The girl with cancer sleeps. Meanwhile, four blocks away, at eight weeks pregnant, I thrash in bed.
The next day, I walk those four blocks to visit her: the girl with cancer, my friend David’s daughter, Maxine, a seven year-old child. Earlier in the day, I ventured into the Times Square Disney store where I deliberated over which Frozentrinket to buy for Maxine: a glittery mug or a stuffed snowman; a character-adorned art kit or an oversized snow globe – my baby bump not yet visible – wondering which copyright-protected characters my child will obsess over, and whether we’ll even give in to the Disney pandemonium. I decided on the Frozenart kit, but now when I bring it to Maxine’s bedside, I realize my mistake: her paralysis has spread to her arms, and she can no longer control her hands well enough to draw. Her mother discretely moves the kit away from her while I try to deflect.
I ask Maxine a series of questions:
“What’s your favorite color?”
“I don’t have one. I like all the colors,” she responds.
“What’s your favorite food?”
“Hmm, I don’t know. I don’t have a favorite food. I like a lot of them.”
“What about your favorite animal? Dog?”
“I like dogs, but I like a lot of animals.” I’m frustrated by her appreciation of all things. I want favorites. I want to put the world into boxes. I want definitive answers.
As I gather my belongings to leave in their foyer, Maxine’s mother, Lydia, confides in me, tears welling: her husband had confessed that he loves both his children but is intentionally growing closer to his older daughter, Isabella, to protect himself. She goes on, “But Maxine is just like him. They have a tight bond. She’s The One.”
I stand there in the suffocating entry hall, not knowing how to respond, overheating in my down winter jacket, hemmed in by a coatrack of puffy parkas, a child’s scooter, a Velcro tennis shoe collection, hats for small heads, and neglected homework assignments stacked precariously on top of jewel-toned backpacks. I stand there, trapped between walls. I touch Lydia’s hair and listen to her search for the manual called How To Watch My Child Suffer. Suddenly, as she talks, I feel a wave of chills, a whirl of vertigo. I squat, rolling myself in a ball for balance, to keep from passing out. Lydia interrupts herself to see if I am ok, then asks, in a moment of levity, “Maybe you’re pregnant?” She smiles.
I shake my head, furrow my brow, “No,” I say. This is not the time, I think.
This week, my baby’s muscles have begun to form. The books and blogs offer visualizations:
At 8 weeks, your baby is the size of a kidney bean.
At 9 weeks, your baby is the size of a raspberry.
Another book begs to differ:
At 8 weeks, your baby is the size of a raspberry.
At 9 weeks, your baby is the size of a green olive.
All sources rapidly advance to larger produce over the coming weeks:
At 16 weeks, your baby is the size of an apple.
At 20 weeks, your baby is the size of a banana.
At 34 weeks, your baby is the size of a cantaloupe.
Maxine asks me to cook her a batch of applesauce. She has asked little of people as her appetite dwindles; I can’t help but feel flattered and purposeful. I stew the apples, watch them liquefy, mix in the cinnamon until the specks disappear. By her bedside, spoonful by small spoonful, I feed it to her, asking if it tastes good. She closes her eyes and musters a nod and a subtle smile. I squeeze her hand, though she can no longer feel my touch, and wonder if she can sense that I am in the midst of bringing a new life into this world. Am I an ally or a traitor, a coward, a liar?
Weeks later we visit our obstetrician in her Manhattan office, a stone’s throw from the East River. We have come to learn the results of our Nuchal Translucency Ultrasound, which detects chromosomal abnormalities; and our MaterniT21 test, which detects additional chromosomal abnormalities, and in doing so, can determine the baby’s sex. We await the results of measurements and DNA samples to tell us how our now thirteen-week-old, peach-sized fetus is faring.
Our doctor tells us that all the tests are normal. We breathe a sigh of relief, freed from considering our reactions had the news been otherwise. My husband gets to press my barely bloated belly with a device and we listen to the tiny heart fluttering 160 times a minute.
“That’s your baby,” she informs us.
“Are you sure it’s not a whale?” my husband dryly asks.
“A whale’s heartbeat would be much slower, actually. The larger the mammal, the slower the heartbeat.”
“Right,” my husband whispers.
“A hummingbird’s heartbeat would be faster than your baby’s.” “I think it’s probably human,” I say.
“I would bet on that,” she says, smiling.
When we leave the doctor’s office, I clench a snack-pack of Cheddar Bunnies in my right hand, one of the few foods I can stomach, my left hand gripping the sealed envelope that contains a slip of paper with one of two words: GIRL or BOY. I suggest we cross the street and open the envelope under the bare trees, wrapped in strings of white Christmas lights.
My husband does the honors and we peek inside the envelope. In pencil, each letter is distinct, carefully marked in lines reminiscent of important notes passed in junior-high math class stating the names of crushes: GIRL.
Girl. I can’t stop thinking about Maxine, the girl with cancer, that special girl.
To focus on happier things, I call my friend Leslie to share my baby news. But when I ask how she’s doing, she tells me that her mom passed away months ago. Suddenly, I am the bad friend with the good news. I ask her what she’d told her four-year-old, train-obsessed son Alex about her mom’s death. She says:
“I wish we were religious so I could tell him she went to heaven with the angels. Instead, I went with physics: ‘Grandma’s body didn’t work any more because she was old, and now her body is dust so that all the things her body was made of can be new things, like trees and flowers.’ Or, according to Alex, like trains.
The leaves brown and thin as Maxine loses all touch and taste, and finally, one day deep into November, she dies. I am sixteen weeks pregnant.
After Maxine’s service, many of us return to her family’s home for a small reception. The whole community has rallied to be there: neighbors, friends, children, teachers, even Maxine’s school principal, who spoke at the funeral. While I palm a seltzer, feigning a vodka tonic, still not revealing my news, smoked pork and baked beans waft, equally repulsive and desirable in my condition.
At the service, David shared heartbreaking memories of Maxine’s ordinariness and her uniqueness. He mentioned their trip to Italy through the Make-a-Wish Foundation; how she swam in many oceans on many coasts in states many of us have visited and in countries most of us will never see; her love of dogs. But what haunts me the most are the details that make a person, a person: her insistence on collecting snails from their backyard so she could protect them from birds hungering for escargot.
As the trash begins to pile up in the hubbub of the crowded kitchen, a few of us sort through the overflow – separating empty beer bottles for recycling from paper plates sticky with the remnants of meat and rice. Picking up the tangible, the small and ordinary.
Over casual chatter, among the smeared paper towels and scraps of food, a woman combing through the trash spots a strap attached to a bug-collecting jar with breathing holes punched in the lid: inside are three snails. Maxine’s snails. Desperately, we fish out the jar and wipe away greasy rice grains, spilled beer, grounds of coffee stuck to the outside.
We offer the snails to David, who beams at our rescue, and, eyeing the survivors through the magnifying lid, proudly loops the strap of the jar onto the shutter of the kitchen window. As the jar steadies itself, each snail comes into focus, body suctioned with all its gooey might to the inside wall of the jar, tentacles reaching out, surrendering to the complete unknown.
I want to believe that Jane’s mom is trees. And flowers. And trains.
I try to believe that Maxine is trees. And flowers. And snails.
I decide to believe that, at sixteen weeks now, my baby is solid as an apple. Then big as a banana. Then certain as a cantaloupe. She will be, I guess, what she will be.
Originally from Cambridge, MA, Julia Price Baron received her BA from Vassar College where she majored in Creative Writing, and her MA from the University of Texas at Austin in Radio-TV-Film studies. She writes and produces for television, and created LoveFail, a comedic web series about online dating. She currently resides in Brooklyn, NY with her husband and daughter.
A Tree-Bush grows unfettered in my in-laws’ front yard. It has garnered suburban fame, what with a pine tree spontaneously shooting out of a well-groomed shrub. It is a fascinating little totem over which the subdivision marvels.
Tree-Bush is emblematic of my experience in raising a family rooted in two distinct cultures.
During the first year of my daughter Madigan’s life, I travel to Michigan, just the babe and I. It is the first time I’ve ever visited his parents without my husband. My grandmother-in-law, whose hair is an electric purple color, is also staying with my in-laws. Punk Rock Grandma (PRG) likes to spank you on the rump when she’s speaking to you.
The week is intended to be a gift to my in-laws since they have not had much facetime with their only grandchild. This will be PRG’s first encounter with a great-grandchild.
When they pick me up at the airport, I am sweaty and feeling stale from the air travel. My in-laws greet me and seem to study me, not quite sure how to engage me. Every conversation is translated from Korean to English for me, or from English to Korean for PRG. Every meal is cooked by my in-laws. Any and everything I request they honor. I am treated as royalty, her highness the Caucasian princess daughter-in-law of Boston, who has traveled by air and fought bravely the last six months of motherhood.
Early one morning, at an hour when only raccoons and parents of infants–who share matching black bags around their eyes–are awake, Madigan is inconsolable. I feed her, swaddle her, sing to her, rock her. I stand in the middle of the room in my unmentionables, looking stricken. Suddenly, PRG is barging into my room, yelling loudly in Korean while wagging a wild finger at me and pointing at my chest. I know what she was saying without knowing what she was saying. Later I tell Umma, my mother-in-law, about the incident and ask if next time her mom could just knock before she entered my room.
“I not know if Grandma know how to knock,” Umma says, half-laughing.
My in-laws are survivors of stories for which sentiments are often lost in translation. I will never understand what it is to grow up in post-war Korea with rocks as your only toys or what it feels like to be hungry day after day. I catch glimmers of their desire to never allow history to repeat itself, especially in their servant-heartedness to their grandchildren.
Just like the Tree-Bush, we are always deciding in our intercultural unit what we are going to be on any particular day. Is today where we tend toward American style? Or Gangnam style? Or should we strive, like the Tree-Bush, to allow two forces to coexist within our unit, allowing both to prosper and shine?
I take so many delicious naps during my week in Michigan. My in-laws do absolutely everything in their power to lighten my duties. This is the virtue that is largely missing from my culture of Lean-in Americana. There is very little caretaking of caretakers. There is little honor for those who sacrifice in order to help others’ thrive, like those who care for infants or the elderly. My Korean elders place a high premium on caretaking, especially of new mothers. It is their belief that if the mother is fine, the baby will be fine. Whereas if the mother is neglected, she will be driven to neglect her baby.
I soak up this extra TLC even if it comes at the expense of being rebuked by a purple-haired early morning bedroom intruder.
PRG loves just observing Madigan; all of her little baby expressions are infinitely entertaining to her. PRG also enjoys walking around the subdivision, pushing my daughter in the stroller. One day on the stroller outing, Madigan is not having it. She is displeased that the sun is in her eyes and that I am nowhere to be found. When PRG returns, she reports that both she and the baby have wet their pants and need to be changed.
I walk and drive past the tree-bush multiple times a day, so much so that it sort of normalizes itself. I realize that with a lot of patient cultivation, one can almost manage to see the beauty in it. Each plant grows, drawing its nutrition from the same sources, but not squelching the other’s ability to thrive. Each entity becomes more beautiful because of the presence and contribution of the other.
One night I am cutting watermelon in my in-laws’ kitchen. Something possesses me to cut the soobak into the shape of a shark head, its jaw gaping open with large white sharp teeth jutting out and scraps of watermelon appearing to be the bygone shreds of flesh. It is horrid. And kind of amazing.
My mother-in-law tells me to put the watermelon guts into a dish. She explains that she needs to wash the dish again as it had been rinsed after church potluck, but, you know, it was washed “American church potluck-style.” Meaning it was washed hastily by white people who didn’t care about cleanliness and presentation like Korean people.
We both laugh loudly, our mouths open wide, baring our teeth like watermelon sharks.
My parents taught me that laughter is the best medicine. My in-laws taught me that laughter is actually life support.
My husband John meets Madigan and me at the airport; he has tied a mylar balloon to her carseat. I am so thrilled to see him and return to our digs where bedroom invasion is not commonplace.
My husband is grateful, he says, that I made the journey to see his parents and to bring his grandmother joy in meeting her only great-grandchild, since he was working multiple jobs and vacation time was scarce.
The gratitude is all mine, though. In a week’s time I had experienced a restoration of sorts. I had hit the mother-of-an-infant jackpot: continuous rest for five consecutive days. I had also restored my commitment to tending our hybrid tree-bush, from which we were fortunate to be growing a little transplant. She also required food, water, sunlight and for us to strap her into a carseat while she stared at her mylar balloon.
Kendra Stanton Lee is a freelance writer and calligrapher living outside of Boston. She cultivates an ink-covered chaos alongside her therapist husband and their two young children. Her writing has appeared in McSweeney’s, Skirt Magazine, and The Boston Globe, among others.
A couple weeks ago, as we traveled up along the North Shore of Lake Superior, my five-year-old, Baek, recoiled at the sight of a rock outcropping near the road. “A volcano,” he shrieked, “it’s a volcano! What if the hot lava gets us?”
We’ve been through this before. I blame Virginia Lee Burton. It started when we began reading Burton’s book, Life Story, with regular frequency. Life Story is expansive, covering the history of the earth from the big bang to present day. The part Baek keeps coming back to is the volcanic activity that killed off one round of dinosaurs. It’s hard to blame him. If volcanoes can kill off an entire species in a matter of a couple pages, certainly they could harm us.
Things remotely resembling volcanoes, it turns out, can be found just about anywhere, especially if you have no concept of scale. So, Baek and I have many opportunities to discuss the existence – or not – of volcanoes in our presence. This conversation goes according to script:
“No, Baek,” I say, “remember, we are in Minnesota. We’re safe here. No volcanoes.”
“But Mom, there is a volcano in Washington.”
“Yes, but remember Washington is so, so, so far away. So far that you’d have to drive a whole day and a whole night and just keep on driving to get there.”
“But the volcano can reach Minnesota.”
For this I blame his older brother, Toby, who has on more than one occasion unhelpfully pointed out that in 1980 ash from Mt. St. Helens’ eruption made it all the way to Minnesota.
“Remember, Baek, only teensy-tiny specks of ash from the volcano. That’s it. Nothing more than a little sand. Nothing from the Washington volcano can hurt you in Minnesota.”
More than once, Baek and I have sat side by side on stools at the kitchen counter, while I googled “North American volcano locations.” We both learn a lot. For example, there nearly a hundred volcanoes in the United States and Canada (unhelpful) but most of the volcanoes are along the west coast of North America, as they were created by the subduction of the Pacific tectonic plate under the North American tectonic plate (very helpful, indeed). Google reassures him that I’m right; volcanoes are far, far away from here. Minnesota is decidedly not part of the ring of fire.
But volcanoes are not the only natural disasters that worry Baek. Certainly some geologic tragedy could befall us at any moment—earthquakes, meteorites, maybe landslides or quicksand. The earthquake conversation goes something like:
“Earthquake? Is that a rumble?”
“Nope, Baek. Not an earthquake. Remember there are only earthquakes along the edges of the huge puzzle pieces that make up the earth’s crust. We live right in the middle of one of those pieces. We are safe here in Minnesota.”
I have a little more trouble when he brings up meteorites. I typically have a policy against lying to my kids, but I do make exceptions. Toby, for example, for years believed we removed our shoes at airport security because the airlines needed to check for stinky feet, which for obvious reasons are not allowed on planes. I’d feel a little twinge of guilt as he furiously scrubbed his feet in the tub the night before a flight, but that was better than talking about shoe bombs.
In responding to the meteorite inquiry, I frequently consider explaining the difference between possibility and probability, but our house is small and in the interest of a good night’s sleep, (which drives so many of my decisions) I explain that meteorites just don’t land in Minnesota. Why? I don’t know the answer to that, they just don’t. Perhaps we’ll look it up on the computer some other time.
I often wonder if Baek’s constant need for geologic reassurance stems from the fact that he experienced a seismic shift when he was nearly two years old.
He was born prematurely near Seoul, South Korea, to a mother who could not parent him. After a short time in a babies’ home, he went to a foster family who specialized in preemies – a family that was used to caring for newborns for a few months until they joined their adoptive families.
What they weren’t used to, though, was an unusually active toddler boy. He was loved, I’m confident of that, but he apparently received little stimulation. In most pictures we have of him from this time, he’s seated, head pointed down, looking at the glowing screen of a smartphone. From spending most of the first two years of his life with a bottle in his mouth, his teeth were completely rotten, four of them chipped down to the gums. Those were removed, and the rest crowned in silver a couple months after he’d join our family.
We accepted Baek’s referral when he was five months old but our adoption process was caught up in a political/social policy shift and he did not join us until he was nearly two years old. I try to picture the placement experience from his perspective. His life is sailing along in the way a toddler’s life does. He eats, he sleeps, he plays, and the people who have always been there hold him. Then suddenly a woman who looks nothing like anyone he’d ever seen before and makes sounds, constantly, that are not recognizable as words, plucks him out of this place, drags him through twenty hours on a plane and in airports, before taking him to a house full of weird smells and weird stuff, where more strange-looking people and a very large terrifying white furry four-legged thing hang out. And there he stays.
Baek’s first months with us were like chipping away at a fossil to get to the Baek contained inside. His eyes remained pointed down, even as we encouraged, then demanded, eye contact at every turn, before every snack or bottle. Even as he began understanding some English, he rarely responded. He required constant reassurance that the ground wouldn’t shift under his feet again. Nights were the worst. He’d wake up twice an hour, or even more, and whimper softly until Tim or I (whoever was “on” that night) said, “I’m right here, Baek, go back to sleep.” We tried every possible sleeping arrangement, co-sleeping with the two of us, with one of us, him in a crib, one of us on bed beside the crib, him on a bed with one of us in a sleeping bag on the floor, the couch, holding him while sitting in a chair. Until we’d finally resort to medication, nothing helped him sleep except that constant reassurance. “I’m right here. You’re safe. Go back to sleep.”
As months passed, Baek began to emerge from his protective shell. He was easier to smile, giggled occasionally, and gave hugs that appeared to be out of affection, rather than desperation. As years passed, he dropped the shell altogether. He’s unabashedly affectionate; “I love yous” tumble out of his mouth at all hours and he hugs with abandon. But, I wonder whether Minnesota, or anywhere, will ever feel like solid ground to Baek. Will the seismic shift he experienced at two reverberate throughout his life in aftershocks big and small?
What I want more than anything for Baek is to know that my love for him, his place in our family, is as solid as the ground beneath his feet. I want him to be secure enough to handle correction without shutting down. I want him to be unafraid to speak his mind, to not get a swirly stomach when it’s time to approach new kids on the playground. I want him to see change as opportunity, not a situation that triggers his fight or flight response.
We haven’t gotten there yet, but we’re eons closer to that goal than we were four years ago. What I hope is that I’m able to calm the tremors until the ground below his feet feels solid.
Sara Martin lives in Minneapolis with her husband, two sons, and their family dog. When she’s not spending time with her family or trying to sneak in writing time, she works as a public interest attorney.
His hair. He’s twenty-two now, but I think about his hair, how it blew gently upwards in the wind, how it hung over his face at age ten or eleven, down to his chin, at times down to his shoulders, and how his eyes peered out and twinkled—or glared—and how protected he was. Back then, while he was still shorter than me, I could stroke his hair, gather it lightly in my hand when he stood next to me, or touch it briefly as he walked past. I could feel the softness of his smooth, straight hair and study the tones of light brown and auburn, the same color as mine, an exact match before the gray. Sometimes I wished he’d agree to cut it, but I held that inside like breath. One time, a stranger said they thought he was a girl, and I wondered how that landed on him. I wondered, did it affect him?
I think about how, in his teens, he’d swish his head like Justin Bieber, the king of boy hair at the time, and how my boy’s hair would swoop to the side, revealing just enough of his face, so handsome, as I’m sure the girls noticed, and he’d flash a burning glance of mischief or a tender smile, and everything was easy. That same swoop of hair had flowed on his toddler head, the baby hair I stroked when I nursed him, and when he cried, that sweet, wispy hair that grew long and straight so quickly. And I remember how reluctant I was to cut it that first time, and probably I’d put it off too long—one of several times I needed a push. But finally, that milestone at age one, how many photos I took of him in the barber’s chair, poised high on the booster bench and surrounded by Gentle Ben’s, the sports barber that all the neighbor moms recommended. How he sat innocently in the chair for that first cut, like some kind of initiation into the man’s world, and how I saved those cut hairs in a white paper envelope, one of the first attempts I made at keeping him, keeping his childhood in my hands.
And then there were the times in high school when I wondered what he’d look like if he cut it short—would he get better grades, a better job, or a letter of recommendation? But there was my instinct to stay back, and my ever-mixed feelings, loving his hair, loving his uniqueness and how that hair became part of who he was right then, and how I didn’t want anything about right then to change.
And when he joined the swim team, I think about how he crammed that long hair into a swim cap and probably didn’t wash it after practice, despite the large bottle of shampoo I tucked into his backpack, and how he swam fast anyway and started to really show talent. And then, the day he decided, with his whole team around him, to shave it for the big swim meet, to give him that edge, and how I wasn’t there when it happened, but how excited he was to tell me the story later, with his deep voice and his big smile. How it took me a few minutes, a few days, to get used to his fuzzy-shaved head, and how, when I asked him if I could feel the newly-cut hair, the buzz-cut on his perfect, lumpy crown, he said, “Yes, Mom,” and leaned down gently to me like a giraffe or a nanny. And how I had to reach up to touch it, as he had grown much taller, taller than me now, and how it no longer seemed to be mine to touch without asking, and maybe he bristled once when I tried to anyway, and how it wasn’t mine to keep, in an envelope or any other way, but his, and I think about all the haircuts he’s had since then, on his own, and all the ones he will have.
Toni Halleen is a lawyer, writer, and communications workshop facilitator, and her work has appeared in Structo, WSQ, and the StarTribune.