The Missing Piece

For those who missed yesterday’s Sun Herald, my feature article below about open adoption was published in the Sunday Life magazine lift-out.

THE missing PIECE

Related by love: Sarah Salmon with her daughter Sophea, 7.


When my husband, Ben, and I returned from Cambodia with Sophea, our adopted baby, my cleaner whispered to me, “Will you tell her she’s adopted?”

I laughed. “She doesn’t look like me.”

“My daughter was also adopted,” she said. “I didn’t tell her till she was 21.”

Goosebumps prickled my arms. I couldn’t imagine having my entire background and identity turned on its head. “Does she know anything about her birth family?”

“No, she was found on the orphanage doorstep.”

A lump sat in my throat as I held back tears for her child, for her loss. Her history would be forever veiled in secrecy. At that moment, I decided my daughter would grow up knowing all of her past, understanding the roots that help form who she is. With the limited trail of paperwork I had from Sophea’s orphanage, I hired a lawyer in Cambodia to locate her birth family.

Less than a year later, my husband and I travelled with 18-month-old Sophea back to Cambodia. As our mini-van rattled past emerald lakes of rice paddies towards her birth village, I worried about the perils of meeting her birth family. Would they create problems? Would they ask for too much? But we needed to take the risk for Sophea. She had a right to know her story and build her identity with the facts of her history. She should not grow up longing for the knowledge that makes her whole.

Two hours into our journey, our driver veered onto a bumpy dirt track. We stopped at a thatched hut behind a tottering bamboo fence. My heart hammered in my chest. A woman appeared, her wrinkled skin as dry as the parched earth beneath her feet. A man in a sarong followed and smiled, radiating goodwill. I got out of the car, Sophea perched on my hip, as they placed their palms together and bowed in greeting. “They are Sophea’s grandparents,” the translator said.

“Hello. Soosday.” I bowed my head in Cambodian tradition. Tears clouded my vision. The grandmother stretched her arms out to Sophea, but Sophea turned her head away. I wondered if she had any recollection of this place or these people from her short time – maybe six or seven months – living here. The grandfather invited us into their hut and we climbed a rickety wooden ladder to sit on the bamboo floor, as barefoot children surrounded us. “They are Sophea’s cousins,” said the translator.

The grandfather lit incense sticks, the flame dancing in the reflection of his glasses. Sophea has the same heartshaped face, I thought. He reached for Sophea and lifted her from my lap. Cupping the back of her head in his hand, he closed his eyes to smell her, as though trying to inhale memories. As he kissed her cheek and cuddled her, Sophea’s head tilted towards her shoulder and she giggled. Every face in the room smiled. The grandfather reached behind a pile of dented cooking pots and held up an empty can of condensed milk. “Did not have enough food for Sophea,” the translator said. “She was sick after mother died.”

And so the story of Sophea’s life began. Over the few hours we sat in that hut, I was able to piece together bits of her history. When it was time to leave, parts of the jigsaw were still missing, but there would be more chances to complete the picture in years to come.

Before getting into our van, I bowed my head in farewell, my hands placed together. Sophea’s grandparents reached out and hugged me, the uninhibited act a touching deviation from tradition.

“We’ll visit again next year,” my husband promised. “I’ll send photos,” I said. The grandparents chanted a blessing for us, tears filling their eyes. My own eyes pooled with happy tears.

We drove away from the village with Sophea between us. She was their flesh and blood but she felt so much ours. The van bumped along the highway, past pink lotus flowers growing wild in the countryside. They opened their petals to the sun like arms reaching to the sky, just as we had reached out to Sophea’s birth family and were rewarded with their warmth.

We have visited Sophea’s birth village every year since, her biological family becoming our extended family. When Sophea, now seven, wants to know if she was a chubby newborn, or whether her birth mummy breastfed her before she died, we ask her birth family. She need not fantasise about her history – wonder what her birth family looks like, worry that they gave her away because she was bad, or taunt herself with thoughts they didn’t love her – because she can lower her anchor each time we travel to Cambodia and find safety from those concerns. She can recognise her Cambodian features in the faces of her cousins. She can connect to her roots.

Adoption should be open, not guarded with secrecy; it should involve a safe space for adoptees to learn their backgrounds and for families to find the children they gave up for adoption.

A door has opened for my daughter to build a bond with her birth family. While she is related to me by love, she is related to them by blood. They are both important relationship strings woven together to form a rope that secures the anchor of her identity. •