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The Gift of Life From the Most Unlikely Source

On the morning of January 29, 2014, my cell phone rang. I was told my adoptive mother—whom I hadn't spoken with in 17 years—had passed away. At the time I was 39 years old, single and $60K in debt, and while I didn't know it at the time, this would be the start of my fertility journey.

During my childhood, my adoptive mother swung between manic displays of affection to soul-crushing verbal assaults. Whether she was loving or hating me, she always had a Marlboro hanging out of her mouth and a cocktail in her hand. At night, she often told me she wished she could send me back to Korea. In the morning, she would soberly tell me she never remembered saying those hateful words. I thought I was going crazy. I often wondered if my presence was merely a reminder she couldn’t have a biological child. She tried to love me but liquor and her own mental health issues prevented her from being a capable parent.

In 1997, I asked her to seek treatment for alcoholism and to let me know when she was ready to do so. It was the last conversation we ever had. In 2004, I learned she had lung cancer. I attempted to reach out to her but she denied me. Through a family member, I asked to have my childhood photographs. As an adopted child, I already had such vague family ties. My pictures were my only history. She said everything had been thrown away.

The days and months after that January phone call unraveled like a Lifetime movie. My mother was a meticulous woman and had a will. It detailed how she wasn’t leaving a cent to me or my younger adopted sister. However, it turns out, she never signed the will. In fact, the lawyer had arrived with the final copy for signature just two hours after she died. Her finances were always impeccable, every penny mercilessly accounted for. Her cancer was the slow kind and chipped away at her life; she knew her death was looming. And even on her deathbed, she lacked the fortitude to reconcile with us. But I truly believe as her final act of contrition, she intentionally never signed the will. As next of kin, my sister and I inherited our mother’s modest estate: our childhood home and a bit of savings in an account at the local credit union.

I returned to the house where I grew up in the working class town of Bristol, Pennsylvania, for the first time in nearly two decades. Photographs of my sister and me clung to the refrigerator. We found boxes of photos; every report card we’d ever received, birthday and Mother’s Day and Christmas cards we’d made for her. I found the outfit I was wearing when I arrived from Korea in 1974. Memories lurked like ghosts in every corner of every room. She had saved my entire life and it was all still there, in that house.

I feared the worst: I had waited too long and even worse, I was motherless—both my biological and adoptive mothers abandoned me and now I too would be incapable of being a mother.

For the next few cold winter months, I traveled back and forth between my home in Los Angeles to the Philadelphia suburbs to handle all the matters of the estate. My mother had become a hoarder. I had to have four tons of junk hauled out of her house and deal with a hedgehog infestation on the property. But worse than the trash and the vermin were the haunting flashbacks of a childhood gone wrong. As I discarded the contents of my mother’s life, I contemplated that I was still single at 39 and worried that my damaged past would prevent me from ever having a happy family of my own. As winter thawed into spring, my emotional resolve also melted. I closed the estate and I used the money to get out of debt. I begged the universe to show me some kindness.

A month later, I went on a date with a wonderful man and by that July we were engaged to be married. In September, I again awoke to the sound of my cell phone ringing. The person on the line informed me that she had been trying to locate me for several months. My mother had a 401K of nearly $200,000 and since she never named a benefactor, my sister and I were to inherit the money.

After we got married, we immediately began trying to have a baby with no luck. I feared the worst: I had waited too long and even worse, I was motherless—both my biological and adoptive mothers abandoned me and now I too would be incapable of being a mother. We tried for a year to no avail. It felt like a curse.

Two years after I first learned about my adoptive mother's death, we began the expensive IVF treatments with the last of the money I inherited. The first cycle only yielded one genetically flawed embryo. We tried our best to take it in stride and embarked on another cycle. In the second cycle, we produced exactly one normal blastocyst. On February 23, 2017, we gave birth to our beautiful, perfect, miracle son—a journey that began well before his nine months in utero.

The irony is not lost on me. In the end, a woman who was incapable of being a mother ultimately gave me the gift of motherhood. I started a new chapter of my life: Mother, in the happy family I never imagined possible. I hope my mother knows she bequeathed this to me. I hope she knows I forgive her and is finally able to rest in peace.

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