"Milk": Learning to Love in Love's Absence

Art by Wild Iris

Art by Wild Iris

In his 1996 novel Eureka Street, Robert McLiam Wilson opens with the line, “All stories are love stories.” What is love but a ritual for connection? In the language of calendars and time, we speak of holidays as ritual. And every year I look forward to author and activist Sarah Schulman’s soothing words of balm issued on social media that encourage all queerdos to “hang in there” during “queer nightmare season”—that time that begins with relentless onslaught right after and sometimes infuriatingly before Halloween.

Etymology is instructive. The word “family” comes from the Latin familia, “family servants, domestics collectively, the servants in a household” and from origins-unknown famulus meaning “servant” or “slave”. Let Levi-Strauss formulate economies of family origins. I’m interested in love.

Love lessons. Love medicine. If all stories are love stories, then, too, are our families—servants, enslaved, property—our first lessons in love.

For me, before there was queer, there was adoption. Transracial, international—separated from land, food, water, oceans, mother, father, brother, language, familiar smells—adoption. Adopted at age six, a birthday I spent in an orphanage. Queer, bisexual, at age 18. A knowing and a desire that spun in my body like sugar and spider silk, strong as steel. Words that—when spoken aloud—were met with a surprising acceptance or else withheld judgment, silent and palpable.

What about love lessons, then? One of my first love lessons involved loss. That is to say, I learned to love in love’s absence. I learned to love what was not there. The super human love of a six-year-old girl child. For me, family meant closing my eyes in my adoptive family’s home and willing myself to picture, conjure up the memory of, my father and mother’s faces. Even then I worried about forgetting what they looked like. Eventually I did.

Family meant being thrust upon the stage of a Delta Airlines boarding area, where I landed after a layover in Hawai’i by way of the Republic of Korea. In that boarding area, being told by a Korean speaker, “This is your mother, this is your father, this is your brother …” The white people’s faces blurry and unrecognizable, my ears clogged from the altitude, the scene changes, the costume of thick cotton long underwear and corduroy pants and a button-down flannel shirt and a small, navy blue bag that held drawings I’d created in the orphanage, the orphanage where a girl child and a boy child were made to stand naked in the middle of the room, their arms outstretched, their bodies doused with a thick, creamy lotion to soothe the chicken pox that erupted from their pores.

Family meant loving what was not there. But then we grow up. And we learn that to draw close is to survive. And to draw close is maybe even something desirable.

* * *

Why don’t we as a society ask more (or any) adopted children—especially those small humans adopted at five, six years old, memories imprinted, gut biomes set—“How is the placement going for you?”

Some people say that love and abuse are mutually exclusive, cannot co-exist. I trust bell hooks. And, sometimes, none of a person’s families—adoptive and those with whom genetic material is shared—are safe.

They are not dead. They are simply harmful. Alive and absent, a complex grief. People without normatively defined families are rendered illegible in most social contexts. It’s not our fault.

* * *

If my chosen family were a map, their spider silk would arc over the earth like a promise, like connection created through rupture and no maps. Sure, I’d like to know what it is to be connected to and to come from a place, a single place, to be surefooted and rooted like Wendell Berry or Rebecca Solnit. To walk and know a place.

It’s why, when I first landed in Oakland and thought to live there, I walked from Oakland to Berkeley, a walk that led me to the doorway of the Korean Community Center of the East Bay, a walk that led me to the Shattuck Cinemas in downtown Berkeley. A walk that allowed me to know the place, and for the place to get to know me. Feet wearing handmade shoes of a handmade life. The epigraph to Paula Gunn Allen’s novel The Woman Who Owned The Shadows sang to me, still sings to me: “In beauty walking”.

But I will not. I am a first generation immigrant by way of adoption to North America, to a very young country of united states and prefabricated architecture. A sense of history feels hollow here compared to Europe. To Asia. To the lands before land became erasure and amnesia, private property, vivisected by eminent domain.

* * *

It was in the San Francisco Bay Area, Ohlone territory, that I began watching the film While You Were Sleeping on repeat. There is a terrible loneliness to not having connection to family that roots a person to place. And even with an adoptive family, I found myself constantly restless, singing to them the Tom Waits song, its lines like silver promises in the night sky: “Well I’m leaving my family / I’m leaving all my friends / My body’s at home / but my heart’s in the wind”.

Every fall around November I would start watching the movie as companionate solace. A woman with no living family members, working at the Chicago Transit Authority taking tokens from riders, and dreaming of connection. The film is terrible. But the warmth I felt from it and the connection I felt to its protagonist were so comforting that I would fall asleep to the film looping on repeat on my laptop. I could laugh along with my awkward filmic representation, a young woman whose only “fault” was to suffer the misfortune of a loss of the nuclear family model, which even then is so insufficient.

I remember a queer people of color group house in San Francisco, how my body began regulating itself and began relaxing—a felt sense—when I was invited over for communal meals. How I washed dishes during our meals, observed large dispensers of lubricant at the loft beds and beside lamps on nightstands. Although I resisted, I knew my body needed it, their company and our shared viewing of “RuPaul’s Drag Race”. And even then, it was not quite right. It was not quite home. It prickled and sometimes felt harmful to me. Around them, I felt I was surrounded by the Lost Boys. Vampires and also the titular boys of NeverLand. People lost as me.

When you’re queer and adrift, you must choose your company wisely, observe who is still nursing their wounds and who is still wounding. Observe to whom you draw close, do they not connect in a way that truly connects? In a way that doesn’t replicate the harm of the families that came before, that mottled your love lessons? Like that.

* * *

Grief is another love lesson. We don’t love without loss. We don’t love without risk, no matter the reward. And we don’t love for the payoff. Love isn’t transactional. But sometimes the love medicine stops being medicine. Sometimes grief is a poison that you must milk like rattlesnake venom. The poison is the antidote, and titration is key.

One Thanksgiving, I spent my time with a 52-year-old man who cremated the deceased and ran a funeral home. I happened to meet him during my walks at the local park with my dog. My 13-pound dog would follow this man and his dogs around the park, around the entire perimeter of the park, and one day to the man’s truck. It embarrassed me, the dog’s desire to be close.

One day, after the umpteenth time that my dog followed the man to his truck, he turned and said to me, not unkindly, “I hate to say it, but I think your dog is lonely.” Was he talking to me? Did he mean me?

My dog befriended the funeral director’s dogs and by extension him, and that is how sometimes the funeral director gave me rides back home after the evening park walks. How I was invited to an early Sunday morning dog walk at a park where he met up with his friend, a social worker and her dog. And how I spent a recent Thanksgiving with a funeral director and a social worker and her family—a retired child psychologist and his wife, a smattering of siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, and children, nieces and nephews and grands. What is it to be hugged by a band of strangers called family? That is what family means to me: a gaggle of strangers who call themselves names I find unfamiliar and jarring, hollow and meaningless. Mother. Father. Sister. But friend. Friend is grounded. Friend is longitudinal. Friend is stable and solid and open and has space for me. A person like me.

I’ve found home in the unlikeliest places, impromptu and time-limited. For one night on Thanksgiving, I was part of a family because they invited me in. For once I was not watching While You Were Sleeping on repeat.

My dog park friend, the cremator, said to me, “In my 20-plus years of doing this work, I’ve never been able to stay for an entire holiday meal. Christmas. Thanksgiving. You name it. Somebody always dies.” He once drove me around my neighborhood, said he was looking at houses to buy, then got a work call, said he had to go into the office, did I want to come with him?

He was tall, his skin sunburnt and weathered, his eyes bright and blue and alive, his emotions unreadable, his smile easy and readily flashed. He’d always say, “You’re absolutely right,” and I thought to myself that his clients must love him saying that. For a while, the funeral director friend adopted me and invited me along to his friend’s family events and dog walks. I wasn’t sure why and I didn’t question it. I listened to the social worker’s cousin discuss being an insurance claims adjustor, about the people who robbed his mother’s home and stole the cookie cutter molds, the ones that were solid and smooth and made of copper. I laughed in the company of people who looked nothing like me, who made space for me, who held their arms open to me and hugged me when I was a stranger. In the company of a social worker and her ex-husband, a cordial relationship maintained for their children still under 18, in the company of the teenage girl children who saw me as an adult woman not family and drew close like curious and loving students, awed and fearful.

That Thanksgiving, after I’d eaten the social worker’s homemade, smooth yet toothsome mashed potatoes, after I’d eaten the pumpkin pie filling and left the crust on my plate, my ride and friend got a call. Someone had passed away that evening. Did I want to come along to pick up the body?

Yes, I said. You’re my ride, I said. So we drove through the darkness for 45 minutes to a place so rural that the stars were glittering hard and bright above us, and I sat in his truck with a paper plate of pies at my wrists and watched through the kitchen windows as my friend spoke with the family. Bereaved.

A holy sort of waiting, like a birth and its antipode.

“Have you ever been around a dead body?” he asked.

“Are you going to freak out?” he said, his eyes shining with good humor.

“I’m fine,” I said.

When he returned to the truck, it was to remove his gurney and then to bring it with body back to the truck. The body slid into the back of the truck, and there was a presence there that was not sentient. But a holy body nonetheless.

The entire process must have taken over an hour. As we drove off, I realized that my chest was tight so I took out a rescue inhaler and took two puffs.

“The body’s giving me asthma,” I said.

My friend gave me a soft punch on my arm, “No, it’s not! Stop messing around.”

“No, I’m serious!”

“Oh, you’re seriously getting asthma? I thought you were messing with me.”

“Did they smoke?” I said.

“I think so,” he said.

* * *

Family is not a totalizing experience. Family can be a single night of belonging. It can be the queer companionship of a group house in San Francisco. It can be the companionship of divorced people in their 50s who invite you into their parents’ home for a Thanksgiving meal. It can be the group text messages between friends in different time zones. It can be the three dogs I adopted at various times from shelters.

Family is meant to be loved with a loose touch, a soft touch, a simultaneous release and a holding. Few know how to love in that way.

That is my love lesson: to love hard and to love loose. To love what is there. I have, in the end, upended my first love lesson and learned instead to love what is there. What is here. Like everything, it is a practice. I have learned to love family as someone admires a ballet from the balcony seats. It is something I sometimes want, but never something I could safely have. Does it hurt me? Of course it hurts me. Is the grief a medicine? Yes.

But to only take and define family as the forms in which it is offered by the over-culture is to rob ourselves of connection that truly nourishes. The kind that “family” is supposed to embody. When I choose my family, I take the poison of grief and transmute it into love medicine. Titrate. Begin again.

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Image description:

An abstract art piece with an orange background, overlaid with swirls of blue and green.

About Wild Iris:

Wild Iris is a writer and artist based in the UK.

About S.N. Désirée Cha:

S.N. Désirée Cha is a writer, editor, and artist whose work appears at The ButterAutostraddleThe Rumpus, AlterNetThe Nervous Breakdown, and Hamilton Stone Review. She is a Fulbright and VONA/Voices alum who has lived in Europe, East Asia, and North America. Visit her online, find her on Twitter @sndesireecha, and support her work here.