Goodbyes and Google Earth

By Janeen McGuire Nelson

n November 8, 1982, I became a mother.  In a sparse waiting room in the Children’s Home Society Hospital in Seoul, South Korea, I held Abby for the first time.  She was four months old. Brad and I were complete strangers to her.  But I already loved her; I loved her before she was conceived.


aˑdopt (ә dopt’), v.t.  1. to choose for or take to oneself; make one’s own by

selection or assent,   2. to take as one’s own child, specifically by a formal legal act.




It’s a cool, gloomy day; July 2008 in Seattle.  Glued to Google Earth, I track Abby’s progress across the continent as if I could keep her from harm, wishing the satellite image was a live-feed.  Chromium oxide pixels snap, pop, and lock into focus.  The asphalt of I-90 Eastbound winds through Snoqualmie Pass, Cle Elem, Ellensburg.  I stare at mysterious dashboard icons.  Navigate east.  She must be near Columbia River Gorge by now.  I’ll wait to call so she doesn’t think I’m bugging her.




She’s been gone five hours; I’ve phoned three times.




“The bank pulled my business note today,” Brad says in the spring of 1985.




“Where are you now?” I ask.


“I don’t know.  Somewhere in Idaho.”


“Tell her we’re just past Coeur d’Alene,” I hear Brad say.


“Oh, are you by the golf course near Potlatch Hill Road?”


“I don’t know, but we’re still by the lake.”


“Google Earth is the coolest thing.  I’m looking at the tip of Lake Coeur d’Alene now, and you should be seeing that golf course, it’s right on the shore.” I say.


“Oh, my God, Mom.  You’re stalking me on Google Earth?”




This July, Abby left home for good.  She got into her ‘92 silver Volvo with her dad as copilot, weighed down with ten Rubbermaid storage bins containing her most precious and practical possessions, and drove five days straight to her new life.


Washington, D.C. is the perfect city to study law; of course, it is also as far away from Seattle as one can get without leaving the lower forty-eight.


I watch her car disappear down our ground granite driveway and tunnel under the branches of hundred-year-old Western Red Cedars lining the dirt road that has been the bane of her existence for 26 years.


As soon as I can no longer hear her tires crunching gravel, I am compelled to enter her empty bedroom.  The walls are the same periwinkle blue I painted when she was 15.  The comforter is the same one I sewed for her when she was 16. The three water colors of purple and yellow and rust pansies are the same ones I did for her 17th birthday.  Her white Ikea dresser top is still adorned with a wire sculpture of hearts holding one forgotten photograph – Abby smiles at me from between her two best friends on her 21st birthday.


I peek in the closet, now completely abandoned, where only yesterday her volumes of shirts, skirts, pants, and jackets threatened to collapse the rod.  She even took her shoe rack down and taped the screws to its crossbar. Abby was the child who followed all the rules, who finished her homework on time, who did more than her chores, who gave herself headaches.


Nested in her pillow is Little Bear, forlorn, loved threadbare, half of the newest mouth I sewed on him missing.  What was once his nose is now just a dirty spot.


I sit on Abby’s bed and cradle him; he is only slightly longer than my hand.  I know if he were real, Little would be crying, for she is no longer ours.




We adopted Ella 18 months after Abby.  Seven months after that I delivered our first bio-daughter; I’ll let you do the math.  In spring of 1987, I am pregnant with our fourth daughter.  Brad comes home at 3:00 a.m. reeking of cigarettes and booze from his stop-gap job at the Gaslamp Tavern.  He brings me a cold French Dip sandwich. The smell makes me gag.




Mother Earth zooms easily into full screen through a black starry sky.  I double click on Montana.  The collage of satellite photos looks like a checkerboard of textiles; brocade, burlap, gabardine, all embroidered with the yellow floss that is I-90.  I click on the compass and navigate east.  Missoula, Deer Lodge, Butte.  Berkeley Pitt; mercury, lead, cadmium, copper, arsenic.  An unmistakable poison hole.


“Are you to Butte yet?” I ask Abby.


“No, we just went through Missoula.”


“Is it pretty?  Most of it looks mountainous.”


“Mom, get off Google Earth.”




Bear Woman was an Inuit girl who became lost while playing hide-and-seek with her brothers.  Near death, she was found by a bear, who took her home and raised her as his own.  When she grew up, she and the bear married and had two half-human cubs.


One day her brothers found her, killed her father-bear and took her and her cubs back to the human world.  But instead of becoming fully human, Bear Woman transformed into a bear.  Fearful that she would harm her human family, Bear Woman returned to the wild with her cubs.  Under the dancing lights of the aurora borealis, they climbed the mountain.  The trail of human footprints they left behind in the snow slowly became paw prints of bear.




We lose our house.




I walk back to the car where my infant and two toddlers are buckled into their car seats.  Ella and Jordin are probably throwing Tommy Tippy Cups half full of apple juice at each other and awakening the baby.  My feet mash loudly through the crushed aggregate path from Children’s Garden Preschool, but all I can hear is Abby’s screaming.


“Mommy!  Mommy!  Mommy!”




Ten wooded acres with a corner in the creek on Black Nugget Road sounds romantic, if only one had a choice to live there.  Two miles of dirt road through raw, dense forest.  Maple, alder, cherry, cedar, fir.  Blackberries, salal, Oregon grape.  Ferns that dwarf my children.  White tailed deer, American black bear, raccoon, possum, porcupine, bobcat.  Mice, mice, and more mice.  Potholes, mud, sludge, dust. No water, no electricity, no natural gas.  At least it will be a good place to hide from creditors.




At 4:00 a.m., the screen’s neon glow is a trespasser in my kitchen.


Belgrade, Montana, 620 miles from home.  Burnt umber parquet stained with dark virescent squiggly lines to the north, windswept smears to the east.




Six more months unemployed.




When I tell people we live in a mobile home, I see the upside down images reflected in their eyes.  Mangy barking dogs, disembodied doll parts, debris, litter, junk, garbage, broken lattice porches, feral children, obese smoking mothers with dirty acrylic fingernails, scrawny alcoholic fathers with stained and missing teeth.  Yelling, screaming, swearing. Convicts, wife-beaters, illiterates.




Approximately 120,000 adoptions take place in the United States annually. (Flango and Flango, 1994)


About 1 million children in the United States live with adoptive parents. (Stolley, 1993)




It is the first day back to kindergarten after Thanksgiving break. By time I have put Ella and Jordin in the stroller and gathered Gracie in my arms, we are late.


Mrs. Wexford comes to the classroom door to greet Abby. “You know, Mrs. Nelson,” she says, “she might do better if you dropped her off in front of the school instead of walking her all the way to the classroom.”




Northeast Wyoming.  Vast nothing.  Yarrow, western wallflower, thimbleberry, toadflax, endless miles of double yellow line.  Pewter, puce, dust.  Prairieland scraps that are another time zone away.




We have flown back to California for a family wedding.  La Jolla’s salt air carries scents of my youth; Tasmanian blue gum eucalyptus, ice plant, oleander, Fair Ellen geranium, St. Augustine grass, giant kelp washed ashore, Coppertone suntan lotion on sweaty skin.


Our daughters are wearing the cornflower blue dresses I sewed, black patent leather Mary Jane’s and white tights.  I think if I dress the four of them alike, people will understand that they are sisters. Brad and I wait until the last minute to take them into the church to minimize their ruckus.


I have to redo Gracie’s ponytail, her wild honey-colored curls never stay in place for more than ten minutes.


“Ella, don’t climb up there,” Abby says, pulling her sister down from the brick wall lining the walkway.  (As soon as Ella started walking, Abby started keeping order.)


A woman in a beige silk suit halts her rush to the door.  “Oh, look at these adorable little girls,” she says.


Our daughters put on their best coy smiles.  Ella steps in front and pulls at the sides of her skirt.


“Are they all yours?” The woman asks.




“I mean, are they all your own?”




New clothes drier from Sears Roebuck: $800. Veterinary bill for the puppy’s broken leg: $1100.  Rebuilt engine for the Isuzu: $3000.




I play with Google Earth’s flight simulator feature; I keep crashing.  It gives me motion sickness.




On Abby’s seventh birthday her best friend Corry comes to our cramped mobile home for a sleep over.  Cinderella and Prince Charming finish their wedding dance to happily-ever-after music and a chorus of ahhhhs.


“Now Corry and me get the room with no sisters,” Abby says in her authoritative little voice, in case I’d forgotten my promise.


“Okay girls, it’s off to bed with you,” I singsong to her sisters like Cinderella enlisting the help of her rodent friends.


They complain, they whine, they dig their heels in.


I manage to muscle them to their beds without Brad’s help; he is working at Eagle Hardware in Rainier Valley until he finds a real job in real estate.  The girls whine some more.


Abby and Corry burrow into their sleeping bags where they chirp like excited squirrels picking through fallen leaves and twigs for acorns.


I read Goodnight Moon to Gracie and kiss her face, a second time, a third time.  Suddenly, Abby erupts from her sleeping bag, her cheeks alizarin crimson.


“Corry thinks I’m black!” she laughs loud.


Abby is rarely loud.




I post a virtual cyan thumbtack on Connecticut Ave, NW, Washington, D.C., my daughter’s new home.




My father has died.




The funeral is over. I am taking the girls back home; two of them are sick.  I don’t know how we will manage without Dad’s financial infusions.  I don’t know how Mom will manage without Dad.

Gracie clings to my leg, Ella clings to the other.  Jordin is asleep, heavy and damp on my shoulder; I rock her back and forth.  Abby’s hand is hooked to my belt, her feverish head against my stomach.

The woman behind us stares at my Korean daughters while we wait to board the plane.


“Are you their real mother?”  She asks.


Jordin throws up twice on the plane.




Annyeounghi kaseyo means good-bye in Korean when the other person is leaving.




On a moonless onyx night when Abby was in fourth grade, she was monk-quiet on the drive home from gymnastics.


“Are you tired, Angel?” I had asked.




Fifteen minutes later, our tires had hit the dirt road and broken the silence.






“Sometimes, um, it’s just that sometimes I wonder about my birthmother.”


It was the only time she ever asked.




“We can finally start our house if you want to use your inheritance.” Brad says.




“Hi Angel, where are you now?”


“We’re going to spend the night in Kadoka, South Dakota,” Brad answers for her. “Are you looking on Google Earth?”


“Tell her to get off,” I hear Abby say over the Dixie Chicks’ Wide Open Spaces.




Before Abby can enter 6th grade I take her to the school district immunization clinic.  There are a few other parents and children waiting in chairs around the room.  I approach the check-in table with my daughter.


“Do you have her birth certificate?” The woman asks.


“No.  It isn’t posted as being required.” I say.


“Well, I need to see her birth certificate to prove that you are her mother.”


“Mom, it’s okay, we can come back.” Abby whispers.


“No, it is not okay.  I haven’t seen her ask anyone else to produce a birth certificate.”


“It’s for her own protection, ma’am.” The woman says.


“What do you think I’m going to do?  Grab a child off the street and drag her in here for a shot?”  I lean on the table, “This is discriminatory.  The reason you aren’t asking any other parent for a birth certificate is because they are the same race as their children.  This is illegal.”


“Mom,” Abby pulls ever-so-slightly on my sleeve.


“Who is your superior?  I want to speak to that person NOW.”  I say, shaking.




Kadoka, South Dakota, 1,212 miles away.  Viridian green, neutral brown, one giant pool of brilliant turquoise; I look it up on Google because its color is so unnatural.


Kadoka Lake South Dakota Fishing Report;


Kadoka Junk Car Removal;


Kadoka South Dakota Funeral Homes;




“They decided to close the commercial property sales division,” Brad says.


Five more months unemployed.




I have stayed up till 2:30 in the morning decorating the thirty-two airplane cookies I cut out with a paring knife.  My hand shakes from fatigue when I squeeze the frosting bag; I give every cookie a blue outline and friendly-skies smile.  It is Abby’s homecoming anniversary (ten years ago today Brad and I brought her home) and I’ve volunteered to spend the morning in her 5th grade class.  I’m going to read Katie Bo to a rug-full of squirming ten-year-olds and teach them about adoption and Korea, Land of the Morning Calm.


I fly Abby’s airplane cookie around Mrs. Mendehlson’s classroom globe to trace our journey between Korea and America. Then I fly it into Abby’s waiting hand and start reading Katie Bo; An Adoption Story. 


“Jeanette Merendino still says you aren’t my real mother,” Abby tells me later.




“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day.


“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse.  “It’s a thing that happens to you.  When a child loves you for a long, long, time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”  The Velveteen Rabbit.




South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin. Desert saltgrass, curlycup gumweed, prairie coneflower, and another time zone.  She’s so far away.  She doesn’t answer her phone.




In April 1993, we finally moved into the house that took five years to build; it looks like rich people should live in it.


Two months later, when I returned home from a class, Abby rushed to the door to meet me.  The house was completely dark.


“Mom, some men came to the house this afternoon.  I didn’t go to the door, like you said.  I saw them go around by the garage from my window.  Then the power went out.”




The globe zooms onto my screen, casting blue light on my skin.  I study the immensity of our Earth and wonder what it was like for my father when Brad and I moved to Seattle.  I imagine that a primal pain snagged his navel before worming its way into his marrow and wrapping itself around his spine, but he never said so.  I am much less noble.


The sound of Dad’s voice is still fresh in my ears, “Bend your knees, Nee Nee,” he yells from behind as we shoos Mammoth Mountain’s slopes, “Take my jacket and sit closer to the fire,” he says on a frosty November night in the Mojave Desert, our annual Thanksgiving jeep trip, “I’ll carry her,” he tells Mom and hoists me upon his shoulders to hike the Grand Canyon.




Who is her real mother?




Brad comes home in the middle of the morning.  “They fired me.”




Abby lets me take her to get her hair done for Senior Prom, but she gets dressed at her friend’s house with all the other girls in her group.  Brad and I arrive for the pre-prom appetizers and photo opportunity.  She is radiant, sleek, compact, her hair sparkles like obsidian in the sun.  Brad and I take pictures and pretend to share the moment when her date ties a corsage on her wrist.  Then we say goodbye and watch her climb into a black limousine that pales next to her hair.





July 23, 6:41 p.m.  Text from Abby:

Hello from Elgin, Il.  We’re here 4 the night. Have a good night, I’ll talk to you tomorrow I’m sure.  Love u.




Elgin, Illinois, 1,992 miles away.  My chum now, Google Earth bowls the French ultramarine blue globe into my screen.  I type in Elgin and fly toward the southern tip of Lake Michigan past squares and stripes and rectangles of burnt sienna, emerald, raw umber, pea-green, Payne’s gray, chalk white.  Cumulus clouds, murky rivers, and acres and acres of crops.  Viewed from sufficient distance, cities become metal tessera – pewter, zinc, steel, lead.  Concrete.




Not flesh of my flesh
Nor bone of my bone,
But still miraculously
My own.
Never forget
For a single minute:
You didn’t grow under my heart
But in it.

© Fleur Conkling Heyliger


Sappy, but every adoptive parent knows this poem.




July 24, 7:57 a.m.  Text from Abby:


Hi mom, we’re just leaving Chicago.  I hate toll roads.




I wish my dad could have seen her graduate from high school.




Dad’s eyes fill.  “It’s all going to be good, Nee Nee.”  He wraps me in hairy arms that taper down to thick fingers; fingers which are the butt of many family jokes.  He smells like Old Spice.


Mom pats me on the back, her Orange Blossom fingernails catch on my sweater. She leaves a Revlon Blasé Apricot kiss on my cheek.


Brad and I clutch each others’ hands and board the Seattle-bound plane to our future.  I have miscarried a second time.




The sun rises on this foreign day, topaz, madder, vermilion

we greet it with hopes and dreams

in front, all three.

Opportunity should not be, cannot be, passed

to stretch for thoughts yet unthought

and create a self yet unknown.

But sorrow beckons at the back edge of a time grown too short.


Her hair shines as the fan plays with its straight black strands

we stand in the stuffy dorm, all three.

She busies herself affixing posters, hanging clothes, claiming her space

her father busies himself with wire and cords and chargers, claiming his usefulness

and I watch time take her away.


We lay baby roses at her nightstand, twenty-five yellow buds

and walk as to our death, all three.

Frozen embrace,

tears, beads of salt,

words silenced in tight throats,

my heart screams out, “Don’t go!  Don’t go!”


But time ignores my plea,

and so betrays us,

all three.




“Mom, if you’re on Google Earth again I’m hanging up,” she threatens from somewhere in the Midwest.


“I’m not,” I say, and quickly close my laptop.




It was often like pulling teeth to get Abby to invite her friends over when she was little.  I figured she was afraid her sisters would be embarrassing little nuisances, or, after she was older, that she just didn’t want the hostess responsibilities.  So when she recently told me she’d hated having friends over because she was humiliated by living in a mobile home, I was shocked.  I never knew that she knew the difference; I never knew that she felt what I did.


Abby was 13 years old when we moved into the house for rich people.


She still didn’t want her friends to come over.




My father-in-law finances Brad’s third business venture in 2002; a contractor’s supply store.  The store closes after two years.




In 1982, 6,434 Korean children were adopted internationally. (Korean Ministry of Health and Welfare)


Only eight percent of all adoptions include parents and children of different races. (National Health Interview Survey, 1987)


An international adoption costs between $7,000 and $30,000.  (




“Hi Angel, are you getting close to Pittsburgh?  It might just be the lighting from the time of year the image was taken, but the mountains around there are so pretty, they look purple.  Maybe they’re the Appalachians, or the Blue Ridge Mountains.”




“It’s funny, the mountains are all named Something Hill or Something Knob.”


“Bye, Mom.” She hangs up.




I miss my dad.




July 24, 4:58 p.m.  Text from Abby:


Update: stopped 4 the night in PE, only about 1.5 hrs from DC!




Breezewood, Pennsylvania, 2,586 miles away.  Great flowing lines radiate for two hundred miles northeast across the landscape like seaweed sweeping the ocean floor.


I study the Potomac River, Gettysburg Memorial Military Park, Amish country, and the crash site of United Airlines Flight 93.




“There is nothing to be scared of,” my dad said, and then he turned out the lights.




“Hi Mom, Dad is out of the room for a few minutes so I had to call.  He is really irritating me.  I wanted him to come with me and everything, because I need help setting up when I get there, but he…if he’d just say he doesn’t have the money, it would be fine, I can buy his food or whatever, but the fact that he lies about it is so freakin’ lame.


“K, gotta go, he’s back.  Love you Mom”




John Denver’s Take Me Home, Country Road plays on continuous loop in my head.




“I want a divorce,” I said.




I don’t need their words to know what they think.  I am clairvoyant.  I know kindly looks, I know curious looks, I know the facial muscles that contract with disapproval, distaste, condemnation.  Levator Labii superioris, alaeque nasi, caput infraorbitalis.


The friend of a friend says, “Oh, so you adopted two and then had two of your own,” the Christmas time shopkeeper says, “God bless you,” my aunt says, “It’s too bad you didn’t find out earlier that you were pregnant, then you wouldn’t have had to go through with the adoption,” a neighbor child asks, “Will the baby be Korean too?” a mother with her Aryan–perfect baby in a stroller moves away from my Korean purebred baby in a stroller, not once, not twice, but three times, her facial muscles taught.


Well-wishers, curiosity-seekers, nay-sayers.  To tell you the truth, they all torque me.  They all require some qualifier to the terms of motherhood and family.  When my children were small, and the mass of us couldn’t help but be a public spectacle, I used to enjoy giving others an education, an explanation, a shock.  Now their ignorance is just a bore.




July 27, 6:38 p.m.  Email from Abby:


You know it’s bad when…

you have to borrow 3 freakin dollars to ride the Metro.

You know you’re ridiculous when…

you try and refuse a $2 lemonade because you “feel bad” I have to buy everything.

I’m ready for dad to be gone.  I’ve had enough of his money problems, lies of omission, and outright lies.  I, of course, am grateful he’s been here to help with getting furniture and everything but he’s pissing me off.

K, just had to vent.  Hope you’re having a good weekend.  Talk to you soon.

Love you,





“It’s not that I’m so bent on being a lawyer.  I just know that if I don’t get away from my crazy life now, I’ll never do it.” Abby had said to me some months before she left.  At the time, I couldn’t understand what she thought was so crazy about her life.




Washington, D.C., 2,690 miles away.




Janeen is an artist, a writer, the mother of four, and she has been a successful Marriage & Family Therapist in the Seattle area for eighteen years specializing in the treatment of adolescent girls and women. She has also saved a marriage or two in her time, “except,” she laughs, “my own.”  Her work has appeared in The Morning News, Seattle’s Child Magazine, The Montreal Review, and various local newspapers. Janeen’s current project is a book honoring the dogged determination of teenage girls to discover, and grow into, who they are.

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