37-year wait over for man as he meets lost daughter
The empty space remained unfilled, and the guilt never left. He replayed it often in his mind: what he should have done differently; the calls he should have made and the letters he should have written; the things he should have said; the man he should have been.
He was 37 years past being able to change anything, and all he had was a single black-and-white photo of a bright-eyed toddler with shiny, bobbed hair.
His daughter. His lost daughter.
He remembered the 18 hours of labor, the cracked linoleum floor on which she was born, the tiny house in the South Korean village of Chang-mal. He remembered saying goodbye, thinking it was temporary.
And then the call.
Several days after New Year’s 2011, Steve Inman’s son called with a tease and impossible news: “I’ve got a good Christmas present for you, Dad,” Steve Inman Jr. told him. “We found Sally.”
Was it a joke? Steve Sr., 59, paced his Grand Junction living room and peppered his son with questions. What? How? Where is she? When can we see her?
The daughter he and his then-wife, Chum Ku Yi, had left with her grandmother in South Korea while they returned to America to work out her immigration papers, and who had disappeared like mist, was alive and living in North Carolina. Her name was Sally Blue, and she had found a Facebook page Steve Jr. created for “Sally Inman (missing child).”
“All those years, I just didn’t know what happened to her,” Steve Sr. said, “or how it happened. And here she was. My daughter.”
He was a U.S. Army soldier stationed in South Korea when he met Chum Ku Yi. They fell in love and had a daughter, who they named Sally. They weren’t married when she was born, he said, which was the start of their problems.
SNARL OF RED TAPE
The U.S. and Korean governments wouldn’t recognize Sally as Steve’s daughter without a blood test, he said, which meant they couldn’t get immigration documents for her. The blood test results claimed Ku Yi wasn’t Sally’s mother, Steve said, “which was crazy. I mean, I saw her being born.”
For eight months, they tried in Korea to get the documents they needed, then decided to return to Salt Lake City, Steve’s hometown, and try at that end. They left Sally with her grandmother and arranged to send money back to South Korea through a friend. They met dead-ends here, too, and their frustration mounted.
They sent letters and money, he said, and heard from Ku Yi’s mother and from their former nanny, who was helping out. And then… nothing. No letters, no contact.
They were in their early 20s and dead broke, so they didn’t have the money to fly back to South Korea, he said. Calls didn’t go through. Letters went unanswered. Things got confusing. Ku Yi’s aged mother called and said the nanny had taken Sally. That didn’t make sense to Steve. They trusted the nanny. But Sally was just ... gone.
“I felt so helpless,” he said.
BLAME AND GUILT
In hindsight, with 37 years’ perspective, the steps they should have taken are clear. It’s so easy to flagellate himself for not doing enough, for handling things poorly, for giving up too easily. But as a father in his mid-20s — they’d had another daughter, Connie, and then Steve Jr. — he was overwhelmed. He also admits he was drinking too much. His marriage was crumbling. In a moment of weakness and heartbreak, he left.
Ku Yi, Connie and Steve Jr. moved to California. Steve Sr. landed in Grand Junction. In each of their lives was an empty space the shape of Sally. Her absence cast a shadow.
Through the years, they periodically tried to find her, only to meet dead-ends or proposed private investigator bills in the tens of thousands of dollars. It wasn’t until Steve Jr. had his own child, a son named Miyka, that things started happening. He had written to TV talk show host Oprah Winfrey and e-mailed reporters, hoping to drum up help in finding Sally, but he finally just created a Facebook page last August and posted 12 photos of baby Sally.
“Thank God I have computer-literate kids,” Steve Sr. said.
But nothing happened for four months, no nibbles, no inquiries. Then, the day after New Year’s, a teenage girl named Candace Blue left a message on Steve Jr.‘s voicemail. The photos on that Facebook page, she said, were of her mom.
Steve Jr. called back and was at first skeptical, Steve Sr. said, but he finally was convinced when Sally mentioned a birthmark on her lip. Sally Blue of Lillington, N.C., was Sally Inman, missing for 37 years.
From Sally, they learned what really happened: The long-reviled nanny, who was very old, accepted help from her daughter, Chun (also called Susie), a friend of Steve Sr. and Ku Yi. Chun and her husband, an American serviceman, eventually adopted Sally and moved to Texas when Sally was 3.
“Susie was always real honest with Sally,” Steve Sr. said. “She knew she was adopted. She knew her last name was Inman.”
Sally, too, had searched for her biological family and finally struck gold when she asked her daughter Candace to do a Facebook search for “Sally Inman.”
With that search and the subsequent call, a family’s story began to be rewoven. Plans were made for Sally and three of her seven children to fly to Fontana, Calif., where Steve Jr., Ku Yi and Connie live. Steve Sr. arranged for time off from his job at Wal-Mart’s tire and lube center and made the 12-hour drive, his thoughts careening like fireflies.
They’d talked on the phone, he said, but walking into Steve Jr.‘s living room, seeing her for the first time in 37 years, “was ... you just can’t imagine,” Steve Sr. said. “I knew it was her immediately. When I looked in her eyes, I just knew.”
The next five days were a gauzy haze of banishing lost time, he said. He had left a baby, and now here was this woman, this mother who will be a grandmother in March, this stubborn, strong person who put herself through nursing school, this spitting image of Connie, the missing piece of the puzzle.
Some nights, he said, they all piled like puppies onto one bed, talking and dozing and, subconsciously, making sure Sally wasn’t going anywhere. Driving away from Fontana was excruciating, he said, memories of the last time he’d left her spilling through his heart.
This time, though, he had photos and recent memories and knowledge of this exceptional daughter. He had tentative plans for Sally and her family to visit Colorado this summer. And he had a phone number that he can call any time. Which he does.
“Hi, Sally,” he’ll say. “It’s Dad.”