Passed Friendship

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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.

Where She Leaves Me

At home Nora spends most of her time in the playroom, which I decorated with blue and orange throw pillows and original artwork highlighting William Wadsworth Longfellow’s endearing poem “The Children’s Hour.” At almost nine months old, Nora expertly crawls across the room and fearlessly pulls herself up on the couch, the fireplace gate, and even the sliding glass door. She squeals and screeches, her energy endless. In preparation for helping her with learning how to observe, building up her curiosity, being comfortable with independent play, and even tackling problem-solving skills, I neatly arranged a toy shelf with puzzles; stackable cups of purple, red, and blue; and blocks. I carefully selected books about colors and shapes and numbers. I even bought a number of bead mazes, and maracas and a tambourine. Unfortunately, these toys are not interesting her at the moment. Instead, she is taking to the battery-operated large pieces like the sports center that cheers her on when she throws a basket into the hoop (she’s never done this) and the music table where she stands at while rolling its knobs with the tip of her fingers and slapping her thigh as the programmed table sings There was a farmer who had a dog…B-I-N-G-O. Each evening Danith and I watch her head bob and her bum bounce to the music. We admit that she possesses rhythm. We are pleased at the sight of our daughter dancing and prancing and squealing at her own ability to “play” the guitar and the accordion. But I still tell Danith that I am worried. I hadn’t intended on accumulating so many electronic toys for her, and now I feel guilty, fearing that I have failed at instilling in her the importance of imaginative and creative play.

Outside the house, Nora is more reserved, pensive. We registered her for Gymboree so that she could practice socialization skills and gross motor skills. Our second class was a couple of weeks ago, and it was small with just three babies and their parents. Nora and I were the newest members. The spirited teacher began the session with a song and a bucket of rain shakers and crinkly papers. While the other two babies crawled towards the toys, Nora remained on my lap. During the class I sang with the other moms about the bubbles being up high and down low while holding Nora’s fingers up high to the sky and down low to her toes. Later, after the circle, with my hands firmly securing her arms, I guided her down a wooden slide. Over and over I did this. She grinned during each ride down, but she did not bounce or screech with excitement like she would normally do at home. Then, at another slide, I set her on her tummy on a blanket, and the teacher and I pulled her up the incline. Nora kept her eyes on me the entire trip up the slide. At the last station, I carefully placed her on her stomach inside the hole of an inflated tube that was hanging from a low beam. The teacher instructed me to get on my knees so that my eyes and Nora’s eyes were at the same level. “Her seeing you here builds trust,” she said. While on my knees, I gently pushed Nora as she lay parallel to the floor inside the tube, never taking my eyes off her. We ended the class back in a circle, and Nora returned to my lap as we waited for the teacher to prep for parachute time. I was holding a rain shaker to Nora when, suddenly, she leapt from my lap and crawled to the center of the circle, where another baby sat. I watched her sitting there, admiring her courage. She didn’t stay at the center for very long, though, before getting back on her knees and tracing her steps backwards. Midway to me, she turned her head around — not stopping for anything — until she found me. The corners of her lips lifted. I was there, where she had left me!

Later that evening, while Danith and I watched Nora dance at her music table, I relayed the afternoon at Gymboree to him. “She came to me!” I exclaimed.

Danith was not impressed that Nora had searched for me. “You are her mom.”

I didn’t agree that the reason was that simple. From my own experience as a child, even at a very tender age, I knew that a mother didn’t automatically mean security. “When she was crawling back to me, I could feel the tears coming, but I didn’t cry.  I tried so hard not to cry.”   

He patted my hands.

I understand enough biology and psychology to understand that, usually, an infant knows how to scout for her parent — the familiar scent, the familiar facial features, the familiar cadence of speech. Still, I couldn’t overcome the pride swelling in my chest that evening. I must have done something correct for my baby to want to seek for me when she needed to feel safe. How lucky was I to serve as her never-faltering base. The concern surrounding her toys and what they could or couldn’t teach her relocated to the background of my mind. Instead, I began to consider what it is that I must continue with in order to teach her what is most important for her to learn: that she will always be able to find me, because I will always be where she left me.

Physical Comfort

It is late morning as my friends and I carefully trudge down the hill to embark on the smaller, family-friendly corn maze (the larger one is situated at the other end of the farm). Each of us is holding our baby to our chest using a carrier, and except for me, everyone in our group is accustomed to baby-wearing. I relented to wearing Nora only because it would have been unwieldy to both carry her in my arms and lift her stroller onto the hayride tractor. I am especially relieved, though, that I hadn’t attempted to bring the stroller as the hill would have not allowed it. Regardless of what people say, I am not convinced that the baby sitting inside the carrier is comfortable — how could she be with her legs pulled wide apart and dangling, and her face pushed into her parent’s chest? But each time I wonder about Nora’s comfort, I quickly dismiss the uncertainty because, for now, she is pressed so hard into me that this is the longest we’ve ever stayed physically as one.

On the first day I returned to work after Kiri’s passing, I came back home through the front door crying. I hadn’t cried while sitting at my desk or exchanging pleasantries with my coworkers. I had been anxious about that first day back, so maybe my body had hardened itself to help me. But then, during the drive home, a song came on the radio, and I cried. I remember it being a hard cry, but I don’t remember the song. At home, my mother-in-law called after me from the kitchen. I ignored her, though, and retreated to my bedroom upstairs. An entire day of work had ended, and the reality of it, of the fact that I had rejoined the world, further solidified that the world was indeed moving on without my son. I sat on my bed. It was early evening, sometime in late September, so the days were still long — I could see the dusty sun rays beaming through the windows and hear the many cars racing home. I tucked myself under the down comforter and pulled it up over my head.

Many minutes later, I heard my door opening. Almost whispering, my mother-in-law told me to eat. Until recently, either she or Danith had brought up my meals to me. I told her that I wasn’t hungry. The back-and-forth continued for a bit longer before I gave up. I didn’t want to leave my bed, but the truth was that I was hungry. I flipped back the comforter and saw on the TV tray that stood in front of the arm chair a blue plate with a peanut butter sandwich (no jelly) and a strawberry smoothie. She’d never fixed me an American meal before. I didn’t like peanut butter — I never had. I disliked the salty smell of it and the thick and gooey consistency of it. I assumed the sandwich was without jelly because she had forgotten that it needed some.

I moved from the bed and lowered myself into the arm chair, and my mother-in-law rested herself on the edge of the bed across from me. My eyes scanned the room that could use a good dusting and vacuuming. I had lived mostly in this space for almost two months — I wondered what it smelled like to outsiders. After a couple of small bites of the sandwich, my mother-in-law encouraged me to finish it. My lips quivered.

“I want a baby,” I whimpered.

“A baby makes you feel good, huh?” my mother-in-law said.

I remember looking from the sandwich and at her, dumbfounded that she understood. She’d never pushed Danith and me to have children; similarly, she’d never discouraged us from trying for them. So I didn’t think she fully comprehended what Danith and I wanted, needed. After Daffy and Kiri, I was afraid that she would suggest we give up hope of bringing a baby home. I imagined that a part of me would whither if she were to suggest that Danith and I were unfortunate individuals and, thus, not meant to be parents.

“Yes,” I said.

“I know,” she said. “A baby gives you comfort.”

I agreed with her. I had never tried before to articulate what it felt like to have Daffy or Kiri be physically with me. Of course, happiness was an adequate word. But there was more, a depth I couldn’t simply describe. Comfort, however, was a more precise word. Having my babies be physically with me warmed me and secured me, providing me comfort.

As I continued to eat my sandwich, swishing around the messy peanut butter, I shared with my mother-in-law Danith’s and my decision to move forward with surrogacy.

“The baby would still be mine,” I said.

“Of course,” she said, “You don’t have to carry the baby to be her mother.”

At first I treaded lightly with the details about surrogacy, but the hope and excitement that expanded on her face allowed me to eventually go full speed. I had always seen her as a wise woman, so, surely, she would have not been encouraging if she had not genuinely believed in Danith and me becoming parents to a living child. Right? I picked up my sandwich, remembering my childhood classmates unwrapping their PB&J sandwiches at lunchtime and recalling the tinge of jealousy I felt that their parents had crafted those sandwiches especially for them. But that day I finally had such a sandwich for myself. That day I finished the two slices of bread with peanut butter. I also finished the strawberry smoothie.

At the bottom of the hill at the farm, I turn my eyes away from the clear blue sky, the apple orchard whose bare trees can no longer mask their age, and the large pond, and gaze down at Nora, seeing nothing but the top of her head and parts of her face. I ask a friend how my daughter’s body appears. Does she look comfortable in this thing? She insists that Nora does. As we enter the maze of dry cornstalks, dodging muddy grounds, I wrap my hands around Nora’s legs and run them up and down her calves to warm them. I squeeze her socked feet. I kiss the crown of her head, letting wisps of her hair coat my lips. She hasn’t emitted one single sigh of displeasure ever since my friend helped to secure her and the carrier on me. I lace my fingers under her bum and push her further into me. I think she is as comfortable as I am.

Nora and her friends at the farm.