FOR MY DAUGHTERS
The Missing Mother
When I look at your faces
I know all the pieces are there
somewhere in my subconscious.
Your first steps, words, thoughts.
I can’t recall them when you ask
They are jumbled in a patchwork
that I keep just below the surface.
It is as if I were absent
when you were born
and I am unable to speak them to you in words.
As I reflect on parenthood I am taken back to the time when my first daughter was conceived, and began to grow inside me into a very small living thing. I was not one of those women who had thought extensively about being a mother. I came to the idea late, after my husband and I had been together for six years. I was a successful professional, and was also in the midst of writing my second novel.
We had miscarried on our first attempt to create another human being, and I suddenly had to live with the reality that not all wanted pregnancies always came to full term. My second planned attempt therefore came with the worry that the same thing would happen, and that I would miscarry again. However after three months, I was able to breath a sign of relief since all seemed to be well.
I did not feel well during much of my pregnancy owing to a viral condition I had contracted in my early twenties. It was therefore a struggle to face each day, and yet I persevered without having a sense of how much the child I was carrying would mean to me over the course of her life. I went around in a daze feeling dizzy and disoriented much of the time. I was unable to work and my husband decided at that time to re-locate from Santa Barbara to Seattle in order to go back to graduate school.
After we moved, I went to an exercise class and met several women who were also pregnant, and with whom I have remained friends throughout the course of my life. My daughter was born after two days of labor. My water broke, but she resolutely refused to come into the world. In fact I was threatened with a Caesarian after about forty eight hours of labor. I remember feeling her little feet pushing up into my diaphragm, and taking both of them in my hands, and literally pushing her out, despite the resistance from her that I felt.
I think this marked the person she is today. While she grasps her life with both hands and lives it to the fullest, she is also stubborn and her own person, and has never wanted to do things on other people’s time line!
When she was born we called her Yoda because she had a pointed head, and looked like the little gnome that was so popular at the time from Star Wars. I remember thinking that she was the most beautiful and complex thing I had ever seen or experienced. I had no idea how to be a mother, and when we took her home, it was the beginning of an adventure and a life-long learning experience for me.
She slept next to our bed in a Moses reed basket, and I remember being scared that when I couldn’t hear her little sighs and grunts, that she had stopped breathing. After several nights of non-sleep however, we moved her out into the corridor of our one room, student-housing apartment, and I would get up in the night several times and breast feed her.
She was always an internally driven person. She was not a smiler, and would often close her eyes in order to regain control of her external environment. She would lie in my arms, occasionally moving her lips with her eyes closed, and I would marvel at how tiny her lips were and at the blue tint of the skin that covered her eyes. I would examine each finger and toe nail carefully while she breast fed, and which looked to me like the delicate, translucent shells to be found on Caribbean beaches.
She didn’t want us to leave the room until she went to sleep at night, and my husband spent many long nights rocking her in his arms and singing to her until she quieted down, and dropped her soft, downy head heavily against his strong shoulders.
The wonder of her is that she was who she is today when she was born. She has always wanted to find her own path, even if it is the most difficult one up the mountain. She has never been conventional, and when she was a teenager this played itself out in all kinds of interesting ways. I wrote this poem for her when she was fifteen, and it still says so much to me about who she is, even now she is twice that age, and I am still learning with great joy about who and what she is becoming.
Honey-dipped in dusty peachglow.
Lithe runner, basketball would-be.
Little girl in a woman’s body
whose eyes betray newfound intelligence
amidst the knowledge of Egyptian queens.
As you lie, long lashes across flushed cheeks,
lace bras and silk camisoles scattered
on the floor of a room, that has layers
of gum-wrappers, magazines, old tissues,
T-shirts, and piles of those white atheletic socks.
Your innocent breathing hardly moves the sheets.
Yet I know you are entangled in wild dreams
of tall, thin gangly boys who ride
snowboards, skateboards and adolescence
as if it were a tidal wave they could conquer!
Dreams too of girls who blush and giggle,
awkward in their power as woman.
Baby femme-fatales, rose-bud witches.
As you turn and sigh in your sleep
I feel you once again pushing up under my heart.
A unique knowledge I will carry my whole life,
and always welcome its edge of pain.
I wish you safe rite-of-passage girl child.
Tall, exotic dream-dancer, spinning inexorably
toward the destiny that will take you away from me.
My second daughter was born exactly four and a half years after Sarah. We named her Alexandra, and she came into the world smiling and was objectively quite beautiful.
From the moment she came into all of our lives, she brought a lightness and so much laughter. Once again I did not have an easy pregnancy, but this time I knew what waited for us at the end of it all.
Passionate, sturdy girl,
freckle-faced animal lover.
You who empathize with all god’s creatures.
You who feel for us and
nurture us in your sweet child’s dreams,
only striking out now and again
with willful moods, like March winds.
You have always grasped your life with both hands,
and you will be the one to steer it.
Bold, chestnut-haired captain
charting a clear course
under an infinity of stars.
You are my gift, my joy, my love.
Alexandra is the glue that holds our family together. We all love her; even Sarah who at four and a half years old felt displaced as our only child! Though she and her sister often fought through their childhood, there was an invisible cord that bound them together, and that has survived strongly into adulthood.
Recently her older sister has created magic for them both; she has reached deeply into her extraordinary imagination, started a company, and forged a path that they have eagerly set out on together. I am so grateful for their mutual support and love, and as their mother I could have asked for nothing more.
I have often compared parenthood to being sucked dry by a gorgeous vampire whom you willingly give yourself to. Even though there have been times when I have said “no more”, I cannot give anymore to them, not one more drop of my blood; somehow I have found the strength to drag myself over the bumps that keep coming up in this winding, and unexpected parental road.
Vampires posing as Daughters
My garden holds the secret of zen.
Worms slither under my hands.
Flowers grow into my veins.
Trees root in my mind.
Birds calm me.
Even my angry, demanding
Can’t take my blood today,
As it slowly seeps out
Of those tiny puncture holes
In my neck.
A year ago Alexandra, my brave and courageous daughter gave a kidney to my husband when her elder sister and, I for health reasons, could not. She knew he was dying, and despite her fear and misgivings, she reached deep inside of herself and gave us the gift of his life. A gift we had given to her twenty six years before.
Our family will always be grateful to her as we greet each new day and our words cannot adequately capture what this extraordinary young woman has so graciously bestowed, falling like the gentle rain from heaven, upon our family.
Gathered Light: The Poetry of Joni Mitchell’s Songs [Paperback]
(For those of us who remember)
Mount Pleasant tanks were
Tola’s donkey cart
brought Christmas up the hill.
Estelle baked fresh loaves of bread
in an oil drum by Mrs. Taylor’s.
The Friendship Rose
was a real sailing ferry,
and Sam McDowell painted her
There were few roads then,
most places were hard to find,
like Hope and Ravine.
Outsiders built simple homes
that did not alter the fragile balance
between us and them.
Now the price of land has
driven that balance away.
It’s the wild, wild west out there,
build where, how, and when you like!
Diesel trucks screech wildly around corners
carrying loads of concrete, cement blocks, stones
that spill randomly onto the roads.
They blow their horns
from one end of the seven mile island to the other
to catch the one oclock ferry.
They belch out poisonous fumes
which give the local kids asthma.
There’s an epidemic of it here.
Cars overrun the small, narrow roads
Mashing up de concrete.
Piles of foreign garbage
flood the small, finite, landfill.
And I believe the people’s paradise
is close to being lost,
the one I knew, gone forever.
The precious Bequia way of life,
and to be envied,
now perhaps a mere reflection
in the rear-view mirror of time.
Mangos and Avocados
Mangos, thick, exotic,
hot, ripe, orange fruit
Stick to your teeth.
from the trees.
Big as hands and feet.
rotting, covered with flies
on the ground,
and the smell
so sweet, so sweet.
peel off the skins
eat them whole like apples.
Nothing like those
pale yellow things you get up North.
Taste like thick, rich dairy cream,
smother your tongue,
coat your throat,
you can’t stop eating,
it’s a short season!
“That sounds amazing! Wow that’s what it’s all about! It should be a day of love for everyone 🙂 may it be blessed!” These are the words of Reeva Steenkamp today just before she got shot to death. Whether it was an accident or an intentional homicide she makes another case against gun violence. If it was intentional it is another case of violence against women. Join Eve Ensler today 1 billion rising – end the chain. http://www.vday.org/home
Chung He and his wife Dae live in Sinuiju on the banks of the Yalu River. Yalu is its Chinese name and means “duck green” which refers to its color. The river’s Korean name, seldom used, is Amnok and means boundary between two countries. The Yalu borders China and the town of Sinuiju where Chung and Dae live. Sinuiju is opposite the bustling Chinese town of Dandong.
The river remains frozen for four months of the year November through February. It is bordered by forests which are full of wolves, tigers, jaguars, bears, foxes and wild boar.
Chung is a poor fisherman who ekes out a living on his daily catch of carp and eel, which he is obliged to share with the border guards who let him fish in certain spots on the river all perilously close to the Chinese border. He has a daughter named Bong-cha who is seven years old. Bong-cha accompanies Chung on his daily fishing trips. She is tall for her age and skinny since she, like most North Koreans, suffers from malnutrition. They live on their small boat which is moored on the side of the river not far from the town.
It is about twenty feet long, made of wood painted a light grey in color. It has a tiny cabin constructed of sheets of corrugated metal nailed together in a haphazard fashion. The family sleeps in this 5 x 5 space, their bodies pressed together to keep out the cold that comes creeping in slyly through the cracks. The smell of fish seeps into everything and permeates their thick blue cotton suits and covers the skin underneath their clothes with its relentless odor. They have a small potbellied stove which barely keeps them warm during the day, since much of what they burn are tiny pieces of wood scavenged from the banks of the river.
Their diet consists of the small amount of fish they manage to keep after paying out some in bribes to the border guards, and selling some in the market in the center of Sinuiju. With the money they earn from these sales they buy tiny amounts of rice, sugar, salt and tea. Vegetables and fruit are an unknown luxury and something Bong-cha has rarely tasted if ever.
We come upon Chang and his family in 1995 the year that marks the middle of the great famine. As the years of the famine progress, all of the fish that Chung and his family catch are removed from them and placed into the Public Distribution System, which is slowly running out of food.
Chang is forced to take great risks by creeping out at night without light and fishing where the vigilant authorities cannot find him. This works for a bit, but the food they are able to find is so meager that he has to watch as his wife and daughter, who is now eleven, become no more than walking bones. Chung agonizes at the fact that he can put both his hands around his daughter’s waist and that the fingers meet easily and overlap. Finally in 1999 during the middle of the winter, his daughter becomes very sick. Her beautiful face, she is an exquisite child with dark hair, almond eyes and pale skin, shrinks to no more than cheekbones and eyes.
Every night in the small cabin in which they live, her father hears her coughing, her chest heaving with the effort to catch her breath. Both he and his wife do not say anything to each other, but they know that she is close to death.
Chung goes to the authorities at the Public Distribution System to beg them for food for his daughter, and on his way there as he walks through the snow-covered street of Sinuiju, a stray sheet of newspaper blows across his foot and covers it. As he looks down he sees, but cannot read through eyes stiff with cold, that the government is spending millions of dollars to purchase 40 MIG-21 warplanes from Kazakhstan.
On arriving at the Office of Public Distribution he is told by an official who looks warm and well fed that there is no food, and that if he does not leave immediately he and his family will be forcibly moved to a nearby Stalin-style industrial camp, where they will be put to work.
On returning to their boat with the bad news, he and his wife desperately make a warming broth for their daughter from the soles of an old pair of leather shoes that Chung has worn in school many years ago when he was a young man. All hope like a dark bird has flown from their tiny home, and while Kim Jong and his family feast on the fruits of foreign aid that they have diverted into their own coffers, his daughter dies later that night in both their arms.
As the small body that is no more than skin and bone lies in their arms, they remember their daughter, who despite her hard life loved to run across the thick river ice near their boat and shout back at them, her black hair flowing in the wind like a flag of independence under her small cloth cap; her hands clumsy in their cloth mittens. She was so full of joy they remember, and like a delicate songbird soared across the arc of their life bringing them comfort and hope.
Their daughter Bong-cha loved to sing, and they remember her singing as she sat perched on the front of their boat, as the fishing lines dangled loosely in the water in front of her on a warm spring day. She told them she was singing the fish to sleep in their underwater gardens, blue and green with river weed and rocked by the gentle currents.
in your deep water garden
sleep gently in the weeds
don’t let the big birds get you
or the nets snare you
close your eyes and dream
The old man and his wife weep as they remember their daughter, who was their light and their joy.
Meanwhile as they mourn her death, many miles away in the capital, Kim Jong remarks to his wife where she lies reclining in their red, Chinese lacquer bed, and as he slowly unbuttons his black coat from the neck down, “let the people eat nothing”.
Since it was winter and Chung and Dae did not want their daughter’s body to decompose in any way before a proper burial could be arranged for her, they laid her outside on the small wooden deck, wrapped up in a hand embroidered, silk blanket that Dae’s mother had given to her on the occasion of her wedding.
They went to bed that night pressed up against each other on the solid wooden boards of the boat, each one silently nursing their sorrow like a small bruised flower that grows in a dark and secret place.
When they woke the next morning Chung went out to recover his daughter’s body and prepare it for burial. He and his wife would bath and dress Bong-cha in her best suit. They would comb her hair and collect any stray pieces that had fallen which would be placed with her in her grave. They would be unable to feed her the three spoonfuls of rice that was an old tradition. However despite their abject poverty they would take one of the small metal coins lying in the tin cup under the floorboards of the boat and place it in her mouth, believing that this would ease her journey into the next world. They would bind her body seven times with rope before they broke the ice on the river and placed her body in it. They would put together a pinso, a make shift shrine, where they would sit together and remember their daughter through stories they would tell to each other about her short and sweet life. They would sing to the fishes about her.
When Chang lifted the blanket however it felt very light and he realized immediately that his daughter’s body was not inside. He called out in alarm to his wife who came stumbling out of the galvanized cabin into the cold, rubbing her eyes. Her breath came out in short gasps and spun a cloud of white smoke around her shoulders.
Dae cried out in alarm when she saw her daughter’s body was gone and flapped her small hands uselessly in the air like a trapped, brown sparrow. They looked all over their boat but they could not find her anywhere. Chang thought that perhaps the wolves and foxes had come onto the boat in the night from the nearby forest and taken her far away.
Chang would have gone to the authorities to report this unbearable loss, but he remembered his last brush with them and did not want him and Dae to be sent to a work camp. Instead the two, broken old people nursed their sorrow silently and it stung like nettles all over their frail and famished skin.
They passed the winter in a daze hardly eating and getting weaker and weaker as the cold crept into their brittle bones and settled against their hearts, immoveable and frozen. In the spring barely alive they began to fish again. It was as if the river and the fish knew of their loss, remembered the little dark-haired girl who sang so sweetly, and it gave them a bumper harvest of eels and carp.
When old Chang took his full buckets to the market as the famine was breaking and food was starting to weakly flow again, he met some of his fellow fishermen who were also there to sell baskets of carp laid out on grass and leaves, and long brown eels twisting and thrashing in metal buckets.
As he was passing a group of several men whom he knew by name, he greeted them gently and told them that he wished them plentiful fishing. He told them that the river had been kind to him and that he hoped they would be as lucky, that he hoped the spirits of the water goddess would bless them as she had blessed both him and his wife.
The men nodded at him and smiled, one however looked away and once the old man had passed said out of the corner of his mouth, the words spinning away from where his fellow fishermen were gathered:
“Old man your daughter had little meat and she tasted like fish”.