Evidence of Existence

I am on a decluttering spree, and I am almost done cleaning out and reorganizing the linen closet. I’ve refolded the towels, separating the solid-colored bath ones from the printed beach ones. Once I find a basket to hold the hand towels, I should be able to check the linen closet off my to-do list. On the bottom shelf of the closet is a small suitcase, one that is only as wide as a school backpack. I think it is time to throw it out.

I pull out the blue leather suitcase that was manufactured at least 30 years ago. There is a zipper, but no shoulder strap to carry it with or handle to pull it with. The suitcase had belonged to one of my grandmothers. I brought it back home with me after I attended her funeral in 2004.

When I was a young child, I often visited temple with this grandmother. She was the former mother-in-law of the mother who raised me. She had only one child, a son, who, similar to my biological parents, had died in the civil war in our native country. She, my mother, and I had come to the United States together as refugees, but when my mother and her new husband decided to move out of the state, my grandmother stayed behind.

Throughout my childhood, I overheard bits and pieces of my mother’s frustration over her mother-in-law. To her, my grandmother was never satisfied with how much my mother had done for her. My grandmother was overly critical of her. She blamed her for the car crash they both had been in during a visit. She also complained to friends and neighbors that my mother was not dependable and had not invited her to move with us, forcing her to be family-less. I don’t remember this grandmother having been especially gentle or having ever bitten her tongue, so I am sure that there is some truth to my mother’s description of the old woman. But I do remember her treating me well enough when we did live together and on the few visits we saw each other. I think this was why I brought her suitcase that carried her most prized possessions with me after her passing. That, and because she had left behind no children to claim it.

I dust off the suitcase. The zipper takes a bit of work, but it finally opens. The last time I opened the suitcase and perused its contents was when I brought it home. Resting at the top is an 8×10 photograph of the Buddhist monk at the temple she and I regularly attended. I remember this monk well — he and the elderly parishioners were fond of me, frequently asking me to dance Apsara for them and rewarding me with a quarter each time I fulfilled their request. There are framed photos of my grandmother with a shaved head and garbed in white sheets — she had eventually completed many rites and earned herself a Buddhist nun status. Visiting temples and fulfilling boun became her mission. She took pilgrimages to Angkor Wat in Cambodia and temples in India.

I lift up a thin, narrow photo album, where the sleeves are plastic and compartmentalized to hold individual photographs. I see pictures of more Buddhist monks and the interiors of temples; the colors in the photos are varying shades of orange. I see a couple of pictures of my grandmother in her younger years, when her hair was black and cut short around her ears. Her face had been angular then, but later it filled out when she started gaining weight and became diabetic. I flip through more pictures of temples and monks, and then I see a picture of me. In the photo, I was about three years old and was practicing the Apsara dance. Besides this newly discovered photo, I have, maybe, only three other ones of when I was around that age. I slide the photo out from the album sleeve for safe-keeping.

Tucked in a folder under the album is a certificate recognizing my grandmother as a United States citizen. There is an address book in a corner of the suitcase. I pick up a wallet and flip through her photo IDs. She must have saved every single picture ID she was given in the U.S., even the expired ones. There is also a framed professional photo of her taken with a man, a woman, and a young boy. She is sitting in a chair, with these unfamiliar people staged standing behind her. She appears to be the matriarch of the family. This must have been one of the families she lived with after my parents and I moved. I wonder if the boy, who is probably around my age now, has come across a copy of this picture recently. If he has, does he remember who she was?

Except for the photo of me as a tiny dancer, I repack my grandmother’s belongings — everything that proves her once existence — into the suitcase. Then I set the suitcase back on the bottom shelf of the linen closet.

A Far View

About five years ago a mother and her toddler son made the news in the most horrific way.  She had taken her two-year-old to the local zoo and visited the African painted dog exhibit.  The boy was standing on the railing for a better view of the dogs while his mother was holding him.  I can’t remember how, but she lost her grip.  The boy fell onto the net that was intended to catch debris, but then he bounced off it and landed in the dogs’ den.  The wild white-spotted dogs rushed at him and mauled him, and he died.

I first learned about the incident from a coworker.  I remember being incredulous.  How could this have happened?  Outraged and astonished at the mother’s carelessness, I searched for the story online.  Sure enough, my coworker’s account of the accident was factual.  I could not believe that a parent would have not used better judgment. How could she have stood her son on the railing and risked an accident?

I often see Kiri in my mind.  I see his thin pinkish frame at just 22 weeks of gestation, his protruding rib cage, and his chest rising as he sucked for air.  I see his tiny fingers twitching.  I see traces of his hair woven on the crown of his head.  I see him lying on my bare chest, the reddish and purplish veins coursing through his almost translucent body.  At first, he was filmed with a milky-coating.  From experience with his sister, I knew that his fragile body would soon become dry and start to chafe from my touches, so I asked for lotion.  A nurse handed me a tube, and I smoothed his arms and face with the cream.

I sometimes see in my mind Kiri as a fish.  I see him swimming within my belly that is an aquarium.  My son has no care in his secluded world.  He swims, he eats, he sleeps, and he swims again.  And he breathes, his thumb loosely hanging from his mouth.  He lives.  That is all he knows to do.  That is all he has to do.  Then, suddenly, the aquarium explodes and the water gushes out, taking him with it.  He happens upon an unfamiliar piece of land.  He is not ready for this new territory.  It is not fair.  He does not know this world yet.  How could anyone expect him to thrive?

My mind can travel far.  Sometimes it takes me to where Kiri is one year old.  He is waddling to his father, his stubby fingers reaching for his father’s neck.  I see his future, too, where he is about two years old and is coy, his hands in his pockets, hiding his secret.  I see him dressed in a white undershirt and undershorts, a mini-replica of his father.  Fortunately, Danith does not blame me for our son’s death.  And the doctors don’t, either.  I did not cause Kiri’s death — I know this.  When I had been pregnant with him, I had made sure not to lift the laundry basket.  I had slept on my left side.  I had protected my belly with my hand in case I bumped into a door or a corner.  But — I also know that I caused his death.  This is how far my mind could go: if our son had been placed in another woman’s womb, he would have most likely been gestated for the full 40 weeks, and he would have entered this world with endless abilities, and breaths.  My body failed, and because of this, his did, too.

I do not know the woman whose son died at the zoo.  But, I know her guilt.  If only she hadn’t loved her son so much that she would stand him on the railing so that he could see the dogs better.  If only my son could have been born to another person.  Then both our sons would be alive today.  I wish I had had compassion for the woman and not been so quick to judge her.

I see Kiri in my mind.  His eyes are shut, his lips are closed tight, his cheeks are perfectly round, and his head is, too.  He is swaddled in the crocheted blanket that the nurses had later wrapped him in.  And he lies on my chest, loved and undisturbed.

A Relationship With Time

I first met Time when I was about 27 years old.  Danith was asleep with his back turned to me.  Pluto was snoring in his bed on the floor beside me.  The moon shone through the white sheer curtains in our guest bedroom, making the white beadboard on the one wall glow.  At that moment, I would not have asked for anything different.

Similarly to the many nights before that one, I felt blessed.  A warm home, a compassionate husband, a loyal dog.  Afraid of another day ending, I did not close my eyes, and, instead, I began conversing with Time.  I wanted to know her more intimately.  As we talked, though, I started to panick.  If Danith and I were lucky, we would get to celebrate our 50th anniversary one day.  On that night, we were into our fifth year of marriage, which meant that we had already lived 1/10 of our life together as husband and wife.  That meant we had only 9/10, or 45 more years, together.  45?  The last five years had waltzed by so fast.  45 more years were not enough.  I needed the years to slow down.

After Daffy passed away, our doctors cautioned us to wait three months before trying again.  At home, I opened my planner and counted the gray-edged boxes going across and up and down the pages.  I had to take into account my cycles, and worried that my monthly cycle might arrive later than normal, I began to breathe deeply to help calm myself — since stress could delay an oncoming cycle.  I returned to the boxes.  No matter how I tabulated them, it appeared that the earliest I could become pregnant (if I were fortunate enough) would be 19 weeks from then.  19 weeks.  How could I wait 19 weeks to feel my baby again?  I printed monthly calendars and taped them on the walls at home and at work, and I crossed off each day that ended.  I rationalized with myself: 19 weeks was about four months, which was only 1/3 of a year.  1/3 of a year was not that long, was it?  But each day felt heavy, as though lead were sitting on it and weighing it down.  I needed the weeks to hurry up.

For the last two years, I have struggled with Time.  I recognize that Time has not committed any offense against me.  Time is that beautiful, intelligent, confident friend who is there and here.  She lovingly takes the blows I throw at her, and then lifts them off her shoulder.  She eagerly welcomes me when I am ready to see her again, whether that is in the blush of a new cherry blossom or in the golden ripeness of a maple leaf.  She holds no grudges.  She is fair.  Most admiringly, she is dependable and reliable, never wavering in her commitment or her duty.  I know this.  Still, I struggle with her.

At The River

After I delivered Daffy on Thursday evening, our doctors and nurses repeated that we could stay in our room for as long as we wanted and that we could see Daffy as often as we wanted.  Our room was spacious with a comfortable couch for Danith to sleep on, but the next morning, he was ready for us to leave the hospital.  I was not.  If I were permitted to remain there with my baby in my arms indefinitely, I would have.  I would have given up my privilege to live outside in the real world.  But since staying within the confines of the hospital walls was not an option, I did not bother to argue about leaving.  While Danith left first to pull the car around the front of the hospital, a nurse pushed me out in a wheelchair.  I departed from labor and delivery with only a clear plastic bag that contained my discharged papers and a keepsake box of my daughter’s foot- and handprints and crocheted hearts.

Against the wishes of my mother-in-law, who felt it was too early for me to leave the house (since I had just been in labor), Danith wanted me to get outside for fresh air.  Two days later he said we would go for a walk.  I dug my feet into my tennis shoes, he tied the shoelaces, and we got into the car.  I remember him talking but only a part of me listening.  Nothing in my surrounding — not the front yards, the bend in the sidewalk, or the traffic lights — had changed in the last four days.  My mind was sluggish.  My thoughts were struggling to function in real time, with all the neighbors and drivers on the road with us.  My thoughts wanted to return to the previous Monday night, when our baby was still well and my thoughts couldn’t be any more content with life.

Danith drove us to a walking trail that we hadn’t been on in many years.  The afternoon was clear and bright, but only a few people were out.  Bicyclists.  Runners.  And walkers. They politely smiled as they strolled by, and we reciprocated the same upturn of the lips.  I wondered if they knew our story.  I wondered what tragedy they had just experienced themselves. Danith took my hand and promised me again that we would get Daffy back.  My sluggish mind ramped up.  When?  When?  When can we get Daffy back?

The trail was flanked by new bio-tech buildings and townhouses on one side and a river on the opposite side.  Danith and I stepped onto the grass or into the berry bushes to give bikers room to pass us.  My mind remained slow, and hazy, as I followed Danith’s lead.  I agreed with him that the surrounding foliage was both rustic and manicured.  He suggested that we return in the fall and clandestinely plant an apple tree for Daffy somewhere along the trail.  It was heartening to hear my husband speak about our daughter so readily; at the same time, it was jarring.  Planting a tree in her memory was not something I had pictured us doing.  My thoughts cut through the field in my head, back to the Monday before, less than a week earlier.  They wanted to stay there, where Danith and I had seen ourselves someday building our daughter a swing that would hang from our silver maple and a rope bridge connecting our deck to the silver maple.  Danith found an opening among the trees and entered it.  The dirt path led to the bank of the river, which was not very clean, having no nearby waterfall to feed clean water into it.  Instead, the water was murky.  Danith urged me to climb onto the small rocks with him.  He said that we would be okay.  My eyes traveled the expanse of the river as my mind tried to crawl back to the week before.

We returned to the river a few months later, to honor Daffy’s due date.  I had felt trepidation in the weeks leading up to that day.  In my many, many visions of that day, I had seen Danith holding my hand as I screamed and pushed and I had seen him carrying our daughter to my breasts —  all the stereotypical scenes that are played out in a movie.  None of those scenes would play out for us.  What would happen now on Daffy’s due date?  I told Danith that I wanted the day, her day, to be filled with light and beauty.  That morning, I put curls in my hair, blush on my cheeks, and gloss on my lips.  I even sprayed on perfume.  I asked Danith that we go to lunch and then to the conservatory.  He agreed, but first he wanted us to pick up flowers and go back to the river.  With our grocery store-bouquet of daisies and carnations, we located the same path that led to the water.  I hadn’t been sure of what Danith wanted to do with the flowers, so I watched as he plucked the bulbs off the stems, while speaking sweet words to his baby girl, and threw them into the river.  Then he said to me, “Come, Momma, give these beautiful flowers to our beautiful daughter.”

We go to the river periodically to bring flowers to our Daffy and Kiri.  To speak to them.  To be with them.  We’ve found a new spot not too long ago that we’ve designated as our spot.  It is not along the old walking trail with berry bushes and small dirt paths.  Here, it is an area off a new marina and boardwalk.  The water remains murky.  We sometimes throw into it orange roses, white spider mums, red gerbera daisies, and tiny yellow poms poms.  I speak openly to our children.  I tell them not to ever think that we’ve forgotten them.  I ask Daffy to look after her baby brother, and I ask Kiri to listen to his big sister.  I tell them that I love them.  Over and over, as I throw in a flower, I tell them that I love them.

Last Friday night, after dinner, Danith said that he wanted us to visit the river.  When I said that we would need to stop by the store to buy flowers, he revealed two apples in his hands.  They were fruits he had picked the week before at an orchard.  He had saved a few for Daffy and Kiri.  Except for a couple of lampposts and the lights from the bridge not too far away, the boardwalk was dark.  We found our spot.  Danith retrieved the apples from the pockets of his sweatshirt, and we bit into them.  We spoke love words to our babies as we shared the fruits with them.  Then we set the apples in the water for them. I would have never guessed that going to the river to speak to our children would become our reality.  In my mind, they hear me.

A Beautiful Connection

During my junior year in college, I resided in The Village, a duplex-style dormitory reserved for upperclassmen.  An RA wasn’t on high alert to knock on a door for loud music or for the burning of incense.  A parking lot was just yards away, so unloading groceries was a cinch.  Collegiate neighbors, with their beer cans partially hidden in between their sides and their chairs, could sit around a bonfire only a few feet from their front doors.  Each dorm room resembled a studio and was comprised of a living/sleeping area with two beds, a full bathroom, and a small kitchen.  My roommate often stayed at her boyfriend’s, so except on the rare occasions when she stopped by to inventory her clean clothes, I was in possession of the entire studio to myself.

Unlike my high school years that saw me fully engaged in many extracurricular activities, I preferred to keep to myself during my college days.  I enjoyed being away from home; oddly, though, I did not partake in bonfires or parties with my neighbors.  It wasn’t because I was not invited — it was because I enjoyed my home away from home that offered quiet and an abundance of air to breathe freely.  I enjoyed staying inside to read or cook.  I enjoyed tidying up my living quarter and rearranging the Kim Anderson posters on my walls, and refreshing the potpourri bowl in the bathroom.  I also enjoyed musing the idea of being a homemaker.  A couple of times I simmered orange peels in a pot on the stove.  I eventually gave up on this attempt at a natural air freshener as I never could discern any scent from the simmering rings of citrus.

As groups of fellow students outside my duplex horsed around — delivering flirtatious lines, crude comebacks, and jokes about their professors — I sat in bed with the pink and blue flower comforter set from my preteen years and watched TV.  At my mother’s house in a nearby city, we did not have cable, so while I was away at school, I hungrily surfed the channels: MTV, HSN (those hosts fascinated me with their ability to talk about either a hairbrush or running shoes for a full 20 minutes); infomercials with Sally Struthers for Save The Children (one night I made the call to become a donor but quit in the process because it turned out to be too complicated); and a police drama called Silk Stalkings, in which both leading detectives were best friends.  One late night, when the raucous outside reached a climax, maybe around one- or two o’clock in the morning, I set down the remote control after having landed on Animal Planet.

Similar to most nature and animal shows, this program that covered a family of chimpanzees was narrated by a man who offered insight into what the animals were thinking and why they were behaving a certain way.  I can’t recall the adolescent boy chimp’s name, but maybe it was Joe?  Joe was the center of this chimpanzee family (and program), and he was a handful!  He was the youngest of maybe four children, some old enough that maybe they possessed their own nucleus families.  With the narrator’s guidance, I saw that Joe’s older brothers and sisters were exasperated with him.  He snatched food from them.  He poked them when they were sleeping.  When one of them would run out of patience and try to fight him off or chase after him, he would bee-line for his soft-spoken mom.  (I can’t remember her name, either.  Maybe it was Ann?)  Ann would open her arms to receive her youngest, who would cling onto her with his short arms as he turned his head and gloated at his frustrated and perturbed brother or sister.

The program followed this primate family as it travelled through the dense forest in a quest for a new home and food.  The narrator explained the climate of the forest, how the chimps built their beds, and other day-to-day activities that included rest and back scratches.  Throughout the journey, Joe exploded with bursts of light and energy, and he was relentless in his antics to pick fights with his brothers and sisters and then run to the safety of his mom.  As always, Ann protected him, gripping his torso with her thick black fingers and shielding him with her body when one of her other children attempted to smack him.  She never yelled at her other offsprings, only guarded her spoiled youngest son.  One day, though, Ann didn’t protect Joe and, instead, rested herself against a tree.

Ann wouldn’t budge from that large tree.  The narrator pointed out that her breathing was slowing down and that her glazed eyes seemed faraway.  At her children’s urging, including Joe’s, she gave herself a couple of pushes from the tree but then fell back against it.  Joe pulled on her arms and hit her head.  She continued to look dazed.  On the next day, it was apparent that Ann was ill.  Her older children pushed her to stand while Joe climbed the tree that she was resting against.  As Ann remained immobile, her bloated belly accentuating her tired body, Joe sat in the tree.  He stayed there even when his siblings ordered him to come down for the food that they had managed to find and brought to him and their mother.

On day three, the older children prodded Ann without receiving any responses in return.  No flutter of the eyelids.  No limp jerk of the hand.  No puff of the breath.  Ann had passed away.  While Joe remained in the branch overhead, they circled her body.  The narrator said that they were trying to make sense of their mother’s death.  Finally, after a while, they accepted that she was gone.  They called out to their baby brother, their mother’s apparent favorite child, to climb down the tree.  They couldn’t stay at that location; they needed to move on to search for their new home.  Joe briefly averted his eyes down at them in a show of understanding, before looking back out into the distance.  They called out to him.  Then, they pounded the ground with their fists.  Their angry demand did not daunt or deter Joe.  He remained in the crook of the tree limb that hung over his mother’s still body.

On day four, Ann’s older children made up their minds.  They must resume their journey, leaving behind their stubborn, trouble-making, spoiled youngest brother.  The camera zoomed out to show the vast forest, the siblings trekking away in a solemn single file, Joe’s small form slumped on the branch, and Ann’s perishing body sitting against the trunk of the old tall tree.  The narrator shared that Joe never did again come down from that tree, where he remained until he, too, died.

apples with offsprings
I remember that when I finally turned off the television it was quiet outside my room.  Everyone had gone home.  I wasn’t able to sleep, shaken by and contemplating Joe’s sad death.  Whenever Danith tells me a story about an animal, I like to retell him mine about Joe and Ann.  I had always been aware of an animal’s capacity for love for his mother, but it wasn’t until in the last few years that my eyes opened wider, allowing me to see without a narrator’s help.  The beauty of love between a child and its parent is more than ducklings waddling after their mothers across the road or calves snuggling up to their mothers in search of milk.  The beauty lies in the connection that transcends the physical touch.