Adventures Beginning With the Letter J: Inner Strength

Lil JamesJ has a short praise given to him from a teacher that he loves to retell. I am not sure how true it is, but from time to time he tells the story, mostly to illustrate how soft our children are.

Back in high school a teacher used J as an example saying, “If I was stuck on a desert island because J is a survivor.”

Why did the teacher bring this up? What made him point out J’s tenacity to the class and how did the other students react? I don’t know because whenever J talks about it he immediately goes on to say how our kids are spoiled and couldn’t endure much discomfort, let alone come out victorious like himself.

J’s early life story is noteworthy; too bad he doesn’t remember it.

J was adopted by a white family from Northeastern Ohio, approximate age four. When he arrived in this country maybe he knew his age and his real name but at the time he didn’t know English and the immediate people around him didn’t know Korean so there was no one to make note it.  The doctor guesstimated from J’s age, size, bone structure and teeth that he was probably four years old.

Asking J about his life pre-Ohio he told me that he was found wandering a rice paddy.

“Is that what you remember?” I asked him.

“Yesssss,” said J, a bit too enthusiastic. Whenever he does that it means it’s not the whole story.

“What else do you remember? Do you remember your trip to the US? Do you remember your time in the orphanage?” he shakes his head at all my questions. He doesn’t remember anything before junior high.

“Not even Little House on the Prairie?” I was incredulous.  “Not even Good Times?”

Nope.  Not even.

Subconsciously, I realize that he remembers something.  When we first got together, anytime he would be upset with me he would talk in his sleep– in Korean.  I wasn’t learning Korean at the time so I had no idea what he was saying.

And once, while Mimi and I were working on a school project while sitting on the living room floor, J fell asleep beside us and  began to sing a song in Korean.

Of course, I asked him about the incidences the following day and every time J had no clue that he even said anything.

Which is why I love to visit J’s family; they fill in the gaps that J can’t or conveniently leaves out.  Like the time he was seven and, convinced he was a superhero, he jumped off the garage roof, dislocating his shoulder.  J has a high threshold for pain so it wasn’t noticed until he was carrying the a large flad in the 4th of July parade that his parents realized something was wrong with his arm.

Then there was the time J and his friend Kenny Black got a hold of some illegal fireworks.  They hid under a trailer, near the gas tank, and was having a hard time lighting up the wicks.  Fortunately someone caught them before they blew themselves up.

“You were a crazy kid,” I said to J on the drive home.  “Man, you are lucky to be alive.”

“I didn’t do those things,” J said.

“So they are making it up?”


His parents tell the stories with love.  They laugh about it now, although there was a moment when too many emergency room visits nearly got a call to child protective services.  Luckily the nurse in the ER that day was a neighbor who could vouch that J was not abused, he was just a very inquisitive.

When J’s mother realized we were serious about one another she wanted me to know his Korean name.  She said she didn’t think it was his birthname, but one given to him at the orphanage.  All the children had the same last name, she said.  So though not from biological parents, the name still  connects him to who he once was.

My mother-in-law had already had two daughters when she had read the stories in the papers about children from Korea needing a home.  She decided immediately that she would adopt a child from there.

“I didn’t care what state he was in,” she told me.  “As long as he wasn’t dying it didn’t matter to me because I knew we would get him medical care.  And we wanted a boy.”

They were told that J was found wandering the streets of Seoul, living on what he could.  When he came to them he couldn’t speak a word of English and he immediately needed medical care, which included surgeries.  There were times when J would get very upset, seeming to cry for someone although they were unsure of who.

Weeks, maybe months, later a local Korean family they knew came over to help talk to J.  That is when his story came out.  He had been living on the street with his younger brother, taking care of him.  In the orphanage J was in better health to come over so he was adopted first.  But over here, with this new family J didn’t forget his little brother.  He was crying for him.

First things first though:  J had to undergo surgeries.  He spent his first two to three years in and out of hospitals, correcting his legs and extracting chiggers.  He had lived here for two years when his parents felt they could take on another child.  She was excited to bring another child into their home and reunite J with his brother.

And that is when she discovered there had been a fire.  Several children died; all files destroyed.  It was assumed that J’s little brother had died in the fire.

My mother-in-law’s eyes glisten as she told me the story, expressing regret that they waited to go back to find the sibling.  And another brick came into place about why J would want to block out his childhood.

J and I approach life differently.  Whereas I hold everyone with suspicion until proven truthful, J takes everyone at their word.  He is more patient than I am and he’s also very loyal.  Before knowing about his story I attributed it to his growing up in a solid middle class family, but the person he is … it’s intrinsic to who he is.

I complain about him a lot and want to smack him a good part of the day, but J is an admirable person.  I am glad to have married him and raise kids with him.

Which is to say, like the teacher, if I was stuck on an island I’d want J to have my back.  I know that we would survive.


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