Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Screech and Scratch

Illustration by Tze-Chiang Lim

Dear Ellie,

Some people have alarm clocks to wake them up in the morning.  Some people have roosters who crow at the crack of dawn.  What did I have when I was a teenager?  I had Screech and Scratch, two red tail hawks that used to barnstorm the house every weekend morning right at that precise moment I felt like I could sink into my pillow and sleep forever.

Red tails hawks live a long time, but Screech and Scratch hadn't always been around during my childhood.  They arrived right after your Uncle Zack went off to college.  After the economy began to take a turn for the worse and your grandmother and grandfather began to find it difficult to make ends meet.

Screech was the first to lay claim to the Smith Yard as his own personal hunting territory.  He earned his name by enforcing his territorial claim with an earsplitting screech that would rattle the windows and send the various squirrels, snakes, and lizards in our yard scattering for safety.  The road in front of the house acted as a break from the territories of other hawks, so he'd patrol that line religiously, belting out high notes in every direction so that all the hawks in a 10 mile radius got the picture.  Screech's bark was, indeed, as big as his bite, so all the other birds of prey got the message.  Except for one.

A few months after Screech appeared, a second hawk showed up to stake his claim.  He first settled in across the street in the heavily wooded, vacant lot.  He wasn't nearly as loud as Screech nor nearly as big, but he was swift as a bullet and an avid hunter.  On more than one occasion, I saw him fall toward the ground like a rock, snatch up some unhappy woodland animal in his talons, then relax on a nearby limb to casually tear the squeaking creature to pieces.  At first, Screech and Scratch respected the asphalt boundary that delineated their two territories.  But it didn't last.

Eventually, Scratch began to envy our yard.  The little channels of grass between the islands of trees were the perfect place to snatch up a scurrying rodent or slithering snake.  When he was sure that Screech wasn't looking, Scratch would fly sorties into enemy territory.  Of course, it was only a matter of time before Screech noticed, at which point a pandemonium of squawking and hacking ensued.  The conflicts became frequent enough that their ruckus became an unwelcome soundtrack for a widening conflict down below in primate territory.  Your grandmother and grandfather were cutting into their humble savings and putting a second mortgage on the house.  They stressed endlessly about how they would do best for their children, all the while putting off--- one year after another--- any resources toward retirement.  I remember how they looked day in and day out, their postures a peculiar, alchemical mix of pride and fatigue.  Being a teenager, I was more or less tone deaf to their struggles.  Parental sacrifice: that's just sort of the natural order of things, isn't it?

As time went on, the financial situation deteriorated, along with the situation up above.  One Sunday morning, your grandparents, aunt, and I went outside to witness a terrible racket.  Circling in the sky above the chimney were Screech and Scratch, shrieking and squawking and locked in a World War I style aerial dogfight.  Every few seconds, they'd swoop in at one another and lock their talons.  "There they are, at it again," we muttered.  Like always, we assumed that there would be a winner and a loser.  That Screech would go on to claim the fine bit of hunting realestate like he always had and Scratch would flee.  But that didn't happen.  Instead, the conflict went on far longer than it ever had before.

As the battle continued, we assumed that we would soon have a dead hawk on our hands.  Or two dead hawks.  On one occasion, they locked talons and both went plummeting toward the Earth in a death spiral, only to break off and swoop away at the last minute.  When the battle finally did end, there appeared to be no clear winner and loser.  Neither fled the yard.  We held our breath, ready for the next battle royal to break out at any moment.  Imagine our surprise when we noticed instead that Screech and Scratch... were building a nest together.

Apparently, Screech was not a "he," but a "she."  What's more, while we thought we were bearing witness to a territorial conflict, we were instead bearing witness to a marriage ceremony.  And red tail hawks mate for life.

In a way, the union made perfect sense.  As the days went by, we noticed that Screech and Scratch were perfectly suited for one another.  We often saw them hunting together, each bringing to the hunt their own conspicuous attributes.  Screech was louder and larger.  Once she spotted a squirrel or snake, she'd circle above it, flapping her wings and squawking like a lunatic in order to whip her prey into a state of frantic confusion.  Once the creature was flushed into the open, Scratch, who was swifter and leaner, would swoop down and seize it in his talons.  Once the prey was detained, they'd fly to a nearby limb and argue over who deserved a bigger portion of the catch.  Despite the marriage enduring marital conflicts from time to time, the two eventually completed their nest, situated not far from our driveway.  It became plainly evident that there were eggs inside because whenever we looked up, either Screech or Scratch was sitting there in the nest, staring down at us suspiciously.  And of course, a few months later, we heard the quiet piping of tiny chicks.  

From there, I saw the two parents launch into the chaos of parenthood, a struggle which I've only fully come to appreciate since I became a parent myself.  For weeks, the two birds scoured the neighborhood tirelessly, bringing back all manner of a prey to feed their brood or sticks to mend their nest.  You couldn't see the chicks from the driveway, but sometimes, I'd climb atop the roof of our two story house with a pair of binoculars around my neck and take a peak inside.  Within were two tiny, white balls of fluff that bumbled around amid the nest.  They chattered endlessly.  At regular intervals, Screech and Scratch swooped in, delivered some new item of sustenance, and fluttered away once again.  The only time the chatter seemed to stop was when night came, and the birds all settled in as a family like all of their primate neighbors down below.

As the chicks grew larger, their little cheeps became louder, too.  More demanding.  The back and forth from hunting ground to nest seemed endless for Screech and Scratch, and I often wondered how they even had the time to feed themselves.  After a few weeks, I noticed the chicks lumbering over to the edge of the nest, peeking nervously over the edge before scrambling back to the middle.  In time, they'd be learning to fly.  Or so we thought.  As the weeks passed, the chicks continued to waddle to the edge of the nest.  They'd stretch their little necks over the top and gaze at a limb on a tree on the other side of the driveway as though they were trying to find the courage to make the jump.  But they didn't.  As the weeks passed they still wouldn't fly.  Were they sick? we wondered.  Or perhaps their wings were damaged?  Or they were born with some genetic frailties?

We began to worry for the chicks.  What would happen if the chicks never left?  Or took too long to leave the nest?  In a cold, Darwinian calculation, would Screech and Scratch abandon them?  Or kick them out of the nest and on to the ground to die so that they might try again with another batch of chicks?  The episode haunted me, not just because Screech and Scratch's first foray into parenthood was failing, but because I wouldn't blame the two birds if they did abandon their chicks.  If they did throw their babies from the nest and on to the driveway down below.  Wild animals like Screech and Scratch can't indulge in the same sentimentality that we humans--- we domesticated primates--- can.  Not if Screech and Scratch wanted to survive.  Nature, after all, is a cruel place.

In the end, this sad fact would turn out to be true for the pair of birds, but not in the way that I first thought it would.  As the first days of summer heat rolled in, sure enough, your grandfather and I saw something at the end of the driveway, right below the nest.  It was somewhat large, and from the front door, it looked like it must be a cat.  A cat putting an end to the two chicks which by now, must have been thrown from the nest.  Upon closer inspection, though, it wasn't a cat at all.  It was a bird.  A big bird.  A red-tail hawk.  It was Scratch.  We came closer, but he didn't flutter away.  Initially, we thought he was stunned.  Sometimes birds would act this way when they smacked into our sliding glass door, but then fly away after a few moments of reorientation.  But Scratch wasn't near the house.  He was sitting out in the open.  On his feathered body, there were no signs of damage.  No blood or wounds or broken bones.  Not a feather out of place.  Your grandfather tapped him with his foot.  Still no movement.  We stood there in silence as we finally understood: Scratch was dead.

But how? we both wondered.

We reached down.  Opened his wings and stroked his silky feathers.  Felt the soft down along his torso and touched his talons.  How magnificent--- how majestic--- he appeared up close.  But then we noticed, beneath those fluffy feathers, that the skin of his thighs clung to his bones.  His stomach was sunken.  With these clues, his death was no longer a mystery.  During all the time that Screech and Scratch were feeding their chicks, they hadn't been feeding themselves.  Scratch was returning to his nest to make one last delivery, but never made it.  Instead, when he willed his exhausted wings to flap one last time, they'd refused, and he'd fallen from the sky.  We looked down at his limp, crumpled, tired body.  "Sometimes I feel like him," your grandfather said with a dark little grin, making extra sure that no moment of real life symbolism could go unnoticed.

I found myself wishing that Screech and Scratch had given more to themselves, and less to their chicks.

I looked off toward the sun and saw Screech sitting on a limb by the road, watching.  Can a bird grieve? I found myself wondering.  We gently picked up Scratch's body and buried him near the grape vines.  We didn't want Screech to see her mate consumed by ants and Raccoons.

In the days after, we continued to watch the nest, nervously.  Screech was working alone now.  She was bigger than Scratch so that meant she probably had more fat stored away, but she couldn't have been in much better shape than he was.  We didn't hear her screeching in the morning like we did before.  Would we soon find her, too, limp and crumpled at the end of the driveway?  And since there was no second parent to care for the chicks, were they exposed and alone in the nest while Screech was out hunting?  What would Screech feel if, after losing her mate, she then returned to her nest only to find the scattered, fluffy feathers of her babies?  Eventually, I did hear a flurry of squawking from the nest.  A duo of blackbirds stabbed at the nest with their beaks.  After the blackbirds left, the nest was quiet for the rest of the afternoon.

But then, at dusk, I saw two heads of the chicks appear at the edge of the nest.  They weren't white anymore, but a sort of dull gray.  Most of their adult feathers had already grown in.  I was astonished by how large they'd gotten.  They did their usual ritual at the edge of the nest, bobbing up and down, pretending that this time one of them would leap.  Except this time, one of them did.  He bounced through the air clumsily as though buffeted by turbulence before reaching a limb on the far side of the driveway.  He allowed the victory to sink in for a few moments before he tumbled back through the air to the safety of the nest.

The following day, encouraged by her brother, the other chick followed as well.  With each day that passed, their forays through the air became longer and longer.  They even began swooping down on the squirrels who had grown fat and lazy and out of practice in Scratches' absence.  In time, their flights became longer and longer until, eventually, the two chicks flew off to live lives of their own.

I can't claim to speak Hawkish, but I'm willing to bet they never so much as said goodbye to Screech.  She watched as they left, her head raised but her wings stooped.  After all that had happened--- all that she'd given of herself--- her posture was a peculiar, alchemical mix of pride and fatigue.  Something tickled somewhere in my conscience.  Hadn't I seen this posture somewhere before?

In time, we lost track of Screech.  Having lost her mate and seen her chicks grow up, she probably moved on.  But while I no longer heard her screeching above the house at early morning hours, I didn't stop thinking about her or Scratch.  One evening, while your grandparents and I were out walking, I heard a red tail hawk screeching in the distance.  I stopped.  Turned to your grandmother and grandfather and said "thank you."  "Thank you" for their sacrifices.  "Thank you" for giving of themselves.  "Thank you" for their determined efforts to "do parenthood right."  I'm not sure if I needed to tell them.  Or if I needed to worry about whether they were giving so much to us that they had nothing left to give to themselves.  After all, perhaps the kind of parental sacrifice that I saw in Screech and Scratch--- and in them--- really is just the natural order of things.  Still, I'm glad that I did.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

I Lied, You Aren't the Million Dollar Baby...

... you're the 1.3 million dollar baby.  Wait, let me write that out numerically, commas and all, so that no shock and awe is lost.  I'll even give the number its own paragraph.  And an exclamation point.  In fact, two exclamation points.


I remember writing a letter last year in which I predicted the NICU bill would come out somewhere below 1 million dollars.  Silly me.  You can't put a price on a human life, so if you are the billing department for a hospital, why not shoot for the stars?  As it turns out, like a lot of hospital expenses, what a person gets charged is pretty arbitrary depending on what hospital you are at.  I know one woman who's baby was in the NICU for 8 months, had 6 surgeries, etc. etc.  What was her bill?  1.1 million.  You, Ellie, must just be special.

Your mother came across this little gem while she was going through the hospital bills:

For some reason, it seems like this formal document--- which slings around 9 digit numbers casually as though it were a receipt from Subway--- should have a little more pazzaz.  You know, to better capture the gravity of such a bill.

Since they didn't, I've done it for them:

Lucky for us, our portion of the NICU bill was a little less than 1 percent of the total bill.  At first, that doesn't sound like too much, but any percentage of $1,300,000 is still pretty pricey.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Feeding Crisis and Blood Tests

Dear Ellie,

This past week, terms like "g-tube" and "ng-tube" were spoken.  Why?  Because you finally decided that you'd had enough of this whole "eating" thing.  For the past few months, you've consistently been on the razor's edge of refusing nourishment outright, and we've constantly stressed about what would happen if you one day just decided to turn your head when presented with the bottle.  This past week, we got to find out.

For a few days, feeding became simply impossible.  No matter what we did, no matter what kind of distraction we offered, nothing would get you to drink your milk.  Your mother and I basically went into a panic.  We called every doctor and therapist.  We scoured Babies R Us and Walmart and raked entire shelves of baby food, bottles, and sippy cups into the grocery cart.  We invented all manner of different ways to present you with fluids.  I even started making "breast milk-sicles" in the freezer.  The maddening thing was that you ACTED hungry.  In some cases, frantically.  But you just wouldn't eat.  Feeding you has always been a difficult, stressful endeavor.  This past week, it was amped up to a feverish pitch.

In the end, it seems as though introducing some formula into your breast milk may have been the problem.  We stopped offering formula and in a few days, you began to get your appetite back.  Still, we decided to test you for milk allergies, just to know whether we should avoid dairy in the future.  Unfortunately, that involved a blood test.  Unfortunately again, you have veins like your mother.  The same way that the NICU nurses had a hard time getting a PIC line into you while you were in the NICU, the technicians at the testing center couldn't seem to get your blood.  Three separate technicians kept sticking you for what seemed like upwards of 5 minutes.

I remember back in the NICU, when the doctors had to conduct some procedure or another that would cause you pain, it would break my heart to see your face turn red, your mouth open in despair, but hear nothing come out.  Back then, the ET tube was muffling your vocal cords, after all.  Back then, I remember just sitting there, wishing I could hear you cry.  This week, watching you get those blood tests made me realize that I'd gotten my wish.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

The Last Girl

Dear Ellie,

This was a difficult story to write, and it may also be a difficult story for you to read.  Why?  Because its about an uncomfortable subject.  Yes, I want to write you stories that are fun and fantastical with morals about how to live a happier, brighter life... but I also want to write stories about harder subjects so that you can one day defeat them.  Stories about rejection.  Stories about fear.  Stories about vulnerability.  The story I've written you here?  This one, The Last Girl, is about the most difficult subject of all: mortality.

Yes, it might seem odd that I would be inventing a story about mortality when you are just 1 year old, but the greatest tragedy is to waste one's life fearing death, and to defeat fear is to face that fear.  I've wanted to write you something exploring this theme for some time, but I wasn't quite sure how to go about it.  But then, a few weeks ago while walking late at night, it came to me.  I looked up at the black spaces between the stars, and thought about the distant future when all of the sky would be black.  When the cosmos, itself, will die.  I realized that the greatest barrier to accepting the fact that we will one day die is believing that there is always more time to live in the future.  However, to acknowledge that existence itself will end one day is to acknowledge that death cannot be evaded forever.  Even if you were to drink some elixir that made you immune to the frailties of age, even if you somehow dodged all accidents, even if you enshrined your consciousness in some spectacular machine... the stars will one day burn out, the cosmos will become cold, and the very stuff of existence will fizzle away.

In this story, the last girl must face death, as well as the end of all things.  Once she finally does, she is finally able to live.


 Illustration by Tze-Chiang Lim

When Keoni awoke at dawn, she stood to her feet.  Stared to the East as the wind stung her eyes.  She looked not to the beauty of the last sunrise or the crash of the waves.  She couldn't find peace.  Instead, she looked to the horizon for the canoe.  Or volcano smoke.  But there was neither.  Only water.

When her gaze came away, she noticed that yet another chunk of her island had disappeared while she slept. Another piece, nibbled away by the encroaching ocean.  It was Dawn Rock that was taken this time, a once massive spire of stone that reached skyward.  Somewhere beneath the waves, it was now sliding toward the abyssal depths.  Keoni's legs fell out from under her.  She clutched the last patch of grass on the island with her hands, but she didn't slide the soft blades between her fingers.  She didn't lie down and let them tickle her skin as she'd done so many times in years past.  She couldn't find peace.  Instead, she wept.  Quaked in fear.  If Dawn Rock was gone, then perhaps the wise elders had been right all along.

The Elders gave Dawn Rock its namesake for two reasons.  The first reason?  It was the tallest place on the island; the very first piece of land that was touched by the light of dawn each morning.  The other reason it was called Dawn Rock was that it was said by the elders to be the place where the world first formed.  And the place where the world would end.

Keoni ambled over to where the proud rock once stood.  In prior days, she'd have walked uphill to reach it.  But now?  The land sloped down toward the sea.  A small, craggy lagoon had taken its place.  As she walked down the incline, soil and pebbles gave way beneath her feet and tumbled toward the frothy waves.  So fresh was the scar in the land that there weren't any of the usual intertidal denizens down by the water.  No barnacles.  No scurrying crabs.  No snails slithering along smooth stones.  Just jagged rock, torn open.  In earlier times, she would have noticed the eerie, primal beauty of those rocks.  Like the very first stones spewed forth from volcanoes upon the Eternal Sea.  But she didn't.  She couldn't find peace.

Instead, Keoni looked again toward the East.  Watched for the canoe of her older brother, Anulu.  Is there any way he could have survived 3 months at sea?  If anyone could, it would be her bold, determined brother.

She thought back to her childhood.  Back to when her brother would awake in the early morning to scale Dawn Rock.  How he would wait for the first rays of light.  How he would bellow: "I am Father of Dawn!" and then all of the elders would jeer at him for his sacrilege.  How easy it was for her brother to taunt the elders back then.  Back when Dawn Rock was the very center of the island.  Back when plump Dodren birds roamed the plains.  Back when there were plains.  Back before the famine and back when all who dwelled upon the island believed that the end of the world was far, far away.

Keoni stirred from her reverie.  The waves were now lapping at her feet.  Were she to stay another hour, they would be up at her ankles.  Then her shins.  Then her knees.

Was the ocean rising or was the island sinking? she wondered for the thousandth time.  Her mother and father used to argue about the subject endlessly.  Her mother believed that the island was sinking.  That Father of Dawn had grown too weary and tired and could no longer battle the relentless advance of the Eternal Sea.  Keoni's father, on the other hand, believed that the ocean was rising.  He insisted that Father of Dawn--- great volcano God--- had not abandoned them.  Instead, he claimed, the Eternal Sea had risen and risen and risen until Father of Dawn's volcanoes could no longer reach the surface.  Unable to give birth to new land while the Eternal Sea reclaimed the world, unchecked.

When it came time, her mother and father chose to die the same way that they believed.  To die, once the fresh water grew too scarce and the famine grew too great, so that Keoni and Anulu might have a chance to live.  Her mother chose to swim out to sea, exhaled the last breath from her lungs, and let her body sink to the bottom of the ocean.  Her father swam out to a tall weathered rock beyond the break of the waves, sat with his legs wrapped around the stone, and surrendered to the Eternal Sea as it rose above his knees, and then his chest, and then his neck, and then, finally, his head.

In time, the few tribesmen and tribeswomen on the island that remained surrendered their lives as well, each one finding their own ways to perish.  They'd all disappeared, one by one, until only Keoni and her brother were left.  And then, in desperation, he brother left as well.

What, then, is my way? Keoni wondered, but when the water came to her ankles, her thoughts were broken.  She stood there for a moment, unsure of what to do.  She could have relished the lapping of the cool, briny waves at her shins.  Sighed with each crash along the shore.  Watched as little fish swirled about in tidal pools.  Instead, her heart throbbed in fear.  She couldn't find peace.  She stepped away from the water and fled to higher ground.  Before she left the scar where Dawn Rock once stood, she shielded her eyes from the sun and stared to the East.

She walked back toward the last patch of grass.  To the new, highest point on the island.  It was that very place where she had so often gone to be alone when she was younger.  To watch the grass shimmer in the breeze and the clouds blow away before the wind and the waves break on far away atolls.  "The lonely girl," her father used to call her.  It wasn't a nickname meant to be endearing, but Keoni always thought that there was something beautiful about being alone.  It was at those moments of deepest loneliness that she also felt the greatest inner peace.

Once she'd arrived back at the patch of grass, though, her heart sank.  While she was gone, another piece of the island had disappeared.  This time, it was the place where the tribe used to build their fires at dusk and sing songs to the stars.  Keoni thought back to that happy time.  That time when the island was so big that when you stood in the center of it, you couldn't even hear the waves they were so far away.

The island always seemed to slip away in the place where her back was turned.  Disappear while she was dreaming or between each blink of her eyes.  Were her brother, Anulu, still there, they might stand back to back on that last patch of grass and stare out across the island, unblinking through day and night and salt spray, so that no more land would be stolen from them.

"Anulu..." Keoni whispered to the air.

She shielded her eyes and stared to the East.

Maybe it isn't the end, Keoni thought.  Perhaps Anulu found land.  Perhaps he is coming back for me in his canoe right this moment, like he said he would.  Or perhaps Father of Dawn has awoken again.  Perhaps, if I stare hard enough at the horizon I'll see a volcano erupt through the water.  Spew forth new land that I can swim out to.  Perhaps all the world will start anew once more: that the Father of Dawn will slowly fill all the ocean with volcanoes and all the world with land just as he did at the beginning of time.  Perhaps I will be the last girl... and the first girl.

She'd thought these things often.  Thought these things each time part of the island disappeared.  Or each time one of the tribesmen or tribeswomen let themselves be taken by the ocean.  Or when her parents let themselves drown.  Or when her brother set out in defiance of the Eternal Sea, paddling away in his canoe to find land that the Eternal Sea could not take.

The words he spoke before he left rang again in her head.  Those desperate words.  "The elders are wrong.  The world will never end.  There is land, somewhere, that the ocean cannot touch.  I will find it.  When I do, watch the Eastern horizon sister, for when I return, I will take us to a place where we will start anew."

And so all through that last day, Keoni could not find peace.  She didn't stop to feel the wind whisk through her hair.  Or stop to feel the sun warm her skin.  She didn't stop to watch the flying fish that rose from the ocean in great fountains or the whales that spat water skyward in mighty spouts.  Instead, the smaller the island became, the more she found herself staring East, her thoughts seduced by those desperate notions of salvation.  Perhaps the world might start anew.  Or her brother had already found land and his canoe was just off the horizon, just behind the clouds.  Her eyes were fixed East as the sun rose up in the sky for the last time. As it set toward the west for the last time.  She stared when dusk came for the last time and the stars blinked to life for the last time.

She sat there on the last patch of grass through the night.  A dry, crisp night.  The stars were bright and piercing, just as they'd been in her childhood when she and her family and her tribe sang songs to the sky.  But Keoni didn't notice the stars.  Instead, she stared, still, at the East.  Was Anulu paddling in the dark?  Was he behind the nearest moonlit wave?

But then she felt it.  The tickle of water, licking at her thighs.  She lurched to her feet.  Reached out in all directions with the tips of her feet, but there was only water.  Water, slowly rising.

"Anulu!" she shouted in the darkness.  Then listened.  And listened.  And listened.  Behind every crash of the waves and each gust of the wind, she thought, perhaps, that she could hear his voice.  She waited.  And waited.  Each minute, the water rose higher, and as it swallowed her knees, she began to weep.  Her eyes still gazed east through tears.  Her legs shook and she shivered in fear.  A slow, rolling wave nearly knocked her from her footing.  She clutched the ground with her toes.

That's when she felt for the patch of grass beneath her feet.  Felt and felt and felt... but the patch was all but gone.  Taken by the ocean as she'd stared, with the thinnest of hope, toward the East.  It was then that she understood the truth behind that hope.  A truth that had always been there but she could not face.

The truth was that the world would not begin anew.  Father of Dawn had long since left, or been vanquished by The Eternal Sea.  There was no land that the ocean could not touch.  No land that her brother might find.  Just as her mother had and just as her father had, Anulu simply set out toward his own end in his own way.  To die in a way that was true to him.  To die fighting, just like he believed.

She took a deep breath, finally accepting this truth.  Accepting was not like she thought it would be.  Her heart did not beat faster.  Her fears did not grow greater.  Instead, all of the things that kept her from her peace sank away into the ocean.  This, she thought at last.  This is my way.

That's when she felt something beneath her feet.  Something soft and wispy in the water.  She clutched it between her toes.  A blade of grass.  She reached down through the water and picked it up in her fingers.  Held it near her face.  It blew dry in the wind and tickled her cheek.  She stood there.  The last girl with the last green thing standing on the last sliver of land in all the world.  She turned her gaze away from the East and toward the sky.  She watched the stars, free of fear, as the water crept above her stomach, then her shoulders, then her chin.  She kept watching, never flinching, as the ocean rose above her nose.  As the ocean came above her head.  As the stars grew bleary through the shimmering water.  As the stars disappeared from her vision, to be seen only in her mind.

When the stars vanished from her mind as well, when the light was gone from her eyes and there was no more ground beneath her feet, Keoni found the deepest peace she'd ever known.  

Illustration commissioned from Tze-Chiang Lim

Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Preemie Eating Battle Continues

Dear Ellie,

You've hit the ground crawling this second year of life, but while you've conquered your lung problems and your heart problems and your hypertonia problems and just about all else, there is still one battle we've never stopped fighting: your feeding problems. This wasn't always the case, though.

During the first 3 months after your due date, you gained a superhuman amount of weight.  So much weight, in fact, that some of your doctors even wanted you to slim down, a strange request indeed to make of a preemie.  Of course, at the time, I didn't think you were overweight at all.  After all, the image of you being 1 pound was still seared into my conscious, and all that I saw when I looked at you was this:

Even though, in reality, what you REALLY looked like was this:

Since then, with your various feeding issues, you've slimmed down to this:

Basically, after 4 months of eating 2/3rds of what a baby your adjusted age SHOULD be getting, you've gained 0 pounds.  This hasn't been a huge problem, however, because its only until now that you've actually fallen to the 50th percentile for your height and adjusted age.  In other words?  After being overweight in those months after your due date, you just now hit your ideal weight.  The only problem is, with your current eating trends, this slimming down will continue.

The main problem is that you generally despise food.  Eating never seems to be a thing that you actually want to do.  To you, it's just a painful chore that gets in the way of other thing you'd prefer to get around to.  At your worst, you'll growl and whine and give me titty twisters whenever I try to feed you until I finally surrender an hour later.  At your best, you'll almost eat the quantity you are supposed to, but only after some major deception or distraction.  And those distractions are ever changing.  Right when we think we've discovered a trump card that'll keep you eating, your taste in distractions change.  Originally, the best distraction was feeding you outside.  Then while we walked you.  Then while watching stupendously cheesy Daler Mehndi music videos from the 90's.  Then while watching me do magic tricks.  Then while watching people do jumping jacks or run in circles.  Then while watching someone do the itsy bitsy spider.  These are all, of course, a minor sampling of the multitude of distractions which used to keep you eating, but have now fallen out of favor.  

The most recent distraction has lasted us longer than most, though it has begun to nibble away at my sanity.  I walked in on you and your mother one day watching Korean Pop music videos while you ate.  "Oh, it's the only way she seems to eat now," your mother said.  I perked my eyebrow skeptically.  In my mind, your mother just wanted to indulge in a guilty pleasure under the guise of saintly motherhood.  I refused to show you the music videos on my watch, but one day, when you were especially finicky, I caved in and gave it a try.  I'm not sure if it's the peppiness or the poppiness or the butt-shakiness, but for one reason or another, The Korean pop stars of Girl's Day seemed to vanquish your apprehension about eating... so day in and day out, we watched the same music video over and over and over again every time you needed to eat.  As you can imagine, this kind of peppy monotony can weather away one's soul.  And the worst part?  I was starting to like it.

Fortunately, Korean Pop began to lose favor as well and you are on to new, greener distractions.  Tut we can't continue with this montage of distractions forever.  For the longest time, we were holding out hope that you'd take to solid foods with glee, but alas, this has not been true.  We awoke from the holiday stupor two weeks ago and realized that you weren't eating solids yet.  Not even a little.  In the past, you'd toy with the notion of eating baby food or puffs here or there but when decide a few days later that it wasn't your thing.  To me, you express that it isn't your thing by shot-gunning whatever was in your mouth into my face.   

So now we're pulling out all of the stops.  Enough is enough.  Given that you are ahead on all of your other physical and mental milestones, we've more or less canceled your physical therapy and have gone ahead full steam with feeding therapy.  With 3-4 appointments with feeding specialists per week, we're breaking out every obscure trick in the book.  You will come to enjoy one of life's greatest pleasures, whether you like it or not.  On the upside, your appointments are near your mother's office, so that's ample opportunity to bring you in for a lunch time surprise.

Here you are hangin' in JLA Geological 
Sciences with Mommy

Before we started these appointments a little over a week ago, I never knew there were so many nuanced ways to encourage a baby eat... ways to hold a spoon and present a spoon and rub a baby's cheeks and rub a baby's chin and massage a baby's lips.  Then there are the multitudes of sippy cups and spoons and special bibs and nose-cups and special seats and dozens of types of specialized baby foods and pH considerations in food and texture considerations in food and the list goes on and on and on.  For at least an hour at each appointment, we experiment with different ways to get you to eat and then hypothesize about what might be the underlying pain and behavioral mechanisms responsible for your reluctance to eat.  So far... it seems like it might be working.  For one reason or another, your mother has gotten very good at feeding you limited quantities of baby food while I've gotten you good at eating puffs.  

Here you are snatching up a puff from your high chair tray and shoving it in your mouth.  You've even learned to take a bite with those two little chompers that appeared on your bottom lip.

Conversely, your mother can't get you to eat puffs but I can't get you to eat baby food.  Why?  Puffs taste better with Daddy and pureed peas taste better with Mommy?  Who knows.  In either case, it's still a pain to get you to take your bottle.  Or at least, it was until we introduced our newest distraction...

The Fish Tank.

Seeing as how your Uncle and I are in the tropical aquarium biz, it was only a matter of time before we'd get you a nice, big aquarium of your own.  In this case, a 75 gallon aquarium equipped with high output LED's, live rock, powerheads, a protein skimmer, photosynthetic corals, and a school of tropical fish.  

I still have about a year of work to put into it before it really comes to life, but so far, it's done wonders for your eating.  Whenever you start to get finicky, we plop you down in front of the aquarium and your eyes go wide as fishies flit on by and live corals waft in the current.  Someday, we'll get you an even bigger aquarium so that you can have your very own Oliver the Eel.

The story of how we came into the aquarium up above is a little sad, but perhaps a bit uplifting, too.  One of our customers (and a friend of your Uncle Zack) got sick with cancer.  She was someone who followed your story closely while you were in the NICU.  Before she died, she decided that you should have her aquarium.  It seemed like an appropriate gesture: a person at the end of their life giving a living ecosystem to someone at the beginning of their life.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

First Birthday Party

Dear Ellie,

About 6 months ago, your mother and I balanced the costs and benefits of throwing you a big celebration for your first birthday.  "It would be nice to have a blowout.  It is her FIRST birthday party, afterall," we said initially.  "But on the other hand, she isn't going to remember anything and we'd be exposing her to a lot of germs during sick season.  Maybe small is the way to go."

So we decided that a humbler, smaller party would probably be best... but as it turns out, celebrations have a way of escalating sometimes.  And that escalation usually happens when you start drawing up the guest list.  "Well, we have to invite close friends and family.  And wouldn't extended family be offended if they didn't get an invite?  And, oh, we should invite coworkers, right?  But is it right to make them buy stuff for Ellie?  Well, whatever, free stuff is good!"

Pretty soon we had a list inching up toward 50 people (inevitably, the flu season would mercifully cull that herd down to around 40).  Of course, you can't invite tons of people to a party without actually THROWING a party, either.  So your mother plied her very best mommy skills and spent about a month preparing a rainbow themed celebration.  There were rainbow decorations, rainbow food, rainbow cupcakes, and you even wore a little rainbow dress.

As you can see, it's as if a toddler got into a paint set with their hands and smeared rainbow colors all over your uncle Zack and Aunt Danielle's house.  Awesome.  And speaking of houses, there was also a BOUNCE house!

Unfortunately, you were technically too small to go into the bounce house.  It wouldn't have been responsible to let you play inside.  However, when I set you down and turned away for just a second, *poof*, you'd already appeared inside.  That was my official account, at least. 

In the same way that bounce houses aren't made for babies, they aren't made for adults either.  That's why your Uncle Zack and I considered it our solemn duty to jump around inside until we were completely breathless.  Your Grandma Smith kept shouting something about how we would hurt ourselves, but I ignored her right up until the moment I sprained my ankle.

After the bounce house, we set you loose on your usual charm offensive, but I'm sad to say that you had a pretty nasty cold that day, so it got harder and harder to maintain those smiles of yours.

Grouchy with Grandma.

Grouchy with the other Grandma

...But happy with Miss Patty?

Eventually, the time came for the cake!

Ironically, this is probably one of your mother's least elaborate cakes yet, but to be realistic, there's only one way a 1 year old really knows how to appreciate a cake... the way a 1 year old appreciates everything else.  By grabbing it, smashing it, and jamming it in her mouth...

...and that's exactly what you did.  It was totally worth it, even though we had to give you 3 consecutive bathes afterword because there was icing in every crevice of your body.  Just yesterday, a week after the fact, I even found some leftover icing behind your left ear.

All in all, I thought it was a great success.  The weather was wonderful, you got to stay up past your bedtime, and I got to eat lots and lots of cupcakes.  Having conquered your first year, we had a lot to celebrate.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

A Father's Humble Wish, Part 2

A Father's Humble Wish, Part 1

Dear Ellie,

One year ago, you were born.  As of now, you are too young to read any of the letters I've been writing you, but that’s okay.  I’ve been writing them to the Ellie of the future.  It’s my sincerest hope that, one day, I will hand you a thumb drive filled with these letters.  And then, I hope, you will browse through them casually--- that you will read about your first four months--- and smile at all of the things that you see.  Not necessarily at the hardships you have endured, but at all of the fun and whimsy that came to inhabit your childhood.  Things that would not have existed had they not been spun to life by those hardships.  "So that is how the Clockmaker's Daughter came to be," you might say as you read.  "And the Girl in the Sphere.  And right there is ground zero for The Smith Family Rules of Parental Conduct.  And that tradition of pranks on April Fools.  And Oliver the Eel."

And when you are done discovering so many origins of the Smith Family mythos, I hope too that you will understand more about your mother and I.  How those earliest days with you turned what we once thought was the stone of our character back to soft clay.  How you have shaped us as much as we have shaped you.

I look back in awe at how much my hopes for you have changed.  How our multitude of fears for your future have slowly faded with the months.  The day you were born, I remember hoping only that you would live at least one more day.  I was terrified to wish for anything bigger.  It felt like I was blowing air on smoldering kindling.  Blow too softly and it would starve of oxygen, but blow too hard and that delicate flame might turn to smoke and vanish.

But now?  The flame is bright.  Already, all of the things I was too afraid to hope for have begun to emerge in your character.  An insatiable sense of curiosity.  A love of the natural world and of books.  A boisterous spirit that never grows tired of fun and play and an insistence on being joyous on the slimmest of excuses.  I've come to admire the two dispositions that have so quickly come to dominate your character.  The first side is quiet.  Focused.  Contemplative.  The one that comes forth when observing natural beauty or things of complexity, like when we take our walks on the nature trail and you reach out to grasp a leaf and gently turn it over in your hands without plucking it from the limb.  The second side is gregarious and jovial.  The one that we see when there are games to be played or family to embrace, like when you grab the cheeks of your grandparents and burst into a smile.  A smile that cannot be contained merely to your face, at which point your entire body quivers and bobs and shakes.

I've never seen so much unapologetic joy as I've seen from you.

As you surpass all of our expectations, conquering developmental milestones weeks or months ahead of time, I have little doubt as to why.  I remember looking at you in those earliest ultrasounds when you were just the size of strawberry.  I remember wondering whether that energy we witnessed was some glimpse of who you might be.  I wondered again that same thing when we saw you flailing about in the days after your birth despite being smothered--- and cut through--- by wires and IV's and terrible odds.  Seeing you now at one year old,  I know now that what we saw before was true.  There is a vital energy to everything you do.  Like your mother and like your father, you are possessed by the sincerest joy of being alive.

And so my biggest wish is that this joy will never escape you.  It is a joy that makes tiny pleasures large.  A joy that redeems every sorrow.  During your 100 days in the hospital, when it seemed all happiness had been chased from our hearts, seeing that joy in you rekindled it in us, and what should now be memories drowned in anger, fear, and bitterness instead became memories aloft with fantasy, beauty, and mysticism.  I marvel at how I can look back at those hundred days with a sense of fondness, and then I marvel at you.

I’ll be writing many more letters for you, but know too that I am writing them with you.  After all, it is you that has inspired me to put my thoughts to paper.  You, that has turned up fresh, vast new tracts of my mind that I never knew existed.  A million new thoughts flit through my brain.  My heart is resident to a host of emotions that were always meant to dwell together.  Love.  Pride.  Tenderness.  Whenever I look down at you, I find that I have never had more things to say, and for every word I write to you, it is joined by tears of joy.

I love you, and I’ll write to you again soon.