I waited too long. I almost called just a dozen days earlier on Easter but didn't. He who hesitates may not always die, but I hesitated and in the meantime, the man who effectively served as my English-speaking childhood father died.
Rich Shereikis and my father supposedly met as roommates the night before their interviews at the then newly-built Sangamon State University in Springfield, IL. I write "supposedly" because when my father doesn't want to talk, he won't talk. The reasons are legion, but as an internationally known lecturer, he is versed in the lecture form. Conversation, especially with the daughter of his first wife, has always been halting at best.
Both Rich and my father were hired, and thus our families became intertwined. Rich and his ebullient wife Judy had three children, the youngest of whom was the same age my myself. For me -- a verbose and fidgety girl -- the English-speaking Shereikis house was as good as an amusement park. I recall an abundance of glue, cats, laughter, yarn, people, popsicle sticks, conversation, paint, ease ....
Granted, my adult self understands fully that laughter and conversation are frequent guests when actual human guests are in a house. And just as the humans say their good-byes and drive away, Laughter and Conversation often take their leave as well. Then Tension, like a sullen outdoor family cat, starts meowing on the landing. I know perfectly well that the Shereikis family had their own familial battles.
But as a three-year-old child of an ESL father who had just buried his first wife ... as the young daughter of a man who had been clearly angry at his wife while she was alive and was now enraged that she unceremoniously abandoned him ... well, I slurped up all the coherent affection I received from Rich and Judy and brood. Having already parented three kids, they understood noise and clamor and mess. Looking back, however, the highlight was that this family could converse in non-academic preschool English. They could actually understand me.
This family saw me through the hardest time in my life. They watched my mother stumble through her leukemia. They housed me on occasion through her ill health. They most certainly came to the funeral where I recall being bored, kicking my chair and wishing the Korean pastor would follow the American pastor's lead and say something I could understand.
The Shereikis house would go on to provide a steady loving presence through what would become 18 months of rotating female-relations. My Korean family members pitched in to help my father by sending in cousins and aunties to come stay with me. Unfortunately, what no one predicted was that a three-year-old heart would break over and over again at every departure. Believe me, I am just as infuriated at the little three-year-old psyche as my father was for not being more compliant. But the heart trumps intellect every time, absolutely every stubborn time.
Then my father brought home a 90-pound non-English speaker as his new wife. Judy valiantly stepped up as a tutor, introducing this timid waif to the ball-busting English language. I hadn't met my new step-mother before the wedding, either, and I have often wondered what Judy thought of my father's collage of a family. The glue to this construction was secrecy. My father expressly forbade me from speaking of my mother or her passing. The 21st century me is a bit disgusted -- seems like a girl should approve of her new mother and mourn the passing of her "real" mother -- but that's my modern brain talking.
Michael the youngest Shereikis and I attended all four years of high school together. With his older sister Becky already at the Southeast Spartan helm, it felt like having pseudo-siblings at school. For four refreshing years, I didn't have a secret. It also helped that Michael and I shared quite a bit of the high school experience. Being children of academics, we were really good at our academics. We took all the high-track classes together, applied to Ivy League schools together and eventually both went East. Our goals made sense, our focus made sense, and in Michael's presence, my life made sense. Despite my father's prohibition, Michael knew, Judy knew, Rich knew, Becky knew ... and they never made me feel ashamed.
Decades passed, and the Shins lost touch with the Shereikis's. However, a few years ago, I learned that Rich and Judy were close by in Evanston. Although I desperately wanted to reach out, something held me back. Rich and Judy held my most sought-after prize - precious memories of those years of my mother's illness and my childhood in English. The language and cultural barriers in my household ensure that all conversations are riddled with bullet holes of misinterpretation and misunderstanding. All through school, my parents would chant "Do well! Do well!" to me before every test, every day of school, every event. I would snap, "I know!" and they would retort, "What's your problem?" About 10 years after I left the house, the subtitles to a Korean soap opera silently informed me that the idiomatic translation is "Good luck. Good luck." "Idiotic idioms," I muttered.
But these two exquisite people -- Rich and Judy -- would be able to tell me what happened in English through American eyes. Because no matter my ethnicity or my fluency with Korean, all the intricacies and nuances of my Self and my experiences are decoded into English, filtered through this mind which was molded in America.
Yes, I've been to plenty of therapy, but sometimes all a person needs is a witness. I didn't have the capacity to digest the events of 1973-5 with my childhood intellect, but I've never stopped thirsting for the details. Once I knew where Rich and Judy lived, my parched heart felt greedy and restless. So I waited for it to calm down. Well, in this case, Rich's heart gave out first.
The Shereikis family gave this child a haven when she needed it most. Shame on me for never turning around and saying thank you. But thank you thank you thank you -- I offer up a murmuration of thank you's. From the bottom of this stunted middle-aged heart, I say thank you for caring for a girl who wan't your own. At an age when I couldn't even pray, you were nevertheless heaven sent.