Chue Moua, with Kao Kalia Yang
I started out lucky. The young never know this in the moment, but I’m far from my youth now and can see the memories clearly.
We didn’t live long then. Most of the people I knew were dead. We were in the aftermath of a war. We were the remnants of the war, the ones running from the bullets still, this time coming only from the other direction. We were Hmong in the jungles of Laos after the American war had ended, and we were being prosecuted and persecuted for having helped the Americans in the war.
Everything I knew about being a mother I had left behind at the age of sixteen when I made the decision to walk toward marriage with Bee, when I left my mother behind to become a wife. I was sixteen years old, more girl than woman. A few months into my marriage, I was pregnant. My belly ballooned in front of me, and I knew a child was flowering in my womb.
When that baby unfurled her limbs and unleashed her cry on a still March morning, in the misty valley of an enemy village, in the absence of her father, far away from my mother, I knew I would never be the same again. It was my first experience of falling in love on sight. Her eyes were small, her mouth was open wide, her hands and her feet were pink and bare, she wrestled and wiggled toward my bosom, and the unbearable pain I had just undergone, the ache in my back, the need to push, the rupture of flesh and blood, the shifting of bones—all of this dissipated in the wave of love that washed over me.
My firstborn was my best friend, my trusted companion, a vehicle for my joy and my wonder, my hopes and my dreams. She was the reason why I survived the months away from Bee, our run in the jungles of Laos, the crossing of the Mekong River, and life on the shores of Thailand. Much of my life was driven by a desire to protect, to love, and to live with her.
My secondborn was a reminder in the refugee camps of Thailand of what the world could deliver, even in a hard life: someone full of softness. Her fine hair was the color of the golden grass that waved on the faraway hillsides surrounding the camp. Her hands held fast to my fingers, and in their hold I felt the beat of a bird’s heart. She was born with wings that allowed her to soar high above the place of our captivity.
My experience of motherhood began gently—for all that I lived in worlds full of fear and death. For this, I am thankful to have received the sweet blessings of life.
What happened after is like a flood. I was heavy with my girls on my arms, their hands layered over my heart. I could not have prepared for what would happen. For the first, the second, the third, the fourth, the fifth, and the sixth child that I lost, or as the Americans call it: miscarried. In Hmong we call it nchuav menyuam, to spill children. It does not matter what language we are expressing in, it is the language of loss, the language of almost but never, the language of forever and ever.
The six miscarriages that happened in Thailand happened all in a row. They happened at a time when I did not have much food, when my body was so thin the wind blew me into a curve of bones, a hollow bow around my belly, always burgeoning with life, unable to hold it safely inside. Each of the babies came out sometime in the middle of the journey. They were dead upon their arrival. All were formed enough so that we could tell they were baby boys. All of them were thin and wet, slippery like fish. They came in waves of pain that reminded me I was alive, each in turn, reminding me of the price I had to pay to be alive.
How do I describe the experience now, nearly thirty years after the fact? I was young and I was hopeful. I was poor and I had two living girls to care for. I was with a man who loved me enough but was also learning how to love himself and live a life where he would never be everything he was afraid to aspire toward. We were Hmong refugees living on borrowed land, given food three days a week, expected to wait out the years, a day at a time, for a possibility of a life somewhere we’d never been. Already divorced from the time when I had been a girl, I had become a woman full of the traumas of the war and the happenings in the confines of the camp. I was a woman without options, a woman who had made a decision long ago to choose life—no matter what—and who had to live in the travesty of that truth.
I was a woman who gave up on herself some time in the space of those losses, a woman who tried to kill herself—even with her beautiful daughters and her husband by her side—because she could not look upon a life where she was the source of so much death.
I had gotten into a fight with Bee the night before. We were fighting so much to stay together, to stay in love, to stay alive in those years so full of nothing. My girls were sound asleep, sound in their father’s love. The fight must have been stupid, because I don’t remember it now, but then all I felt was the eruption in my heart.
I woke up early the next morning in a gray dawn. It had rained in the night, and the earth was wet. The door to our sleeping quarters that we had cracked open after our fight to air out our love carried the flower blooms from faraway places to my nose. In the gray, I saw my husband, his arm stretched across the bodies of our sleeping children, a cover against the night, the cold, and the camp. In the early morning, I put my cold feet on the damp earth and slipped them into my flip-flops.
Outside, most of the camp was still asleep. The early roosters crowed their morning calls. Hungry dogs lurked in the shadows between the houses. I knew only the early morning merchants were up and on their way to the camp market.
I knew that at the market they sold packets of pills that fizzed in water. The pills were used to fizz up water to clean silver. Silver that I didn’t own . . . silver like the traditional Hmong necklace that my mother had given me when I married Bee, a prized possession that I lost in the Mekong River on the night of our crossing, because I held tighter to my child than the token of my life as someone’s.
As I walked to the water jar near the landing of the shared patio to brush my teeth and comb my hair, I was quiet and dreamy. My steps were unsteady on the stairs. They felt weak. I had just had a miscarriage the week before. Which one? I no longer know. All I recall is that I felt pale, bloodless, and cold. The cold was something I carried in my heart. At the water jar, I brushed my teeth with the cold water, washed my face with a wet towel, and combed my long black hair with a plastic comb. I secured the thick strands in a bun at the back of my head with a hair clip. Then, I stood very still. I waited for a few minutes for some other family member to get up, to hear perhaps Bee call out my name, or one of my daughters murmur for me in her sleep, but that morning there was nothing but the quiet of a world that would continue with or without me.
I could see the grave mounds of Hmong people on the faraway hills, the men and women and children who had died naturally, died from sickness, or died because they had killed themselves, bare places among the green grass. It felt to me that they were the only ones at home in this temporary place, the ones who weren’t leaving, the ones who would defy the governments of the world who had told us that we were refugees, that we belonged to no nation, that we were people floating far in the hopes of finding a home. I smiled at the defiance of the dead. I smiled at my own rebellion in response to the life I had been living. I was at peace with the task I had set before myself—because I believed this is what the world wanted of me.
I thought about the babies I had lost, each in turn, a sliver of a life, the size of a cob of corn, the length of a banana, the width of a cup of tea. I thought about how each had died inside of me. My womb had become a casket. I thought about how each had been buried somewhere, free from ceremony or ritual, from the greetings and goodbyes we granted those who had lived, who had been loved. I understood there was no room in my poverty for that kind of goodbye. I felt that I could not survive another goodbye.
I took careful steps on the slippery earth toward the road that led to the market. My flip-flops were attracted to the earth like a magnet. Raising first one foot, then the next was hard. But I persisted.
I thought most about my mother on that walk to the market to the stall of the old woman who sold the silver-cleaning pills I’d seen many times before. My mother whom I remembered then as an old woman only because I was too young to understand the process of age. My mother who had loved me gently and well, who had given me on my wedding day the best of everything she owned, who had told me not to forget her, who had said, her voice shaking, “When you have your own children, you will understand how much I love you, how much I will miss you.”
It was the thoughts of my mother that made the tears in my heart surface on my face. I was sorry I could not return to her alive and well, my children around me, laughing and loving. I knew that I was about to commit the biggest crime against her. How many times had she offered herself on the altar of death so that I might live? After my father died, she had looked upon my brothers and sisters and me and told us not to be afraid, promised us that she would protect us. After the Americans left and when the Communist Pathet soldiers entered our village looking to deliver death, it was she who had said, “Kill me before you kill my children.” And now, I would be killing myself. The thought of her disappointment, her anger, her loss drew the water from my eyes, and I unleashed my tears in a fine fall from my eyes.
A cool wind blew when I stood before the old woman at the stall. From the veil of water in my eyes, I saw that she smiled at me in greeting. Her mouth soft and pink. Her gums were bare.
She asked, “What can I get you today, Young Woman?”
I had never been a good liar. I turned my gaze toward the little packets of pills laid out on her table. I knew the truth was in my eyes, in the wash of tears on my face, but I didn’t know which tiny plastic bag contained the pills I was looking for, so I looked lost.
I said, “I am looking for silver-cleaning pills.”
She answered, “I don’t have any.”
I had not expected her response.
Her smile disappeared, and she said, “I will not sell you any silver-cleaning pills today.”
I blinked the blurry from my eyes.
I asked, “What other vendors carry the pills?”
She said, “I don’t know. It is a long line from here to the end. You walk and you ask them. This old lady does not have any for you today.”
I had somehow thought that death would be easy, for all of my life had been hard, and it was death that I had been running from the whole time. Now that I was ready for the encounter, this old woman was not going to help me, she was going to make it hard for me.
I said, “I don’t know what you mean.”
I could see her clearly now. The white strands in the hair fell from her bun. I could see her brown face, deep crevices of folded flesh, those steady, clear eyes looking upon me with concern.
My hands, which had been cold, griped the corners the rickety table before me, a table filled with tiny packages of pain killers, herbal packages, boxed remedies, soap, toothbrushes, toothpastes, shampoos, conditioner, everything a person may need in the course of life. I leaned toward the woman. She leaned toward me. Her old woman’s hands fell atop of mine. They were warm and dry. Our heads were close when she said, “I don’t know whose daughter you are or whose wife or whose mother, but you will not be buying silver pills from me on this day.”
The tears that had just dried began suddenly again, earnestly. The rain that had drizzled on the walk became a storm of liquid I could not contain. My throat clamped. My hands fisted in a last effort at control in the hold of her hands; her brown fingers tightened over mine.
Her voice gentled, “I will not let anyone else sell you silver-cleaning pills today either.”
I pulled my hands free.
I said, “You can’t do that.”
Years after, I can still hear her call after me, as I made my way away from her table, “Me ntxhais . . .”
I was not her daughter. I could never be.
I walked, tears falling free, from one vendor to the next, asking for silver-cleaning pills, feeling her gaze on my back the whole time. I defied her the way I used to defy my mother. By the time I reached the end of the line of vendors, I had only three capsules in my hands. None of the women would sell me any. A lone man had sold me three. He said they were his last three.
Beside a grove of sugarcane, in a corner of the camp, I sat by myself on a flat rock. I did not want to be found dirty and wet, just dead. I had nothing to drink the pills down with. I had become too emotional. I wiped the tears from my eyes. I redid my bun at the back of my hair, cognizant that the early morning had left, and if I did not hurry, I would be found before the work could be done. I walked back to the market in a hurry. The slippery mud clung to my flip-flops. The romance of the morning was gone. I was suddenly exhausted. In my exhaustion, I fell. I lost one of the pills in my hands. When I got myself up, I could feel the wet of my sarong clinging to my legs. I had no more patience for me. I walked to the vendor with the drinks, my flip-flops a mess of mud, and bought a sweet drink, one of those syrupy drinks that my children liked, the kind that came from a plastic bag with a straw tucked at one end. On my way back to the sugarcane grove, I downed the drink and the two pills I had left. I sat on the rock, I raised my legs and wrapped my arms around my knees, and I laid my tired head to rest.
I understand that a child came upon me first and screamed. Bee said that he had been looking for me. The wet earth had given him a clean track to follow. I wasn’t meant to die that morning. Bee said when he heard the child scream in fear, he was already close. By the time, he got to me, there was fizz coming out of my mouth. My eyes were rolled back. I had toppled on the ground.
I woke up at the camp hospital. I heard the whirl of the fan over me. For a moment, I thought I had had another miscarriage. Another child had spilled from me. Bee was where he usually was, sitting beside me, his head in his hands. I closed my eyes again because I did not want to talk or be talked to. I felt very much my own childishness then. I was in my early twenties. I was shy and embarrassed. I pretended to be unconscious for much longer than I was, but I could not pretend forever.
Soon enough, I had to ask about my children, not the ones who had died, but the ones who were alive.
Soon enough, I had to hear my husband’s cries and my own in response, first halting and quiet, and then loud, full of the ache inside of me.
Soon enough, I must have gotten pregnant again, and soon enough I must have lost the next baby and the next.
There were points where I decided we would stop trying.
There were points where Bee decided we would stop trying.
But always, in the aftermath of the conversations, the decisions, the declarations we made to each other of our love, we were swept up in our own seas of despair. Neither of us was willing to do the one thing it would take to ensure that we wouldn’t conceive again: leave each other.
I had six miscarriages all in a row in the space of the eight years we lived in Ban Vinai Refugee Camp. Sometimes, I know the number is so high that when I say it, other women are not sure how to feel, or how to respond, so I don’t say it often, but when asked about why we had only two girls or if we wanted boys, I always answered truthfully. I would not deny the fact that I had tried. I’ve rarely spoken of what it has cost me to try and try again.
In America, we dreamt that perhaps we would have a successful pregnancy, but we were also full of fear, so we did not speak our dreams aloud to others or to each other. But in America, even without words, there was enough food to keep my belly full and my blood thrumming. In America, I got pregnant again, and again, and again. I had five more live births. One, like the ones in Thailand, a miscarriage halfway in between the string of living children.
Of all the miscarriages I have had, it is perhaps that one in America that traumatizes me the most. It happened in the middle of those years, between the two live births before, and the two after. It was a little boy, also. This time, I knew the size of an American bottle. This time, I knew he would have lived. If it had not been for an American doctor who’d prescribed a medication I was not supposed to be on, if it had not been me, a Hmong woman who could not tolerate a small itch on her skin, so she returned and returned again to the American doctor.
I had developed an itch on my neck. It would eventually be diagnosed as a sun allergy, but then it was just this itch that would not go away. I visited the American doctor, a woman I liked just fine, and she prescribed topical creams that I used to no avail. I returned to see her. She prescribed increasingly stronger medication. Still, it did not work. Finally, she wrote a prescription for a pill that was supposed to make the itch go away.
I had just returned home from work at the factory. My jeans were tight around my middle. I’d long taken off the belts I wore to keep the jeans fitted. My belly was growing. At home, a sink full of dishes waited for me. The two older girls were at their homework. Bee was gone on the night shift. My little baby boy and girl played on the ground, laughing and rolling around. I changed out of my work clothes, and I put on soft cotton pajamas. I was tired that day, but like all the days before and after there was no place for rest. I washed the dishes at the sink. I complained a little to the older girls. They knew better. I needed more help around the house. In my irritation, I felt the itch at my neck was particularly bad, so I scratched and scratched. Before I took the pill, I made sure to eat a banana. I didn’t want an upset stomach. The pill bottle was hard to open, but I managed. I did not read the label. I saw only my name on it. I took the pill with a mug of warm water. I settled on the sofa with my younger two.
That night, I felt a cramp. I could not find a comfortable position between my two youngest on our queen-sized mattress in our small, cramped room. I heard when Bee came home in the early morning hours. I did not call him, because I didn’t want to wake up the sleeping children on either arm. When Bee came into our room and saw that I was not yet asleep, he asked if I was alright. I told him that I felt cramps. He asked if I wanted to go to the hospital. I said no. He told me to wake him up if things got worse. They didn’t. I was still up when my alarm for work sounded. I got up carefully from the space I occupied, a tiny sliver of bed now that Bee was sleeping, too, clinging to his edge of the mattress. In the bathroom, I saw myself, and there was a look on my face that I recognized, the old defeated look I’d seen in my eyes long ago. I knew my baby had died.
I sat in the darkened house, and I waited for my two older daughters to get up. When they saw me on the sofa, still in the soft pajamas of the night before, they asked, “Niam, are you okay? Are you going to work today?”
I said I wasn’t. I said I didn’t feel good. I was waiting for their father to get up. They wanted to know if I wanted them to wake him up.
I said, “No. It is alright.”
They got ready for school. They kissed me as they headed out the door.
When Bee woke up to find me at the sofa in the same place, he asked again, “What’s wrong?”
I told him we needed to drop off the younger kids at his brother’s house. I told him that we had to go to the hospital. I told him that I was worried that my baby was dead.
He asked no questions. We moved quickly as a team. The little ones were still tired and made no fuss in our arms as we gathered them into the car.
On the drive to Bee’s brother’s house, he drove with his left hand and kept his right hand on my hand. He squeezed my hand periodically. We did not have much to say to each other. It was all too familiar, and yet somehow had become so different. We were older now. We’d survived the war in Laos, the refugee camps of Thailand, and were making a go at the poverty we inhabited in America. This time, we knew we would make it through this, and somehow that knowledge made losing the baby worse.
At the hospital, the people did what they were supposed to do, and we followed their instructions. We signed in and showed them our insurance card. Bee and I both expressed in English that we were worried about the baby inside of me. The nurses and doctors nodded their understanding. They moved us from the waiting room into an exam room. They took out the Doppler machine. Different technicians had a listen to the quiet baby inside of me. Different doctors came in, and they pressed into my belly with gloved fingers, then they had me moved into a fancier room with more computers. They looked at the baby inside of me via ultrasound. They were sad when they pronounced that the baby was dead inside of me. But none of the people in the room, not even Bee, none of the people in this whole wide world, was as sad as I was.
The way I was sad about this miscarriage was similar to the sadness I felt when I heard that my mother had died in Laos, far away from me, when my sister told me the news of her death over the hanging phone in the kitchen of that haunted house we lived in for a time. It was this thing that sucked the air out of my chest. It was the kind of sad that you feel when you have to say goodbye to someone who had loved you for a great long time but you knew you could never love them in return in the same way, a debt you would always owe.
What happened after, despite the fact that this time we were in America and all those other times we were in the refugee camps of Thailand, was all too familiar. The baby came out, and it was a boy. His eyes were closed, and his hands were fisted. His body was the size of a bottle. I thought about this all the time—in the days, weeks, months, years after whenever I fed my little ones at home with a bottle. I found myself, late in the quiet of the night and early as the fingers of the sun began to slip into the heavy skies, holding the bottle the way I would have held my baby—if he had been alive.
It will take me the rest of my lifetime to meet him again.
My journey as a mother has been long, continues to be long. When you have seven living on this side and seven waiting on the other side, either place feels like it could be home. I know this is not what many people want to hear, but it is the way my life has turned out to be. It is my experience of loving across the divide of life and death. I’ve ventured far to be here. I’ll venture far to be there. I’ve tried to make that journey before, so I know: nothing is easy, nothing is close, anywhere is everywhere when you are perpetually looking for a mother’s love, looking to be a mother with endless love.