Kao Kalia Yang
I can still see that day, fresh in my memory as a favorite scene in a beloved movie. I’m standing at the pulpit of a church in a white button-up shirt, tucked into dress pants. There’s a big skylight at the roof of the high ceiling. The early spring sunshine washes over me from the high window. The dust particles glitter and fly among the people in the big room, waiting for my words. My words, small words born from a tight throat, grow large in the power of the microphone before me.
He is a young man, but he is already balding. A wealthy white boy from the gentle suburbs of the cities, he sits in the room, perfectly straight. His big hands, long, fine fingers, rest casually in his lap. He looks at me, at first with the distant look of mere curiosity, and then growing interest. His nose is crooked. His face, full of facial hair, is soft, no hard bones jutting out, just round curves running through. It is not until he smiles at the end of my talk that I see the handsome in his face, a face that is common in this part of the country, until I notice the sparkle in his gaze.
One day, months later, we go on a walk together. We hold hands. My head barely clears his shoulders. The air is heavy with the growth of summer. The sky is moody. A warm wind blows the hair off my shoulder. With each step we take, the wind picks up. The clouds roll in, and the sky looks like a garage door shutting from the far distance. There is a rumble from the belly of the heavy clouds, a hungry snarl for food, for sustenance, for satisfaction. Soon, lightning is flashing across the gray. The sun is gone. The weather has turned. Rainfall, heavy and strong. I tighten my hold on his hand. He is pulling me. We are running through the storm. There is nowhere to hide. We end up hiding in ourselves and each other because the world has become a wet place, full of wild winds, and we are still young and fearless.
When at last we get home, after we’ve dried ourselves, we laugh from the adrenaline of our flight in the gray. We know we’ve flirted with danger, and each other. We thought then that we knew how dangerous life could be. We believed that somehow we were braver together than apart.
On August 6, 2011, we stood in front of our family and our friends, we extended our wrists in the fashion of my people, and we received the blessings of those who loved us and wished us well. White cotton strings filled our wrists and anchored us to each other in marriage.
I found myself in a shared life, planning a shared future. Late at night, when the world had grown quiet and the busy of the day had dimmed, we both looked out our bedroom window, a square full of sky, starlight and moonlight mingling, airplanes and shooting stars shifting across the high heavens. We talked of the future. We whispered of babies. There in that talk, without our knowing, we planted our first seeds of grief together.
August 2012 was hot. The tall grass fields across the Minnesota prairie were thirsty, drying at their tips, golden in the hot sun like fields of wheat. The earth was cracked in places, thirsty for rain. Big grasshoppers flew, their wings widespread across the fields of tall grass. Beneath the sun, they resembled butterflies.
My husband and I were happy about our first pregnancy. We got the best prenatal care we knew how to get from his graduate student health care at the university. We kept all our appointments at the midwives’ clinic in the big hospital downtown. We walked often. We made sure that I ate healthy foods. I took the prenatal vitamins—especially the folic acid—despite the fact that I struggled to swallow the big pills down.
I watched as my belly began to grow round. At nineteen weeks, my regular clothes no longer fit. I invested in yoga pants and maternity tights. I engaged in conversation about how there was no maternity wear for women under five feet, and I laughed. It was with great excitement that I scheduled my first ultrasound.
I scheduled the appointment for a weekday. I took the first available appointment of the morning, eight fifteen. Outside, the late-summer sun was already beginning its work. I felt the hot rays on the back of my neck, heating up my hair. In the hospital parking ramp, the cement held on to the coolness of the night. There were parking spaces galore that morning. I pointed to the plethora of excellent spaces, close to the elevators. Together, my husband and I rejoiced, believing that the available parking spaces were just one more blessing in a world full of them.
We held hands as we walked to the OB testing unit. There was a lightness to my step that I hadn’t felt in months. My husband held my hand firmly in his warm one. Occasionally, I touched my belly with my free hand.
If I could live in that moment of sunshine, make that walking ramp longer, miles and miles longer than it actually was, kept my girlish spirits high, I would, but alas I couldn’t.
In the dim ultrasound room, I rested on the bed, my dress high up on my chest, the hill of my stomach wet with warm gel. My husband sat beside me in a chair. He continued holding one of my hands, playing with my fingers. We watched as the screen flickered on with the press of a button. I saw the spine of my baby, curved in a ball, turned toward the dark of my belly. The technician pressed a few more buttons. She moved the scanner from one side of my stomach to the other, up and down. I felt sleepy and content.
She asked, “Are you sure that your baby is nineteen weeks?”
Both my husband and I answered softly, caught in our dream spaces, “Yes.”
The technician was quiet, too. She did more measurements. She shifted in her chair. She got up.
She said in a bare whisper, “Excuse me.”
She left the room, closing the door firmly behind her.
The screen was still on. I patted my stomach with light fingers. I wanted my baby to wake up, to move, to turn around, to turn toward me. I laughed at myself: every direction the baby could possibly turn would be toward me. I patted my stomach some more.
I said, “Baby, wake up, Mommy and Daddy want to see you, wake up. Me ab sawv os koj niam thiab koj txiv xav pom koj.”
The door to the room opened with no warning. Two doctors came in. One was an older woman.
The second woman, much younger, extended her hand to my husband. I don’t remember her name, but she must have said it. I remember only that she was a resident. I remember only the feel of her hand on my left foot. Her hands were cool. She squeezed lightly.
Dr. Lupo walked to the screen. The young woman kept her hand on my left foot. Dr. Lupo straightened her mouth. She tapped the keys a few times. She turned toward me. She was an actor in a play. Her movements had been directed. Her words were pre-written.
She said, “I’m sorry. Your baby is dead.”
The curtains closed on me.
My world was dark.
I listened for applause that did not come.
We were three days from our first anniversary; it was August 3, 2012, when Baby Jules was pronounced dead inside of me.
My husband and I were presented with two choices. We could go home and wait for the baby to abort naturally, or we could go to the labor and delivery unit, and the doctors could induce labor.
My hands kept shaking on my belly. They moved like butterfly wings.
We called our parents. My husband cried so much he couldn’t speak. I took the phone from him.
I said, “We are at the hospital. The baby is dead.”
I couldn’t get more words out. The calls died in my hands one by one.
When there was no one else to call, my shaking hands returned to my belly. I kept thinking: You fan a fire into life, Kalia, you fan a fire into life.
The tears welled up inside of me and exploded in my throat.
We decided on option two.
They induced me.
The doctors who visited and the nurses in labor and delivery told me that the baby would come by nightfall.
In the dark of the night, I heard the screams of women in pain. I heard the cries of their babies being born. I turned from the walls toward the one window in the room.
The window overlooked a church. There was a round, stained-glass window high on the church that depicted a figure of a man on his knees, his head bowed. I knew who the man was, although I did not belong to the Christian tradition. When I was a child and I was scared in the dark, I used to imagine the arms of my ancestors around me, holding me safe in the circle of their love. I listened for the quiet comfort of those who’d come before me, but all I heard was the hum of the machines around me. I sat still and quiet through the stretch of the long night, waiting for day to emerge from the far eastern sky. I felt the weight of sorrow grow inside of me, centering, deep and low in my belly. I curled on the bed in absent pain.
My husband sat beside me in a chair. He had his head down, although I knew he was not asleep. I heard his cries each time a baby was born somewhere on the ward. He gave voice to the cries choking my throat.
Morning came in slowly, slow gray cutting into the folds of night, then pink sunlight entered the room.
The early morning nurses and the doctors visited.
They said, “Not yet?”
We shook our heads. They put more medication inside of me.
It was noon. I could tell because there were no shadows in the room. Just the shine of sun from the window, the wash of light from the fluorescent bulbs overhead.
I wanted to go to the bathroom. My husband helped me up from the bed. He held my hand, and we walked to the bathroom, much as we had on numerous other occasions, inside the safety of walls, within the hold of nature. He might have even swung our hands—as was his habit. Inside the bathroom, our walk was done. We stood side by side. I looked at his shoulder. He closed the door. For a moment, he held me in his arms, and the world was very far away.
He said into my hair, “You have to let go.”
My arms fell from around him.
I felt something drop in my belly, the weight I had been harboring deep inside of me, the child we had made but could not keep.
The baby came . . . a little boy, mouth opened like a little bird, a little boy who looked like a version of me, eyes closed, skin translucent, a little boy who weighed nothing in my arms—despite the weight I had felt with him inside of me, the weight of life, the weight of hope, the weight of humanity, the gravity of my little love story—his body was more light than anything else it could have ever been.
That autumn, we took long walks. I thought I should sit down and write. I couldn’t. The emptiness was vast inside of me. I felt hollow as the wind shifted and the weather turned. The flowers I loved started to die, one by one. The cold grew inside of me until I wished I could melt away. The contradictions in what I felt and what I wanted were not lost on me. My feet meandered from the grass to the sidewalk, to the very edge of the highways, to a high bridge over water, to the edge of that very river that sliced through America, the great Mississippi River, flowing far and fast, from the future to the past.
The doctors told me that if he had been a week older, Baby Jules would have been classified as a stillbirth. They called him a miscarriage. I thought of the medical definition of the word: a spontaneous loss of a fetus before the twentieth week of pregnancy. I kept thinking there was nothing spontaneous about what I had experienced. Spontaneous in the world of writing signifies a surprise, an intervention, a positive impulse. My world of writing had nothing to do with the world I was living in anymore.
I looked at autumn, my favorite season, as I had never seen it before, barren, full of bold promises waiting to die. Words made no more sense.
My annual garden, dollar-store pots full of cheerful blooms, my geraniums, marigolds, begonias, impatiens, could continue living, but I didn’t want them to. I stopped watering them. I watched them die. The blooms withered first, then the leaves started drying out in the sun and the strong winds. I thought about watering them in those final days, but my heart was so heavy I could not find the strength. What did a few more days of bloom matter when in the end, we would all die anyway?
The autumn passed between moments of life feeling almost normal, me talking to the people I love who loved me, trying to find perspective, and then other moments when I wished I had never met my husband and fallen in love with him, gotten married, gotten pregnant, when I wished I had never delivered a dead baby into the world—a baby the world would never know as mine. Then, I would cry and cry and cry until there were no more tears, until the throbbing in my head grew stronger than the beat of my own heart.
I went outside in cold November. I looked upon my dead plants, pots full of earth and debris, spiderwebs where once petunias had bloomed. Small snowflakes started falling from the gray skies. The cold air cooled the heat in my chest. I breathed deep and watched as the white flakes began covering the world, bit by bit.
My birthday was in December. I could not get up. I was so tired, deep in my bones, detached from the earth. I felt I was on water, floating in some dead sea. My husband insisted I take a pregnancy test. I complied only because I did not have the will to argue.
I was pregnant that December.
That next year, in the month of August, a little girl entered my life. She who would say in moments of courageous defiance and assertion, “I am your firstborn.” And I, who love her more than the life I had before her, would speak of a little boy who was once born to me but could not join her in life. Once my words had dissipated in the air around us, her warm hands in mind, her round eyes on my face, I would agree: Yes, Shengyeng, you will always and forever be my very first daughter.
I was pregnant two Decembers after that.
In the great ironies of life, I was pregnant with identical twins, a situation that the doctors assured me was also spontaneous, for there was no medical rhyme or reason to an egg splitting.
By late August, two little boys had entered my life. Their flesh was full, and their bones were heavy, and they grew like weeds in the garden of my love, watered by my tears and my laughter. When Yuepheng and Thayeng learned to talk and they spoke of brothers, they referred only to each other, but in my heart I heard the faint echo of a response from far away, Baby Jules.
From somewhere in the high heavens, the places I could not see, well beyond my gaze, there was a future floating down. Even after Baby Jules died, I was alive, feet on the earth, so I could not outrun that future, and slowly it covered me up.
I imagine some day in the far, far future. The movie will have played itself out, the story told. I will be an old woman, and I will sit by some window somewhere. Outside it will be cold. Outside it will be hot. Spring will have become summer, summer will have turned into fall, and then it will be winter at long last.
I imagine I will be warm, a blanket over my lap, a book folded nearby. The space beside me will be empty. The valley of my heart will be full of everything that had transpired in August, the month of my marriage, the month where my baby boy died, the month where my daughter and my sons were born. In the winter of my life, I will remember the space of that hot month. I will remember the young man who was once my lover and my friend, my husband, who came to me bald despite the fact that his face was plump with youth. I will remember my precious little boy made of light and air, a reminder of love eternal. I will remember in the quiet of my heart the sounds of the living, of my daughter and my sons, their stories unfolding in a chorus of words, of laughter and tears—amplified by the microphone of time, sending me off toward the window in the high ceiling, that pathway of starlight and moonlight, made only of love that will lead me toward the land of my ancestors.