or is it a dream? Is it you? Here? In my world, so very far from yours? For all the times I’ve lived this moment in my mind, I can hardly believe it’s true . He turns to me and smiles, his slow, sweet smile, then looks out the window through the dark, wet night as we taxi for take-off. I can’t take my eyes off him, savoring his voice, his profile, his smell, the curve of his long, soft hair falling across his face.
I make some remark in conversation about when he goes back home…maybe I’ll just stay, not go home, he replies, half-teasing, but not really. I know. I know the love that goes around the globe to give one more hug, and the price we pay in pain to care with all our hearts. We were created eternal souls—is that why every meeting is a little piece of heaven, and every parting is a little death? Is that why love freely gives what no money can buy, and why the power of love circles the earth and never counts the cost, no matter how high one knows it will be?
But this is not yet eternity, this is time, where governments rule and lives don’t last forever. I remind him that I didn’t want to leave his country, either, but that’s how it is—countries have their laws. Until heaven, I add. There, we will have the same country, and no one will ever have to leave. He looks at me and does not reply, then looks out again at the dark night sky. Tonight we fly north, bearing passport, visa, tickets. One day soon to come, we will fly heavenward, bearing nothing but love for the One who made it all, and gave it all for us.