When we found out we were pregnant for the first time, we were absolutely over the moon. After being together for eight years, we tied the knot. Luis and I had been building our lives together for so long that we finally felt that it was the right time to start trying. We didn’t register for wedding gifts but rather asked guests to contribute to a honeymoon fund because we didn’t need anything—we wanted more memories. Our two-week vacation to Spain, Bulgaria, Greece, and Italy was unforgettable. About a month after coming home, still on a high, we found out we were pregnant. Well actually, I, of course, found out first. I honestly didn’t think it could happen so fast and was a little worried how Luis might react. Instead, I saw pure joy in his face. We felt so blessed to expand our family the same year we married—it was like a fairy tale, too good to be true.
We knew about friends who had had miscarriages, so like many couples, we waited until after the first trimester to tell loved ones. It worked out so well that our immediate families were traveling into town for Thanksgiving, for it was right after our nuchal translucency scan. We had passed the first trimester, had ultrasounds to share, and learned that we were at the lowest risk for certain genetic issues. We couldn’t wait to share what we were thankful for this year!
We planned it so that when Luis said grace, he would announce that we had a blessing brewing in my belly. Everyone was raising their wineglasses, in prayer and thanks, and I was anxiously awaiting—but he didn’t tell them. There I was with my wineglass full of apple cider thinking, “Well, now what?” while trying not to look suspicious. I did the best I could to play host, and finally, before dessert was served, he started to share, first in Spanish. My mother-in-law actually interrupted his announcement, shouting, “Bebé!” My parents looked around confused. I’m not quite sure how they didn’t make the connection that bebé sounds like baby, but it didn’t take long for them to realize once Luis shared the announcement in English. My mother-in-law already suspected when she saw me pour cider instead of wine. Our families cheered and clinked their wineglasses so much that we were almost invisible during their celebration. We tried to ask them if they wanted to see the ultrasounds, but they were busy congratulating themselves on becoming uncles and aunts and grandparents! It was the best Thanksgiving yet.
I was a jolly, calm mother who loved the pregnancy process. I was lucky in that I was just mildly nauseous, and the only physical discomforts I had were carpal tunnel and swelling. I didn’t even consider my first-trimester exhaustion as troublesome, because I love to sleep. Instead, when someone asked me about the discomforts of my pregnancy, I replied that the biggest one was actually the election of Donald Trump.
For the first time when voting, I didn’t think about my future family in an abstract manner. I felt even more strongly about choosing the candidate who would help build a better future for my children. I was worried for my son, who would be biracial—half Dominican and half Vietnamese—given the political dividedness of our nation. Luis was an immigrant who came from the Dominican Republic, and I was first-generation Vietnamese American. We both grew up in humble homes with loving parents who did the best they could to show us a better life than they had had back in their third-world countries. We had experienced our share of profiling and racism, and my first child was going to be born into a world where he would already be judged and deemed less to some folks solely by his looks and his name.
As the initial poll results came in, I recall being optimistic. Even as the last state poll results were displayed on the TV, I stared at them in denial, truly thinking that I would wake up on November 5, 2017, and Hillary Clinton would be president. Luis, more realistic, didn’t say a word and quietly went to sleep. He shared the next day that he wasn’t surprised, just immensely disappointed. He looked at me and promised me that no matter who was president, we were going to have to fight for our family and prepare ourselves as best as we could. I sobbed on the phone with my best friend, who assured me that she would help show my son that this world can be kind and open-minded. Just like our parents did with us, I dreamed of a future where he wouldn’t have to struggle as much as Luis and I did.
This desire fueled my encouragement of Luis to pursue his developer dreams. He wanted to attend a part-time boot camp for the second half of my pregnancy but was hesitant to leave me mostly alone for twenty weeks. It would mean that he would work his normal nine-to-five and then go to the boot camp afterwards. He would return home around nine thirty Monday through Thursday and have projects to work on every other weekend. His graduation wouldn’t be until a few weeks after our son’s due date. But I knew that he had been wanting to grow his skills for some time, and I thought if not now, then when? Yes, I would eat dinner alone most nights, pack lunch and dinner, and make weekend plans and go to appointments without Luis. Yet, Luis would be doing this not only for himself but for our family, and I knew what my part was—it was to take care of us, and I happily took on that challenge.
Luis and I understood that a late pregnancy loss was still possible, but with such a healthy, practically textbook pregnancy, we didn’t worry too much. Instead, we “worried” about things most first-time parents worry about, like getting the nursery together, finding the safest car seat, and taking the prenatal classes. I even recall telling a friend that I knew that it was a possibility that I could have a stillbirth or that something could happen after he was born, but all I could do was focus on what was within my control. I couldn’t tell the future and could only focus on the present. In a way, I felt a sense of peace in doing what I could control and letting the rest go. I never felt such a peace in my life. Looking back, I believe that Massimo gave me this gift—this clarity of mind that continues to help pull me out from the depths of intense guilt and sorrow in my grief, and from debilitating fear and anxiety during my subsequent pregnancy.
Something we delighted in was wondering about his personality. Our first son was due in the year of the Fire Rooster. It became somewhat of a nickname, and even some of our friends joined in the fun. We kept his name a secret, so he became known as our Fire Rooster. Would he be energetic? A handful? Super social? This big personality felt so right. It fit the plaque a friend gave to us at our shower with the inscription, “Let him sleep, for when he wakes he will move mountains.” When our childbirth class leader asked us to bring in a focal point to help us breathe through the contractions for our hopefully unmedicated natural birth, we chose this plaque. Most couples brought in an ultrasound photo, but we wanted this plaque because it represented our hopes and dreams for Massimo.
Occasionally, the haunting memory of how we discussed our little Fire Rooster’s possible traits as we waited at labor and delivery on that wretched Friday visits me. I had heard his heartbeat and tracked his movements in my nonstress test two days earlier. At that appointment, I had my membranes swept, as I was already one centimeter dilated. I felt him move the day after the appointment and excitedly walked around my neighborhood and bounced on my birthing ball. That Friday night I awoke, as I usually do, to use the toilet. However, I thought I didn’t feel him move as much that evening, so I ate something. I sat in the rocking chair and sang, “Sleep Baby Sleep,” to him. I swear I felt him move, enough for me to return to sleep.
The next morning, I didn’t feel him move after breakfast. I called my midwife’s office, and they told me to lie on my left side, drink ice water, and eat something. We headed to labor and delivery when he continued to not respond. Even though I was going in because of reduced movements at forty-one weeks, we spoke with excitement and hope, not knowing that our world was about to crumble. Thinking back, I believe he was already gone that Friday morning.
Shock engulfed me as I realized that I would still need to deliver him. I don’t know how or when, but I remember thinking, I have to do this—welcoming our son into this world was what we’d been preparing for, and it would be one of the last things we could do for him.
As the fierce fire of the sun arose in the sky that Saturday morning, our son was born still.
We named him Massimo Loi Cabrera.
Massimo, an Italian name, meaning the greatest; Loi, a Vietnamese name, after my father; and Cabrera, to carry the Dominican family name.
Yes, great sorrow was in that delivery room, but the overwhelming feelings were joy and pride. We stared at him in awe, our beautiful baby boy, our firstborn. On his birthday, I finally understood what it was like to experience all of the beauty and tragedy that life has to offer. What an intimate, holy, and brutal experience to share with my husband. All of it and all that is to come—every thought, feeling, and experience in the messy world of grief—are rooted in love. People say there are no words, but that is the only word, Love.
I continue to learn much from Massimo. Several months after the fog of the raw grief started to fade, I realized that I didn’t know how I was going to navigate this new world of grief and, frankly, my life going forward, but I vowed that I would not let his death destroy me or my marriage. That would not be a part of my son’s legacy. Instead, I wanted to live brightly for Massimo. If he could live so fearlessly in his short life, so could I. He has awoken me and I will move mountains.