Look At Me

In one video of Nora, she is 14 months old, wearing gray cotton pants that I had picked up on sale at Target, white onesies with small flowers on the chest, and a pink knitted hat. Even though this is a home outfit, it is along the style that I have intentionally designed for her: clean, simple, and understated. In the background of the video, her grandmother is singing an upbeat Khmer song, and I am clapping to the beat: 1-2-1-2. At first Nora flaps her arms as though they are wings she can’t control, and jiggles from side to side, and then she rapidly claps her hands as she rocks on her feet. While she wildly shakes her head like she is in protest, she smiles so wide that it seems her entire body is laughing. When the song is nearing the end, she screeches in delight and reveals her teeth, fully satisfied with herself.

About five months after I took that video, I enrolled Nora in a Mommy and Me dance class. Following instructions from the dance studio, I ordered Nora leotards, tights, ballet slippers, and tap shoes. On the morning of the first class, I pulled on myself black yoga pants and running shoes and donned Nora in white tights and plain bubblegum-pink leotards. Her father waited to leave for work so that he could see her first. Wrapped in her dance attire, she reminded me of a plump rosebud.

At 19 months old, Nora was the youngest in class. She was also the newest, the other toddlers having had started about two months earlier. In the early weeks, Nora leaned stiffly against my leg while the other kiddos attempted to mimic the instructor, and I was beginning to wonder if I had registered her for the wrong reason. Had I done it for myself — because I had never had the chance to join a ballet class as a child? But after a couple of weeks into the class, Nora’s confidence emerged, and she began to dance as well as any new toddler could. She sometimes tapped her shoes along with me. She sometimes hopped like a bunny as she attempted to chasse. She sometimes stomped as she attempted to tiptoe. At home, she was eager to show off what she had learned from that morning, like her high kicks, and eventually she began to instruct her father, grandmother, and me to watch her. “Look at me. Look at me,” she would order as she lowered her bum to the floor, folded her legs into butterfly wings, and touched her nose to her toes. And we would clap for her each time, truly amazed with her ability.

Nora lived for her dance class that was on Saturday mornings. Throughout the week, she would ask about her classmates, particularly about the oldest little girl who wore a new leotard or tutu each week. She wanted to wear her tap shoes and ballet shoes around the house. She was eager to slip into her tights and leotards on the morning of class. I lived for Nora’s dance class, too. Watching Nora in that studio with mirrored walls and barres was like watching her dip her toes in the ocean for the first time. Her fascination. Her deliberation. Watching her assessing her world and then permitting herself to delve into that world helped me to better understand my world.

Back around December I had begun to hear talks about the dance recital that would take place later in June. Our class of kiddos from 18-month-olds to three-year-olds would dance (with their moms beside them) on stage for their families’ and friends’ enjoyment. I was not sure about signing Nora up for the recital, but I did not balk at the idea, either. Actually, I thought it would be funny, and maybe fun. Parents who wanted their child to participate would need to order a dance costume. After the holidays, I inquired about the cost. The price tag of $85 appalled me, and I jumped on my soapbox. I cannot, cannot in good conscience, pay $85 for a dress that my daughter will dance in for less than two minutes on just one day. Yes, I want to give her what I myself didn’t have, but I can’t do it. I just can’t! We are not those kind of people! No one — not Danith, his mom, or my friends — said that I was unreasonable, and after three months of agonizing over whether to purchase the costume or not, I chose not. Later, as ordered costumes were beginning to trickle in, I learned that it had a sequined bodice with peach and teal straps and a puffy tutu skirt of purple, blue, orange, and pink. Nora’s dance costume sounded like a cotton candy milkshake, so I was even more satisfied that I hadn’t spent money on such a frilly little dress.

Beginning in January, Nora’s class practiced the recital dance. Except for the two older girls, none of the other toddlers could keep up with the steps. None of us moms cared. In class, I began to let go of Nora’s hand. I stood against the wall during the warm-up routine, while the kiddos, in the center of the room, listened to the music for cues on how to move, like galloping like a horse or gliding like an ice skater. Nora managed her surrounding with both fumbles and ease, and I watched her with admiration. My barely two-year-old understanding that she had a place in the world. Nora’s confidence continued to blossom outside the dance studio, as well. Look at me, Momma. Look at me. I would drop what I was doing to watch her blow soap bubbles, to watch her teeter across a balance beam, to watch her fold her hands into a hive for imaginary bees to hide. While I watched her, I would sometimes wonder what was occurring in her head at that moment. I wondered because I was perplexed by this understanding and confidence that she possessed. As a child, I never asked my parents to look at me. Actually, I preferred that they didn’t. Their comments, although never outright mean, were often prickly. If I brought home a second prize, they reminded me that another girl had brought home a first prize. If I felt proud of a painting, they asserted that I should have been embarrassed for having cared so much about it. What did Nora see differently?

In March the dance studio emailed with instructions for group photographs. Everyone in a group photo must wear her recital costume. This was the first time I had learned that Nora and her class would have a group photo taken. Participation was, of course, voluntary. But how could I not let her be a part of it? This would be her first official class photo. She was well liked in that class, and she equally liked everyone. But she did not have a costume, and more urgently, the deadline for ordering one had already passed. The following Saturday, she and I left the house early so that we could stop by the office at the studio before class. I had prepared a long paragraph for why I now needed a costume for my daughter. Fortunately, the studio director did not need my speech. Pleasantly, she promised to try her very best to place my order. If she was able to make it happen, she said, I would need to pay an extra charge for the late order. Of course, I replied.

A week after I ordered the dance costume, the pandemic hit, most businesses shut down, and Nora and I no longer attended dance class on Saturday mornings. It wasn’t until five days ago — four months after the special order — that Nora and I drove back to the studio, to pick up the costume for which I had ended up paying $105. In the end I purchased a costume that my daughter will never wear for a recital, not even for two minutes on just one day. However, she does twirl in it in front of our windows, cook in it at her play kitchen, and run around in it on the playground. When we first pulled the costume out of the white tissue paper, Nora dragged it on the floor, exclaiming that it was so beautiful. After her grandmother helped her into it, she cried out to me, “Look at me, Momma. Look at me!” And I looked at her, the center of my world.

Oh, Baby Nora

Our friends say that Nora is smart. Even intelligent. And I think that they may be right? In comparison to what is deemed standard, she started speaking and building a vocabulary early on, her first word being the proverbial “pa-pa.” She moved onto two-word phrases rather quickly. She is now speaking in complete short sentences, albeit not many. Today, while playing outside and waiting for her grandmother to join us, she screamed up at the house, “Come on. Are you okay?” She sings nursery rhymes, in both English and our native language. Sometimes, she mixes things up by changing the lyrics, intentionally, I’m pretty certain. She reads a person well, too. Or, rather, she understands a person well, sensing the heart, and not wanting to hurt it.

Danith bought a new car recently, and she’s taken a great liking to it, being easily satisfied with just sitting in the backseat of it while it stays parked in the garage and music from its sound system filling the air around her. During lunch a couple of days ago, I asked her, “Do you like your pa-pa’s car better, or do you like your momma’s car better?” Surprisingly she did not answer immediately. Soon, though, she said, “Pa-pa’s.” Then her eyes flinched, and another second passed before she continued, “And momma’s.” Her grandmother repeated my question, and she answered, “Pa-pa’s and momma’s.” I told her that it was okay that she preferred her father’s car over mine, that I was not upset, but she was sure of her answer. “Baby likes Pa-pa car and momma car.”

Nora refers to herself as Baby…still. As both subject pronoun and object pronoun. I can’t seem to break her from this grammatical blunder. Two weeks ago she fought bedtime, and because her sleeping well is important to me (maybe too important), I stood my ground and refused to pick her up. I watched her in the baby monitor crying for me. She fiercely declared what she wanted, “Take Baby to go Momma bed!” She also declared the unpleasant state she was in, “Momma, Baby Nora crying.” I don’t know how to teach her to use “I” and “me” in her sentences. I’ve even tried taking her finger and pressing it into her chest while singing, “I…I…I” and “me…me…me.” But to no avail. In the interest of full disclosure, though, I don’t fight this. I actually free her finger rather quickly, and pull her into my chest and speak into her ear, “Oh, Baby Nora.”

Our Nora turned two years old this week. I can’t say that the days flew by, but I can say that the years have. At this time last year, she cried to communicate and was toddling. Now she cries and speaks and is running. Her transformation from day-to-day and week-to-week is flawless and seamless – the magic behind it stunning. How could the mechanics happen so effortlessly? Danith and I are baffled by each new word she speaks and each new nuance she displays. In honesty, her entirety baffles us. She gently pats her friends and offers them her snacks. She happily shares her toys. She leans down and presses her nose to wildflowers. She chases birds. She sings to her grandmother, “I love you more than I can say.” She slow-dances with her father. She grabs my arm with one hand and strokes it with the other, whispering my name, “Mommy.” Where did she learn to express love? How does she know to love? How could a mere child of two years possess the heart that is within her? How could a mere person luminate my world so brightly? I told Danith that eventually she will lose her purity. Some newfound knowledge she gains will have no patience for her innocence. It is inevitable. One day, when we are least expecting it, she will begin to call herself “I.”

Last holiday season, I taught Nora “Oh, Christmas Tree.” I know only the first four lines of the song. A few nights later, when Nora woke up in the middle of the night, I picked her up and rocked her, and sang the song to her, incorporating my own lyrics:

Oh, Baby Nora
Oh, Baby Nora
I love you
Oh, Baby Nora
Oh, Baby Nora
I love you
You are so sweet, and you are so kind
You are so smart, and you are so strong
Oh, Baby Nora
Oh, Baby Nora
You are so beautiful

Sometimes, when I least expect it — like when she is at her play kitchen washing her hands or when she is crouched into a corner with an upside-down book — I hear her sing to herself, “Oh, Baby Nora, you are so kind…”

That is right, my love. You are so smart.

 

Passed Friendship

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I pull out of our cul-de-sac and onto the main road, slowing as I cut the corner. The street light further down is gleaming red against the late evening sky, so I set my foot on the brakes and my eyes on the four tall window panes in my living room that faces the street. There, in the second pane to the left, is my family. Unlike the others, the shutters to this window have been rolled up, so I see them fully. Framed by the four sides of the rectangular glass are my husband, my mother-in-law, and my baby girl. All three are waving at me. Danith is standing in the background, while his mother perches on her knees and holds up Nora’s arm and hand. I imagine her reviewing with Nora what to say, “Momma, be back soon.” I roll down my window and wave back at them, but all of the waving, really, is for Nora, who, just a few minutes earlier, was pulling my fingers and insisting that I sit in her coveted chair and not leave her.

I am on my way to meet friends for a Mexican dinner. I decided to don myself in a loose navy and white striped dress, brown boots, and a jean jacket. It is not my first night out since Nora’s arrival. In fact, I’ve been going out almost regularly since her arrival. Dinners. Lunches. Drinks. Writer’s group. Book group. I have been going out more frequently now than I have ever had in my life. My heart is full, not because I am about to see friends, but because I cannot believe that this is my life now. Nora has been with us for nineteen months, but each day still feels surreal. To me, it still feels surreal.

I want to share this moment with someone. I want to talk about the evening, how it is on the cusp of nighttime, how the gray will roll into black anytime now, maybe even in the next second, and how the normally busy road is quiet, so that I am allowed this opportunity to sit in my car and drink in my daughter waving at me. And then my heart sinks. I have no one to tell any of this to. Surely, I could try to explain it to my friends tonight at the restaurant, but, really, would they understand? How do I explain my life at one dinner setting? Some of them know about Daffy and Kiri — and all of them know about Nora — but would they truly understand more than the ten words I would hastily speak about this moment?

I miss my friend. I wouldn’t have had to say much to her for her to understand. That was often the case for us. Sometimes, we didn’t exchange words — just a quick lock of our eyes — and we understood. “They just stood there. Waving,” I would have told her. And her smile would have expanded across her face. She laughed with her mouth opened, she cried with her mouth closed, and she smiled most deeply with her lips touching and stretched wide almost to her ears. Then she would take in a deep breath and nod, her upper body rising and falling, pulling me in, reassuring me. There was no need for me to explain. Someone other than myself knows. This is my life now. I have the family that I had dreamed about as a child. And I have a living daughter. A living daughter! Who wants me. Who needs me. I am protected from the cold. I am not scared of the night. After two hours of sharing conversations with friends, I will return home to all of them, my permanence. They will be waiting for me. This is my life now, and I am not scared.

Twelve years of friendship have ended. Twelve years of being each other’s safety net. Of giggling like seven-year-olds. Of sharing secret dreams. And fears. Of being each other’s guard. Of falling in character. Of rising as women. Of three parents dying. Of two dogs dying. Of two babies dying. Of two babies thriving. Of firecrackers on the day after the Fourth of July. Of Grace on Thanksgiving. Of sisterhood. Of promises of wrinkles and gray hair. Of unspoken trust. Of watching her daughter blossoming. All of it ended. They came to a close with no fair understanding of why.

The death of a friendship is a quiet cry. There is no passed life to mourn over. No day to commemorate with a trip to the river. No monetary donation made to a cause. But there is grief. It sits dormant until a moment like this — when life is bursting with gratitude and simplistic comfort — is a reminder that there is nothing, not like that one, to share it with. So, the heart pinches, the eyes tear up, and the internal dialogue begins. And you speak to that passed friendship like you would to your passed children: Nora is here, and I wish you were, too.

Parents’ 1st Birthday

Last month, on the day Nora turned one year old, Danith and I started out early, before the sun fully rose. We met Nora’s God-Aunt and God-Uncle at Dunkin Donut for our lattes, and then we all drove out to the historical society, where last November Danith and I paid a deposit to use its classrooms. The building was once a grade school, and even though most of its spaces have been renovated, the old school feel remains. Visitors could see actual blackboards, cursive alphabets running above the boards, old wooden student desks, and retired 60’s cheerleading uniforms from the nearby high school. The small brick-building is quaint and charming, and I felt it would be the perfect setting.

Initially, I had been reluctant to hold a large party for Nora’s first birthday. Before she was born, I heard some people ridicule the idea of a big soirée for a child, and I heard other people remark that any party at an early age was more for the parents. Really, what will the baby understand? I did not want Danith and me to be seen as those parents who used their baby to throw a bash for themselves. Nora, after all, couldn’t even feed herself a full meal and still needed help with climbing down the stairs. What would she know about the day she was born on? Nothing. She wouldn’t even feel a day older. And, she would never, ever recall the occasion. So, a cupcake at home, with just her parents and her grandmother, would adequately serve the purpose of recognizing her big day. But my reluctance wavered when it hit me: our daughter hadn’t been celebrated or adored at a baby shower before she entered this world. No one guessed her weight and length, and no one drank pink punch in honor of her gender. At that time, a friend offered to throw us a shower, but I was hesitant to partake in such a festivity. And, now, I felt guilty for not having allowed Nora the opportunity to be celebrated, like other fetuses. It had not been fair to her.

In the few months preceding the party, I was engulfed in planning. I texted our play group during a road trip: I know it is early, so don’t laugh, but save the date! On many nights I sat up in bed and perused Pinterest for ideas before I finally settled on light pink roses as the inspiration for the party. I just want the day to be pretty, I answered an out-of-state friend when she asked me about the theme. After Christmas I designed the invitation to have large open roses at the top. I built the menu and amended it about ten times: fried rice, fried noodles, two different types of shrimp, dumplings, egg rolls, meatballs, chicken strips, and salad. I ordered two types of cakes and also cupcakes, which would share the dessert table with clear vases of Kisses, trays of fruits, and trays of cookies. Our drink table would be overflowing with sparking water, strawberry punch, and beer and wine for the adults. During the latter stages of planning, a couple of friends commented on the abundance of food we would have. Of course, it was ridiculously too much. All of it was getting to be too much. I know, I said to them, but, you see, Nora didn’t have a baby shower.

So, on the cool and sunny March morning of Nora’s birthday, her aunt and uncle and I set out to decorate the classrooms at the historical building. Mason jars of eucalyptus seeds and pink spray roses sat at the center of each table. Wreaths of oversized pink roses, whose shade was as light as Nora’s palms, and greenery hung on the walls. Pictures of Nora, one from each month of her life thus far, dangled down a blackboard with strings of white silk ribbons. Tulle of blush-like pink draped down the wall behind the dessert table. A line of shimmering pink and white balloons would serve as the backdrop for when Nora bit into her first cupcake, our version of the smash cake. We set up a table with a poster and pamphlets of the charity that we asked any gifts be made to. We set up an activity table with Play Doh and coloring pages for older kids and a play area with barnyard animal balloons for the younger ones. We would have guided activities of origami-making and paper flower-making for both children and adults. All of our young guests would leave the celebration with a book wrapped in pink paper as a party favor.

And our friends began to arrive. Many drove only a few miles from their home, but some drove in from nearby states. Many had already met Nora, but for some, this would be their first time. I had imagined carrying Nora and holding her up to each person as he or she entered the old school, almost as though Nora were Simba. But, oftentimes, I couldn’t find Nora that day. Our daughter, donned in a coral-pink dress with pintuck pleats around the waist and a white cardigan with scalloped edges, had learned to fully walk just a month earlier. Now she independently toddled from one group of guests to the next. She was also busily and jubilantly playing with the barnyard animal balloons, hugging her same-sized friends, and cruising from table to table, room to room, sometimes with a small entourage of little folks trailing her. And the big folks (the ones who are her parents’ friends) adored her. They allowed her to feed them. They indulged her antics of grabbing their belongings and stealthily walking away with them. They simply couldn’t get over how vibrant and engaging she was. And, later in the afternoon, when she was planted in her pink paper-flower-decorated high chair with the balloons behind her, she clapped her hands and shrieked with laughter. And everyone — everyone who was present, everyone who loved her and her parents — watched her with admiration and splendid wonder.

When I recall Nora’s first birthday, I immediately see abundance. Of friends filling the rooms. Of beauty, of laugher. Of generosity. And of love. Nora will never remember how the bright sun rays beamed into the classrooms or how our guests sang her praises. Fortunately I have a short video of us all gathered around her, about to sing happy birthday to her. It reveals her grinning with her mouth open at our friends, her hands quickly coming together, and her shrieking in pure joy. It reveals, too, her father, who wore a pink tie, proudly standing beside her; and me, who wore a dusty light pink blouse, leaning into her head once too many times to kiss it. More importantly, it reveals the many friends who came and shared in the special occasion with us, showering her with adoration and filling her parents’ hearts with what they had hoped for, even before she was born: that her life be celebrated and honored.

 

Everything Comes Back To You

Watercolor by Deea in London

When I was a little girl, my parents were typical Asians in that their greatest fear was their daughter entangling herself in love and romance and, as a result, bringing shame to the family. A dutiful daughter — no matter how young or old — was one who was innocent and oblivious of matters of the heart. My parents threatened to disown me and to beat me (in their defense, many of the Asian parents back then made similar threats to their own children). As frightening as my mom was, that fear didn’t squash my being boy-crazy. In the second grade, my girl friends and I would deliriously run at recess, screaming in delight as the cutest and most popular boys in class chased us among oak trees. In the third grade, a redhead named Mikey would prop up his chin in the cup of his hands and openly declared his affection for me. I still remember his long eyelashes fluttering in my face as he asked if he could make an announcement about feelings to the entire school via the intercom. In the fifth grade, I almost fainted when the music teacher paired me with a tall skinny blonde, with whom I was to practice the waltz for a school performance. That would be my first time touching a boy’s hand. In middle school, I sometimes woke up early to turn the radio on, hoping a favorite song would come on to accompany my thoughts as they swirled around a particular boy. I didn’t understand what the big deal was about having a boyfriend or even just liking boys: I was still able to bring home good grades. Sure, I spent much of my time daydreaming (and nightdreaming) about those boys. Sure, I spent about as much time attempting to calm my too-loud-thumping heart. But, along with time wasted, there were butterflies. Those flying insects soared and dipped in my stomach, they lifted my feet off the ground, and they brought warmth — and sometimes fire — to my cheeks. I kept my grade-school love life hidden from my parents and pledged that I would be different from them when the time came.

A few years ago, Danith’s teenaged niece came to live with us for two school years. In many ways (at least, I would like to think so), Elizabeth was like me. She wanted to excel. She wanted to have a friend with whom she shared deep roots. And she liked the boys. As far as we were aware, she had first tried at the romance pool when she was only in the third grade. In fact, she had inadvertently placed herself in a love triangle. After her parents discovered this, she vowed to all of us that she would never have a boyfriend again. Of course, I did not consider third-grade love affairs to be indicative of her worth as a girl or her future professional life, and I believe I even spoke to that sentiment to her parents. When Elizabeth moved in with us for her seventh grade year, Danith and I noticed that she possessed great qualities, among them drive and spunk. We were the typical parent-figures in that we believed anything was possible for our niece. And that was when the fears set in for me as her guardian: what if Elizabeth became so entrenched in a relationship that it would ruin her future? (Her being only in middle school at the time didn’t seem to mitigate the fear.) I never threatened to disown Elizabeth or to beat her, but I did begin to speak to her about boys, explaining that they would occupy too much of her mind and that she needed her mind for the books. “You can like boys,” I said. “But don’t make them your boyfriend. This will cause you so many problems.” She never argued with me, always nodding her head and promising that she was listening to me. I found myself skeptical of her easy-to-please nature, though, so I began to make deals with her: get your bachelor’s degree first and then have as many boyfriends as you want!

I am not sure if my talks about romance confused Elizabeth. On the one hand, I permitted her to like boys. On the other hand, I ordered her to stay away from them. The ridiculousness of my thinking that I had such control over a person was not lost on me, but I couldn’t sit still and do nothing to help my niece’s future. So, although I realized that I was sounding absurd and equivocal during those talks with her, I still prided myself on honesty and, thus, I didn’t try to sound otherwise. It was simpler that way. First, I knew that I couldn’t forbid Elizabeth to like boys or even stop her from secretly starting a relationship with one. If she were as similar to me as I thought she was, then she was already spending hours at night with her earpieces in as one particular song repeated itself while she wondered about her crush. Does he like me, too? Second, there is something to be said about young love. It is green — of the most tender shade — and beautiful and real, and the height to which the young butterflies soar can not and should not be shortened with a leash.

A couple of years ago when Niall Horan began singing about a town, the lyrics consumed me. It wasn’t Danith who was occupying my mind, but Daffy. Even today, when the song plays in the car, my mind goes back to our older daughter.

Waking up to kiss you and nobody’s there
The smell of your perfume still stuck in the air
It’s hard
Yesterday I thought I saw your shadow running round
It’s funny how things never change in this old town
So far from the stars

Wish I was there with you now
If the whole world was watching I’d still dance with you
Drive highways and byways to be there with you
Over and over the only truth
Everything comes back to you

Daffy was my first child. My first love.