My elder Korean daughter Ashley was more hesitant about meeting John Lee than her sister, but later she would tell me, “Mom, as time went by and I saw you going every Friday to that awful place, and talking about John Lee as though he was a person just like anybody else, I began to wonder why my mother was using her one day off a week to go to a prison when she could be planting flowers and messing in her garden?”
And so she came with me to visit.
“I was very scared,” she told me, “You park. You walk in. You state the name. And they’re not very friendly. And then they give you a pass––okay here you go, kind of gruff. Then you walk up . . . I remember it was a hot day.
“Then you just sit there and you wait. And it has a smell, it’s got this smell, and then you walk into the visitation booth and all of a sudden the weight of the world is right on your shoulders––ooof! And it’s there the entire time until you leave.
“John Lee talked a lot about his childhood and I went away thinking, ‘Wow, we are a lot alike.’ Then two-three days later I got a letter from him saying how great it was to meet me, and thank you for coming, and then he told me more about his life.
“I felt, okay, he’s been open and honest, so I’ll be open and honest with him. So I wrote back to him. After a while of writing, I went back and I reread all his letters. Again it was “Wow!” The similarities between us were really quite shocking because we were from totally different cultures.
“We both only had our old grandmothers to love us. We both were taken from our families and locked up. Me in the orphanage, him in children’s homes. We both tried escaping and kept getting caught. We were hungry all the time because our families were poor. We both stole food. We were both alone with no one to protect us. And both of us had nobody to love us until you came along.
“It doesn’t matter that I’m Korean and he’s mixed white and black. We understand each other, and it’s such a relief to be able to talk to him like a twin brother I can tell anything without worrying he’ll judge me or think I’m weird or crazy. Even though I’m bipolar and he’s not, he understands what it’s like to have that big weight on you.
“It’s only recently I’ve forgiven my birth mother for leaving me and begun to think about what losing her children might have been like for her. John Lee has been better at forgiving his mother than I have, but then he’s older and he’s had more time.
“He’s certainly given me a new understanding that family is a very fragile thing and we’re really lucky to have it. I owe him a lot and when he gets out of prison he’ll have a sister to help him get used to the world.”