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.

Spoken Words

A couple of months ago a friend emailed me for help. She had gone in for blood work and was now waiting for the result of it. Understandably, she was anxious and scared. A part of her email read, “I know you are not a praying person. So please do whatever you believe works to send all the positive vibes my way tomorrow.”

Even though distance remains between God and me, I can easily recall the time when He occupied every one of my day. I would thank Him for sparing my life when I accidentally ran through a STOP sign. I would pray to Him to grant me grace and patience when I was about to embark on a momentous work assignment. I took God everywhere with me. He was only a breath away. Thank God didn’t just spill from my mouth. I spoke those words in reverie — in the second it took to speak them I would pause, as though I were honoring Him with a moment of silence. I even exchanged dialogues about Him. Many years ago, at the start of when Danith and I realized that we would need assistance to construct our family, I sat across a table from a doctor. Grateful that help existed for us, I was in high spirits. The doctor was tall and thin and youngish, with well kept dark brown hair. He and I were reviewing my medical history in a small unassuming room, and after one question led to another, I said to him, “God is sending me a sign.” I sensed immediately that I had taken the youngish doctor, who had been chatting chummily with me, off guard. He parted his lips, possibly to deliver his response, but then he let them rest. Instead he nodded a nod that said, “Sure. If that is what you believe.” His head-nod surprised me because I had just assumed that he would concur that, yes, God had a plan for me. Simultaneously, though, I found it comical that I had put a grown man in discomfort by just talking about God. Later that evening, I called my closest friend and described to her the visit with that doctor, and we broke out into a hearty laugh together.

These days, Nora occupies me. She turns six months old today, and among her small group of friends, she weighs the most at 19 lbs and 8 oz. Anyone who takes notice of her remarks first on her chubby cheeks and second on her warm dark eyes. Almost like what our dog Pluto used to do, she greets me in the morning with a genuine “glad to see you” smile. She is able to sit unassisted for several seconds. She chews on books that I try to read to her, and she jumps up and down when I hold her up. She practices her vocal cord by babbling, and screeching like a pterosaur. She chuckles when I screech back. She enjoys the outdoors and being partly submerged in water. She started eating rice porridge almost two months ago, and because I want to make solids fun for her, I feed the porridge to her while she stands in her play station. After she bites on the white purée she would excitedly stomp her feet, roll her head, and bang on the toys around her. It awes me that my simple act of feeding her could give her that much pleasure. Sometimes, my heart is pumping so fast at the sight of her that I have to stop what I am doing and text Danith to tell him that I love her. My most favorite time with her remains the same: middle of the night. She fills my arms both in weight and length. When I hold her in the glider, she can’t stretch out as straight as she used to, so she fidgets in an attempt to make herself more comfortable. After she finally settles down, I stare at her quiet face — at her closed eyes, her closed mouth (whose bottom lip sometimes twitches), and the roundness of her cheeks. I would let my mind return to those fleeting minutes I had spent holding her sister and brother in a similar way, especially remembering how I wished I could keep each of them in my arms forever. A few weeks ago, as I cradled Nora after a feeding, I marveled at her ability to breathe in my arms. She was sleeping and breathing — I would get to begin the day all over again with her the next morning. “Thank you, God,” I uttered, and jerked up in the glider. I had startled myself. I hadn’t spoken those words in so, so long that the voice in my head that formed them sounded unfamiliar. I panicked, wanting to take them back. How could I be thanking Him? I struggled, having liked how the words reverberated in my head. I missed them. I squeezed Nora more tightly, and I eased myself back into the glider. Then, maybe about a minute later, I lifted one of Nora’s hands to my face, and I pressed my lips into it. And I allowed the truth to prevail: it is okay, speaking those words again.

I still do not believe that prayers influence an outcome, but it is hard to deny what God has given me. I am thankful for both the gifts and for my ability to be thankful for them. As for my friend’s request for help, I sent her hope. Fortunately, the blood work result came back in her favor, for which I am, of course, thankful.

Story Time

Bouncing, bouncing on my knees

Bouncing, bouncing on my knees

Bouncing, bouncing on my knees

Just baby and me

I’ll swing you high

I’ll swing you low

I’ll hold you tight

And I won’t let go

Bouncing, bouncing…

At the library’s story time on Tuesdays, Nora has a friend.  He and his mom usually sit beside us on the rug with blocks of primary colors.  When Aiden sees Nora sitting on my lap, he extends his arm, and his fingers wiggle for her.  Sometimes, she returns the friendly affection, and sometimes she remains too caught up in searching the sparse activity room with her wandering eyes.  She seems to forget that he was the one who taught her not to fear tummy time.

I like Aiden, a slender and lengthy boy who is calm but eager (he will probably grow up to be a gentle man of few words), and who frequently shares his confident smile.  But maybe, secretly, I like him because he is partial to my daughter.

Ms. Patsy begins the morning by coming up to each child in the circle with a soft ball; when she approaches us next, I set Nora’s curled tiny palms on the ball and proudly say her name for everyone to hear.  After all the moms and grandmothers introduce their babies, we go into singing.  The wheels on the bus…  Heads, shoulders, knees, and toes…  Then Ms. Patsy announces the special book for the week, reading the few words on each page and holding up the colorful illustrations for us to see (the babies and young toddlers don’t seem to appreciate this as much as the parents do).  When Ms. Patsy finally plays my favorite song, my stomach pitter-patters as though I’m about to embark on a carousel ride.  Aiden’s mom likes the same song — we exchanged this tidbit a few weeks back.  She and I plant our babies on our knees, and the woman’s voice on the CD begins singing…bouncing, bouncing on my knees…  I sing along with her and the rest of the parents, but inside my head, I feel delirious and am screaming the lyrics.  When it is time, I lift Nora high so that her stomach dangles in my face and then dip her low in between my knees, and then I bring her to my chest and press her into me…and I won’t let go.  I squeeze her with my arms, resting my chin on her shoulder, and inside my head, I am about to cry with gratitude.  I am slightly aware of our surrounding, and a part of me is curious if any of the parents are watching me keenly, wondering why.  What is her story?

Sometimes, after Nora has fallen asleep, Danith and I would turn on our phones and go to our photos.  Our fingertips would slowly scroll through our personal photo collection that chronicles Nora’s first five months.  Rarely does either of us forget when a picture was taken.  When we come upon an especially notable one, we would hold up the screen to the other person.  Look at this.  Do you remember when…?  And look at this.  Her eyes, her brows.  Her lips.  Isn’t she magical?  Danith would laugh at what we are doing.  “She is sleeping right there,” he would say, as he grabs my phone to send missing pictures of her to himself.  It is not lost on me what we are doing.  Danith tells me that Daffy’s and Kiri’s passings have helped us to appreciate Nora more, thus, to be better parents.  I am not sure if this is true.  I would like to think that I would savor Nora’s early morning giggles, and hungrily nibble on her fingers while she is sleeping regardless.  But I do know this: her sister’s and brother’s stories started hers.

Bouncing, bouncing…  Nora finally turns her eyes up at Aiden, but she doesn’t smile.  She offers him her hand, though, and he tries to grab it as he flies up and down on his mother’s knees.  His mother is deliriously grateful, too.  I know this because she has shared with me her story.  Oftentimes, when I am strolling down a trail or waiting in a checkout line at the grocery store and a parent and her child appear, I can’t help but wonder.  What is her story?  This woman in the black yoga pants, whose toes are painted a bright red and whose son is dosing off in the shopping cart, is more than this moment that she, and I, occupy.  What brought her to this place in her life?  I take my eyes off Nora and her friend and allow them to brush around the circle, and the many books that this room holds.

A Happy Moment

One night two weeks ago Danith asked if I was happy.  We were sitting in a corner of our bedroom, with Nora sleeping in her bassinet several feet away. To keep the room dark for her, as recommended by the articles I had read, we left on only a light from the adjoining bathroom. Through the ease with which Danith had asked me his question, it was undeniable that he was filled with this emotion. I paused, considering how honest I should be with him.

Happiness is when the spirit lifts and the heart beats without fear or worries or yearning. I remember when my heart beat in such a manner. Once was during the summer before I became pregnant with Daffy, when Danith and I were vacationing on an island. A photo of us posing for the camera, with the pink and orange sunset behind us, portrays how innocent and maybe foolish we were. We were nearing 15 years of marriage, but we still felt young and protected from unrelenting pain. Another time was when I was pregnant with Daffy, when Danith asked me to dance with him, and I did, with our daughter snuggled in between us. I remember the maternity white shorts and red top I was wearing, so grateful that my bump was finally large enough for them. It was at about nine o’clock at night, and I was on my way to the almost-completed nursery to read to the growing baby inside me when Danith stopped me at the bedroom door and uncharacteristically asked me to slow dance with him. I gave him my hands, and we swayed to the music that played from his phone. On both occasions, there was no place I would have rather been, nothing I would have rather been doing. Believing that my life couldn’t fare any better, I wished for the moment to never end.

Finally, hesitantly, I answered Danith that I was.

But I still miss Daffy and Kiri, I said.

Of course, he said.

A few minutes later, we moved to our bed, staying above the covers, with Nora lying between us, still asleep. Danith’s legs were stretched out, his feet pointing at the draped windows. Mine pointed in the opposite direction at the door. He and I locked eyes before turning our gaze down at Nora, whose swaddled body I had gingerly lifted out of the bassinet and set on the down comforter. Her arms ran parallel on either side of her pudgy face, a formation I often jokingly called her surrender stance, as in, “I give up. No more crying. You’re right, I want sleep.” I inched my nose closer to her head and breathed her in, and then I planted butterfly kisses on her round, cabbage-like cheeks. Quietly Danith and I ran through the Nora List that we had unintentionally created, and had been repeating almost every night. We remarked on how much she had grown. We were proud of the amount of formula she was taking daily, of the number of diapers she was dirtying. We spoke about her mild and confident temperament, her cool attitude, and her brilliant smile, one we deemed to be more beautiful — with more depth and character — than most other babies’ (we were certain that we weren’t being biased). We were astonished at her level of curiosity already, which was clearly evident at the river earlier that evening, when of her own accord, at just two months old, she leaned forward from her grandmother’s hold to study the waddling ducks around us. Then we giggled at the chunkiness of her arms and legs. After I pointed out that her head was large enough for two babies, I had to order Danith to hush because he had been laughing a bit too loudly.

I always knew that I would never stop missing Daffy and Kiri, but I thought I would miss them less after Nora, I said.

You love them, Danith said.

Yes, I know, but I thought that, with Nora here, I would not miss them as much, you know?

I know, he said.

I set my arm across Nora’s tummy, scooting my body even closer to hers. I made sure not to press my arm down too hard on her abdomen. I do my best to follow safe sleep recommendations, so she has been sleeping separately from us. I crave falling asleep with her in my arms, though, and many times Danith has offered to stay up on watch duty so that my hunger could be fulfilled. I have been imagining Nora’s body folding into mine, of her warm bum being pushed into my stomach and her head being secured under my chin, but I don’t trust Danith not to accidentally fall asleep during such a proposed watch.

This is the best, Danith said under his breath. He was referring to us both lying on our bed watching our baby, her lips pursed and once in a while twitching. I unfolded Nora’s curled fingers and stroked each fragile one, tempted to place them in my mouth. She was just inches away from me, but she was still difficult to believe. I agreed with Danith — sharing that space with him and her was the best. What would I have rather been doing at that moment? Nothing.

I Have Not Forgotten

She breathes her warm, milky breath into the underside of my right cheek. In the past few minutes, she has been busy nudging her head on my shoulder a few centimeters to the left and then to the right. And then she starts the search all over again. Normally, she would push my head aside with a surprising force from her own crown. Tonight, though, her attempts at locating her sweet spot on me to rest herself is gentler.

With her body lying on mine and her feet tucked within my arms, I rock Nora in the glider that Danith and I purchased three years ago. As I sway our one-month-old daughter to sleep I look out across the dark room, through the opened blinds, and at the night beyond it. Our home is situated on a hill, so I can see the lights in the valley. I know what this chair signifies. I know, too, what the crib that it sits beside signifies. It has been a long 14-year path, and I am fortunate to finally be sitting down.

But I have not forgotten. A late night such as this used to be deafening lonely, the silence of it speaking of no hope. I would listen to the humming of the air conditioner and the oncoming train on the tracks three miles away, and the world couldn’t have been emptier. But even though I felt alone, I knew that I wasn’t. I was not alone in my aloneness, unfortunately. As I am cuddling Nora I let my mind find the friends whom I made after the passing of Daffy and then Kiri. Through written words only, we shared our hearts with no shame or regret. At the beginning, we regularly spoke about the unfairness of it all; then we seldomly brought up that word again. Fair? Trying to make sense of that idea became trite and infuriating, so I refrained from speaking it. But I have been thinking about that word lately. When I stay up late to listen to Nora purr in her sleep or when I watch her gazing at me in the morning, possibly negotiating in her budding mind who I am, I think about fair.

Nora has grown unsatisfied with her position. She lets out a soft yelp. Even in the darkness of the nursery, I can make out her features. Right now she is pursing her lips, exhaling a milky breath, and is pushing on my head as though it is a nuisance. I don’t make a sound, and allow my body to go limp, letting her use me as she sees fit. She wriggles herself down my chest and slides her head off my shoulder and south to my collarbones. She scrunches herself into a fetal position, her torso in the shape of a C. I picture her this way before she came into this world to me. As I am beginning to caress her back, I am melting. I am filled with so much gratitude that I am aching. I want to cry out. I press my hand into her purple pajamas with the white bunnies, feeling the tenderness and warmth of her skin underneath. I run my fingers in a circle on the back of her head. I squeeze each of her feet, imagining sucking on each one. I smell her face, the milky breath now reminiscent of a boxed cake mix. I want to hold my daughter, and this moment, forever. I know I am lucky. I know I am fortunate. But for a fleeting moment, my mind wanders back to my friends who are still trying and friends who have valiantly surrendered, and I want to tell them that I have not forgotten: it is not fair at all.