Once a week, I buy her flowers. Her colors are purple and pink, so I pick blush-colored baby roses, neon Gerber daisies, white lilies with fuchsia centers, violet-blue irises. And foliage to round out the arrangement: glossy camellia leaves, gray-toned eucalyptus, feathery green ferns. I have my favorite spots to buy the flowers—the grocery store in our neighborhood, the farmer’s market when it’s the right season. I avoid the cheap flowers at the supermarket that I know will die within a day or two; those aren’t good enough for this. A few times a year, a thoughtful friend will drop off flowers from her garden, usually on the more difficult days. But I don’t expect anyone else to take this task on. This is my job as her mother, though I wish it wasn’t.
This is how I mother my child.
* * *
My daughter’s name is Naima Kali—like the Coltrane song, and the Hindu goddess of creation. She was born on March 25, 2011, her due date. The nurses said this was a rare thing. But I didn’t schedule her birth—it was too sacred an event to coordinate around my common needs. Still, my daughter came right on time, and I birthed her the old-fashioned way, took no drugs to shield me from the intensity and immensity of labor. I wanted to be fully present during the birth of my first child, wanted to feel it all—pain, ecstasy, fatigue, joy, overwhelm, all.
The contractions started in earnest the night before she was born, a drizzly Bay Area spring evening, cool and quiet. They were waves of energy that started in my full womb, rocking me from inside out, drawing guttural moans from a deep, primal place inside me. People stared at me, wide-eyed, as I walked past them in the hospital lobby, leaning heavily on my husband Henry’s arm as we made our way to the maternity ward. I felt powerful and vulnerable at the same time, sensing that my body was fully in control, that my mind would need to surrender and let my body do this job that it had been created for.
Through the night, the contractions fatigued me as they stretched and opened my womb, my eyelids becoming so heavy that the biggest worry became whether I could stay awake until the end. I kept trying to nap, thinking the real labor was still coming, not knowing that I was in the midst of it, that this was it.
Then finally, after twelve hours of active labor and more than three hours of pushing, she arrived.
I heard my Naima before I ever saw her, for she screamed aloud as she emerged from my body, announcing herself, lungs filling with air, already demanding attention. Henry and our midwife caught her as she was born. As they placed her on my chest, I chanted, shouting, “My baby! My baby!”
Relief and gratitude and love commingled in a deep wave of emotion as my body released her. She was pink, perfect, her rounded, moist head lifted slightly as she was placed on top of me, her eyes—double-lidded, caramel brown, and beautiful, just like my husband’s—were already open, and she stared straight at me. Naima had an intensity even at birth that will always stay with me.
Bonding is a shallow way to describe what happened between my daughter and me at that moment. Our eyes met for that first time and—bam—that was it. She was mine, I was hers, we were connected immutably from that moment on. I knew then that I would do anything to keep her safe, happy.
Soon, Naima was latched onto my breast, her dark-pink mouth strong and voracious. Henry and I gazed down at her in awe, both feeling something that the word love only scratches the surface of. There is a photo of the three of us at this moment, my dark hair damp with sweat, Henry’s dark eyes shining with pride, tiny Naima bundled in a white, pink, and blue blanket in my arms. Our little, perfect, new family.
* * *
I often arrange the flowers during a moment of quiet, when I’m home, alone. It’s a silent prayer that I shape with my hands, as I carefully place each blossom and stem in a water-filled vase.
This is how I mother my daughter now, but I wish that I could mother her in other, more normal ways. Wish that I could teach her how to tie her shoes or put her clothes on right side out, wish that I could make tiny pencil marks on the wall in her bedroom to show how much she’s grown each year. Wish that I could cook her favorite food for her—maybe it would have been pizza, or lumpia, or noodles—or watch my husband teach her how to ride a bike. Wish that I could hear her cry Mommy after falling off the jungle gym at the park or comfort her when she has a fever.
These are the precious moments that most parents take for granted: the small, everyday witnessings of life as their child grows and changes. I wish I could have all these things.
But I can’t. Because my daughter, my first and only born, my Naima, is not here. She is dead.
Naima does not have a grave. My husband and I could not bear the thought of her body going into the cold ground alone. So, her ashes sit in a silver urn on our mantle, so that we will never be completely without her. The urn has three blue birds etched deeply into its surface, flying free and wild. I like to think that the birds represent the three of us—mother, father, child—and that someday we will see each other again and fly away together into the ether.
This is my weekly ritual—flowers, silence, remembrance. It gives me some comfort. I place the pink and purple flowers in a vase, pray that my daughter feels the love that her father and I have for her, pray that she is free and in bliss somewhere, flying high like the birds on the small, silver urn that holds her ashes, pray that she knows how grateful we are for her, even now.
This is how I mother my child.
* * *
The three of us spent all of our time together in the first six weeks of Naima’s life, getting to know each other, following her cues and cries and needs, learning this new rhythm of life as a family, learning how to love in this new, dizzying, and delightful way.
Though she slept well at night—an unexpected blessing—Naima was averse to daytime naps. Instead, she wanted to nurse almost constantly (and developed famously chubby cheeks as a result; one friend joked that they looked like they had round siopao buns stuffed into them) and cried if we put her down for more than a couple minutes when she was awake. Naima’s newborn cry was piercing and demanding, and all the more shocking since she was so tiny—she weighed not quite six pounds at birth. Our hearts would never let her wail for long, so we held Naima for most of her waking hours in those early weeks, as we read and watched lots of television, our arms developing muscles and stamina we hadn’t known they could. Like many things about parenthood, you push yourself beyond what you think you can do, and are constantly surprised by what you are capable of enduring.
Naima was not quite one month old when Henry had to meet with our accountant to get our taxes done. I still didn’t want to bring her to too many new places for fear of germs and viruses, but I longed to get out of the house for fresh air, so we decided that Henry would drop me and the baby off at the Rose Garden for our first-ever walk without Daddy, while he met with our accountant. I was excited, couldn’t wait to be a mom in public, pushing around my baby in her cute, gray-and-orange stroller.
At the park, Henry kissed us goodbye and left as I began to push Naima in her stroller, gratefully inhaling the crisp springtime air against my face. But my smile didn’t last long, because it soon became clear that Naima did not like being in her stroller at all. She wailed nonstop, her cry carrying on the breeze like an alarm. I took her out and nursed her, standing up in the middle of the Rose Garden, a bit embarrassed, hoping that she would fall asleep so we could continue our walk. Because isn’t that what one is supposed to do with newborns? Have pleasant walks in the park with them as they snooze innocently?
But Naima had other plans. Every time I put her down in her stroller, she just cried and cried until I picked her up again. I did this at least half a dozen times, but it didn’t work, and I couldn’t just let her cry, knowing that her cry meant I need something and that I, as her mother, needed to figure out what that something was and give it to her, whatever it was. So I gave in to the tremendous force of will of my three-week-old baby and sat on a park bench and nursed her, the abandoned stroller nearby. I felt frustrated and exhausted—I had failed at my first real attempt at a public display of contented new motherhood.
My frustration soon dissipated, however, when I looked down at Naima in my arms. She was quiet now, lying snugly against my body, almond-shaped eyes closed, her mouth fastened to my breast, cheeks pulsing with the instinctive effort of nursing contentedly. In giving up and giving in to my daughter, I had won a small victory, the kind that all new mothers eventually come to know and understand and appreciate: a happy, satisfied baby.
And in the end, that was all that really mattered.
* * *
When I first tell people about my daughter, I usually say that she passed away. But that’s a euphemism, isn’t it? A way to soften the jagged edges of the truth: that my daughter, my Naima, my first- and only-born child, is dead.
In response, people say trite, canned things.
She’ll always be with you. She lives on in your heart. Don’t worry, you’ll have another baby or She’s an angel watching over you now.
These are often people who have living children, parents who can wrap their arms around their child or give them a kiss on the cheek, who don’t have to wonder what their child would have looked like at two, twelve, or twenty-five years old.
I can count on two hands the number of times that I told people about my daughter who simply replied, “I’m so sorry.” Can count even fewer times that they ask what her name is or if I want to show them a picture. Sometimes they say nothing at all, just continue on as if I haven’t just revealed the most painful truth of my life to them, as if I’ve just told them something obvious, like The Earth is round.
For better or worse, I’ve become accustomed to these silent responses. If I’m feeling particularly emotional that day, I will go somewhere quiet and cry, alone. Crying is a normal part of life now, something I’ve learned to accept, even embrace. I can cry while doing all sorts of things: cooking, driving, walking down the street, taking a shower, petting my dog, writing. Crying is necessary now and often comforting, like arranging the flowers.
I place the flowers in a clear crystal vase next to her urn, besides which is a favorite picture of Naima—her eyes, clear-seeing and pure, stare straight at me, her cheeks plump and flush and full of life, a serious baby, a perfect baby. Half the time, the image makes me smile, the other half, it makes me weep.
* * *
I searched and searched for the right day care to bring my daughter to once she turned three months old. I took comfort in knowing it would be for just two days a week—the rest of the week she was with me, or her Daddy, or both of us. I had planned it this way and could work at home sometimes, so that I could spend as much time with our daughter as possible.
Of course, I would have preferred to keep her home with me, to have a nanny who could attend to us both whenever I needed to go anywhere, but we couldn’t afford it, and also, it felt selfish. I wanted Naima to be around other children, to hear other little ones’ laughter and talking and singing and crying, to be around the special delight and playfulness and crankiness that only children can exhibit. It was how I was raised, and my young childhood had been the happiest time of my life.
I found a place where a friend had had her baby for three years, from infancy through toddlerhood. It was less than two miles from our home, easy to get to, and located in a quiet, diverse, safe, tree-lined Oakland neighborhood. It felt like the right place, run by an older, Christian immigrant couple—Mr. and Mrs. Kim—who clearly cherished all the children they cared for.
Though I was nervous and sad to drop her off on her first day, Naima took to the day care immediately. There were a few other children, ages nine months to four years old, at the day care, and I knew Naima would not feel lonely, even if she missed me. Later that day, when I picked her up and brought her home, I noticed Naima lying in her playpen making sounds I had never heard her make before, little baby-talk sounds that I attributed to the lively, playful environment at the Kims’. This made me smile.
On a warm summer day in late July, I took Naima to her four-month checkup. The kind doctor, whom I had picked specifically out of the Kaiser directory after researching all the family doctors, examined Naima carefully, questioned me thoroughly, and was gentle with my baby. She pronounced Naima “perfect” and sent us on our way.
That day. August third. What shall I tell you about it? Do you really want to know?
I could tell you that it was a beautiful, perfect summer day, that I had no idea that my happy family was going to be destroyed. About how my husband and I had dropped her off that morning together, which was rare, because I was giving him a ride to the train station before a work meeting I had downtown. I could tell you that I knew something was wrong when I checked my phone—which had been on silent because of my work meeting—and saw that the babysitter had called not once but twice. When I called back on their landline, it was busy. Panic closed my throat.
Don’t let anything be wrong, please.
I could tell you how I dialed their cell phone next, about how Mr. Kim answered the phone with the clipped words, The baby stopped breathing. I could tell you how I screamed and ran out of the house, how I don’t even remember if I had my purse or anything but the car keys in my hand. I drove to the day care and almost hit several cars, chanting Hold on, baby, wait for Mommy, Mommy’s coming, as if my daughter could hear me, as if my words could make a difference. I was her Mommy, couldn’t I make everything better? I could tell you how I somehow believed that once I got there, she would start breathing again and everything would be okay.
I could tell you how just writing these words now makes me burst into tears, makes me lose my breath. I could tell you about how I called 911 as I drove, how I felt a strange, slight sliver of relief when I pulled up in front of the day care and saw an ambulance and firetruck and police truck there.
She has to be okay.
I could tell you how I screamed when I saw my daughter’s tiny body laid out on the living-room coffee table at the day care, how the fire fighters pumped her tiny chest, and I shouted, I’m right here, baby, Mommy’s right here, and how they wouldn’t let me near her. I sobbed, trying to get the policeman whose brawny arm kept me from charging toward my daughter—They need space to work on her—to look me in the eye, needing reassurance that Naima was going to be okay. He wouldn’t look at me.
I could tell you how I felt utterly useless, how I finally called my husband because there was nothing they would let me, her mother, do. Later, he would tell me that I was crying, he couldn’t understand what I was saying. By the time I was able to explain what was going on, the paramedics were taking Naima away to Children’s Hospital. The firemen pulled me toward their truck to drive me there. I begged to go with her in the ambulance, but they wouldn’t let me. I just wanted to be near my baby, I knew she would wake up for Mommy. She always woke up for Mommy.
I could tell you about how my husband and I stood outside the emergency room door, how I prayed more prayers in those five minutes of waiting than I had ever prayed in my life. I could tell you how my husband cursed when he saw, how I screamed when they told me, how I had to be held up so that I wouldn’t collapse to the floor, how everything after that moment was a blur of tears and agony—not just for days or weeks but for months.
I could tell you more, of course, but it’s just too hard.
What I will tell you is that Naima died in her sleep at day care. They call it sudden infant death syndrome, or SIDS, which just means that they don’t really know what happened. They told us there was nothing we could have done, no way we could have saved her. I still don’t understand how that could be. I’m her mother, there must have been something I did wrong, something I missed.
* * *
It happens less frequently now, but I still have those doubting moments, the moments when I blame myself for her death. Should I have taken her with me to work that day? Should I not have had the wine at my sister’s wedding that weekend? Should I have not listened to the doctor when they told me to feed her formula as a newborn, to clear her jaundice? Should I have? Should I?
Some weeks, I get so busy that I can’t find the time for my little ritual, my days filled with mundane tasks—work deadlines, cooking or cleaning, running errands. Sometimes I let the flowers sit too long in the holding vase that I put them in after I bring them home from the store. After a few days they start to wither—some of the petals fall off, the pinks and purples begin to fade. I feel guilty when this happens, as if I’ve forgotten her, having fallen down on my one, simple task now that she’s gone.
I try to remember that letting the flowers sit out a few days doesn’t mean that I love her any less. I remind myself that if Naima were still here, I would probably feel guilty instead about yelling at her in a moment of frustration, or about forgetting what she wanted for Christmas, or about being late to pick her up from kindergarten.
But that’s not my reality. What I have instead are wilted flowers and tears.
I try to be gentle with myself in these moments, remind myself that these things happen. It’s not easy being the mother of a dead child. In fact, it may be the hardest kind of mothering there is.
This is how I mother my child: Once a week, I buy flowers for her. I create a bouquet of purples and pinks and greens. I put it next to her urn. I pray for her, miss her, remember her, and love her.
Always, always love her.