Thursday, February 8, 2018

Fight Song

This is my fight song
Take back my life song
Prove I'm alright song. . .

'Cause I've still got a lot of fight left in me

--"Fight Song,” Rachel Platten

I am face-down on the tatami mats, their grassy smell mixed with the salty tinge of human sweat. My body is spent from a good hour’s worth of aikido training.

I am feeling on my cheek the coolness of the laminate flooring of my house, my fists still encased in boxing gloves, muscles shaking from countless jabs and punches.

I am lying on a thin pad at daycare on a remote Indonesian island, the 100-degree heat causing beads of sweat to slide from my temples. My eyes were shut tight as I feigned a nap since those who refused to take one would be beaten. I was wishing, as I wished every day, that my parents would come back for me.

“Get up, Daisy,” said my inner voice. “Get up.” And so I do. I summon the strength to fight gravity, rise to my knees, push up with my palms against the ground. 

“Are you scared?” my friend asked over the phone when I had just recounted to her that my daughter was dead, on a day when I was waiting for the hospital call to be induced. She had suffered a stillbirth around the same time as me, and it was the most candid question I had to answer. Yes, I was scared. Of possibly getting an infection from my baby having died weeks ago inside me. Of not being strong enough to suffer emotional turmoil as I was giving birth. Of needing to be wheeled into emergency surgery if my body did not cooperate. Of not having the courage to look at or touch my little girl. Of having to bare my emotions in front of everyone at her memorial service. 

Yes, I am scared. Of how I’d face life afterward with a death like this hanging over me. Of having to return to work, suffer through traffic, starting again at Ground Zero with a history of infertility and a fetal demise fresh on my reproductive record.

But I am a fighter. It’s what my body knows. It refused to give up on me. During labor, its sole focus was to was to expel what was already lost, and as the pain of contractions seared at my mind like hot coals and my body stiffened up from it, I could feel my spirit grasping at the will to continue. I wanted to live, and I fought for it.

I know grief is not linear, and that with sheer brute force, it could muster up a strength to send me back on my knees. Those days will be hard, days when I will battle time to get everything done and get to where I need to be. Those moments will be frightening, when I could be sitting in a random work meeting and suddenly be assaulted with fresh memories of loss and pain. 

But I am a fighter, and I’ve still got a lot of fight left in me.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Tears in Heaven

Time can bring you down
Time can bend your knees
Time can break your heart
Have you begging please, begging please

Beyond the door
There's peace I'm sure
And I know there'll be no more
Tears in heaven

--“Tears in Heaven,” Eric Clapton

I am in line to pay at the Asian grocery store, fresh produce piled on the conveyor belt. I had not made the effort to cook in months. My mom came by weekly to tend to Luc and cook for us, and friends sent meals to our door. I have always associated the act of cooking with love, and lately I had so little left to give. Piled in small cardboard boxes next to the cashier are “lucky money” red envelopes to usher in the Year of the Dog. The lady in front of me quickly picks out a packet, considers the design of golden dogs etched in foil on the bright red envelopes, and tosses a pack into her pile of goods to pay for. Spring comes upon us as Lunar New Year approaches. What has been my favorite holiday is now tinged with a wave of pain for the baby I was also to have ushered in this very year. 

Luc at "Cho Tet" (Spring Market)

It’s been a week since Thi’s memorial. Over a month since her passing. 

 The Bay Area weather suddenly warmed up in the last week. The bitter bite of winter winds eases up to soft and gentle breezes. Rain that slapped the ground gave way to warm sunshine that basked everything in a gentle, golden glow. The hills around our house grow a gentle fuzz of green as cows graze happily in the company of their springtime calves. There is a scent in the air of flower blossoms in bloom, of homecooked meals that drift out more prominently from houses, a scent that hangs more heavily in the warmer air. The grief that visits me now is of a softer kind, like how spring gently and surreptitiously blankets the land. But there is always a keen remembrance of the harsh winter, and every now and again, I feel the slap of memory, its resonating sting pulsing and leaving me reeling.

“When was the first day of your last period?” asked a nurse when I came to see my family doctor for a chronic cough. My mind jumps back to the late-summer day when I took that pregnancy test that eventually ended with me plummeting into despair. 

“How many pregnancies have you had?” asked the routine OB/GYN medical forms. “Any losses?” Even before my own, I always winced at that question, wondering how those who had gone through losses can spare the emotional strength to confess to theirs over and over again.

“When do you think you may want to come by to discuss what you’d like engraved on Thi’s headstone?” asked the funeral arranger at the cemetery we selected for Thi.

“How’s the baby?” people may yet ask if they weren’t informed of our loss.

I’ve been advised that it is normal to bounce around the different stages of grief, sometimes all within the hour, and sometimes spread out across days and weeks, until the grief becomes softer and softer with the passage of time. We are changed forever, having gone through something like this. We’ll never be the same person we were before. We can only look back with acceptance, and move forward with hope.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

This is my letter to my girl, who never wrote to me. . .

In graduate school for Fine Arts, I was taught how to write. One way to write well is to tap into your deepest, strongest emotions, and I’d often play with the prospect of fear. What’s one of the worst pains I could imagine? From this premise, I wrote a story about a couple struggling with infertility, a journey that tore a rift into their loving relationship. Finally they conceive, but the baby is stillborn. I went to a dark place in my mind when I wrote that piece, but I could escape it; it was fiction after all, and I could go back to my normal life believing that I’d never live the nightmare that I wrote. But once in a while, our own foresight surprises us.

This is the letter I wrote to Thi across the past month, that I read at her memorial service.


Dear Thi,

It’s your Mama. Words are my profession and my passion. And yet this is one of the most difficult things that I had to write, because I keep failing at finding the right words to capture both my grief at your passing, and my love for you.

Ever since I've wanted children, I've very badly wanted a daughter (no offense, Luc). My bond with my mother makes me yearn for a little girl of my own to dress her up, braid her hair, teach her how to cook alongside me, share funny stories and heartfelt memories, model for her how to grow up strong. Your father and I tried for 18 long months before we were able to welcome your big brother into our lives, so it was such a blessing to bypass all that heartache when we discovered that you were on your way to join us, such a quick surprise. When I peeked at my pregnancy test, I couldn’t believe my luck; I thought I had won the lottery.

You gave me a run for my money from the start, Thi. Whereas I felt close to invincible when pregnant with your brother, I was constantly sick and nauseated with you. I tried to appease you with ginger candy and my all-time favorite, junkie craving—chips. I’d endure my long commutes from work eating chips I bought from the gas station.

We decided to do a “restaurant reveal” to find out if you were a boy or girl. On Mommy’s birthday, Daddy booked a nice seafood restaurant, and we gave a secret envelope to the waiter to reveal the surprise with dessert. When the strawberry sundae came with the words, “It’s a Girl!” written on the plate, it was one of the happiest days of my life. Now, I had won the lottery AND inherited a Nigerian prince’s fortune. A little girl to complete our family, to be born in the Year of the Dog, a sign loyal to family. I was living a dream, a perfect life.

Weeks and then months passed, and you were growing very well. Every time they hooked me up to check out your heartbeat, I’d hear it thumping away, so strong.

 Culturally, it’s frowned upon to make much fanfare out of announcing a baby’s arrival, and you’re not really supposed to buy baby things to stock up before the birth. But I was proud of you from the very beginning, my little girl, and I paraded you around for the world to see. Your Uncle Johnny helped us take maternity photos, our perfect family basked in the light of a warm autumn morning.

 We celebrated Thanksgiving and then Christmas together with all your grandmas and grandpas. Even now, I look back on those pictures with mixed feelings: sadness that you have gone, but happiness that once upon a time, we were able to embraced you in such love.

 The day after Christmas, Daddy had taken special time off work to meet you again. We went in together for your 20-week ultrasound expecting a feisty little baby kicking and moving around on the screen, but you were curled in on yourself, so still, and the doctor confirmed that she couldn’t find a heartbeat.

We named you Thi Aracelli Sen. It means, “Poem of the Altar of the Sky,” a celestial-themed name so I can always remember you as I look up at the heavens and think of you.

In the two nights I spent before I was called into the hospital to be induced, I kept thinking of how these were the last nights we’d spend together as a family of four. As winter winds coursed coldly outside, at least you were still inside me, safe and warm.

Your brother Luc always mentions you at night. He’d constantly say, “Baby” and “Em” (little sister) as he kissed my ballooning belly. Then he’d fall asleep pressed against me with his warm little hand on my stomach to bid you goodnight. If I could bear the grief for my one living child, I’d gladly do so, and though my heart breaks with twice the pain when he mentions you, I’m comforted that in his innocence, he is spared. My emotions are at war—joy for the one that made it, sorrow for the one that didn’t, ineffable love for them both.

A hollow grief visited me the night after I delivered you, Thi. Sweet sleep with all its generosity had stolen away with stealthy wings. Deep is my love for you, but deeper my despair. My baby girl is gone where I can’t follow. Your bare little feet, too small to be bound in shoes, must pace their unsure way to lands I’ve never been.

I’ll never hold your hands as I did with your brother, one step at a time until he found his way.

They said you turned to liquid overnight after I wrapped you up in your hospital blanket and let them take you away. I cradled you, so small in the palm of my hand, and played you lullabies my shaky voice could not be entrusted to sing. Your father, head hung over, said a last farewell. You were a tiny babe only half-formed, stolen forever in eternal sleep.

Cold is your journey, my intrepid little traveler. May all the lost babies beckon with warm voices to light your path. You’re gone now, and this well of dark grief remains like a heavy stone I’ve swallowed whole.

I hope that from afar, you can still feel the depths of a mother’s love.

What does it feel like to leave my baby behind? To drive away from the hospital knowing that you laid waiting in the cold room as we were swallowed by this void? There aren’t the words for me to describe this longing. You were too small for me to keep a lock of your hair or a keepsake of your hand or footprints. I clutched your memory box to me in place of you, empty except for my hospital ID bracelet. In time, I hope to fill it with memories.

In the days following my homecoming, I had trouble making sense of things. Why had Christmas passed, and it’s now the first day of a new year? This earth keeps spinning, and I am thrown off its axis despite its slow rotation. I did trivial chores, cleaning out the clutter of old receipts. I kept looking at the dates as I backtracked through time, wondered what I was eating or doing or buying, what insignificant thing was I caught up with on the day and in the moment my baby died? Did I think of you at all on that day? Talk to you? Touch my stomach to let you know I love you? Or was I clueless and busy, going through life with a false sense of security, thinking everything would be alright, and that I was somehow to be spared this type of grief?

Life without you is punctuated with cruel reminders. In the early morning hours, subtle movements in my tummy—my organs gradually shifting back into place, or gas roiling through—would feel like fetal movements, another way the mind plays cruel tricks on the heart. I’d often subconsciously touch my belly, feeling your phantom kicks. Functioning on auto-pilot, I’d stagger awake to warm up Luc’s morning cup of milk, my womb contracting as it remembered what my arms already knew: that it was now empty of a baby to nurture and cradle and love.

There are many things I wish. That I could hear the words, “I love you, Mama” from your lips. That I could hold you for another day and sing you to sleep after the sun goes down. That I could feel your warm hand on me, look into your eyes, stroke your hair. That I could go back to the day of your 20-week ultrasound, and that it would be completely different. Your grandmother would hear your heart beat strong and see you wiggle around on the screen. We’d drive from the clinic with pictures of you, and we’d go about our lives, complaining about having to return to work after the winter shutdown, and meet you in the summer, fully formed, crying your first breaths of this earth’s air. But these things are not to be.

Those of us who go through this often say they don’t feel strong. I’ve reached out to friends who have gone through the same thing, telling them how strong they are to have gone through this and come out the other side. They suffered one or multitudes of losses, and yet they came out of each loss with a greater sense of empathy, generosity, humor, and love; it gives me hope for clawing out of this darkness myself. They never see their strength. I don’t see mine now, days when I lie in bed for the umpteenth hour, even though I have the physical capability to get up and do things. Maybe one day, Thi, you will show me my strength as well. The grief is deep, and sometimes I could not find the bottom to give myself leverage to climb out. I seem to be falling forever, but then I hear the voices of friends and family beckoning to me from better, lighter times, and I will follow this sound like a guiding thread from my sadness.

It gives me hope too, that you have received love from all over the world, people who think of and remember you. This thought fills me with such an incredible hope that the human heart can endure this and still come out so generous and compassionate to others.

Dear Thi. One of my favorite memories of us together was one late-summer day when I decided to have lunch close to my former workplace. I ordered for takeout and picnicked at a park table near a townhouse complex. Afterward, I took a walk, meandering along the houses, appreciating the neatly manicured flower bushes and water fountains.

 I used to walk there every day when I could find a quiet moment from work and talked to your brother when he hung heavy in my belly. That day, I had my longest conversation with you, uninterrupted by work or life or Luc wanting my attention. Just you and me, baby girl, and I told you all about my hopes and dreams for you.

So Mommy will say goodbye for now with a modified rendition of one of her favorite poems, achingly haunting with the idea of death, but also with a kernel of hope that the ones we hold dear are never far, and are always watching over us in spirit, with love.

“The Wind on the Downs” (by Marian Allen)

I like to think of you as sweet and small,
As strong and living as you used to be,
Matching my heartbeat, rhythmic as it falls,
Tucked in so safe and warm inside of me.
Because they tell me, dear, that you are dead,
Because I can no longer see your face,
You have not died, it is not true, instead
You seek adventure some other place.
That you are round about me, I believe;
I hear you laughing as you used to do,
Yet loving all the things I think of you;
And knowing you are happy, should I grieve?
You follow and are watchful where I go;
How should you leave me, having loved me so?

We walked along the towpath, you and I,
Beside the sluggish-moving, still canal;
It seemed impossible that you should die;
I think of you the same and always shall.
We thought of many things and spoke of few,
And life lay all uncertainly before,
And now I walk alone and think of you,
And wonder what new kingdoms you explore.
Over the railway line, across the grass,
While up above the golden wings are spread,
Flying, ever flying overhead,
Here still I see your tiny figure pass,
And when I leave meadow, almost wait,
That you should open first the wooden gate.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

When She Loved Me

Through the summer and the fall
We had each other that was all
Just she and I together
Like it was meant to be

And when she was lonely
I was there to comfort her
And I knew that she loved me

“When She Loved Me,” Sarah McLachlan

Out of habit, I kept eating as though I was still pregnant. I stayed away from sushi and cold cuts, opted out of pate and Vietnamese mayo, made with raw eggs, on my sandwiches. I mindlessly lathered  lavender body oil on my stomach and breasts after my shower as if still trying to prevent stretch marks.

Being so careful about food before taps into my “anger” stage of grief; it’s so ironic how I tried everything I could to be “good” and protect my baby, abstaining from food that some women don’t consider a big deal to ingest while pregnant, reading the ingredients on self-care products such as lotions, face creams, and shampoos. And all of it is to no avail. As awareness crept in, along with the acceptance that I was no longer pregnant, I allowed myself to and enjoy some sunny-side-up runny eggs, decaf coffee, and a sandwich with pate. I went to lunch by myself during my maternity leave and ordered a rainbow roll from one of my favorite sushi restaurants. I started pouring wine to sip with dinner. I know, I’m very much living on the edge.

I could never forget how hard it was to take that first step off the ultrasound table the day I found out Thi had died. Since then, every step has been a hard one. I kept dreading the next steps: the pain of labor, the anguish of researching funeral homes, the heartbreak of having to speak and show my grief in public at her memorial service. I was navigating a terrain in which I had no experience. People offered to help me do these things. But I couldn’t hold my little girl, nurse her daily, stay up with her nightly. I couldn’t do anything more for her but to put my heart into these details and see her off. All these hard things, I do out of love.

And now I see. It was as if my previous blindness from an oblivion of ignorance suddenly granted me sight beyond sight. I started seeing the mothers who grieve for their dead babies, the fathers who trudge onward at their jobs with an emptiness in their souls. I know their pain and see them in their loneliest hours—how they stare into the void. How they struggle to find strength to get up and keep moving through a life that has dealt them such a cruelty.

 A loss at 5 weeks, 5 months, 1 doesn’t matter. Even if they didn’t look fully formed yet, these babies leave an indelible impression on our hearts.