Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The Things Worth Kissing

Dear Ellie,

The pictures up above are very blurry, but I think they represents your life at the moment.  It's hard to capture you smiling in a photo now not because you don't smile often, but because when you are smiling, you are also simultaneously racing around the house at break neck speed or spinning in circles or throwing a ball or doing some other activity which in no way requires the speed or force with which you engage in it.   It's as though you think that there is so much to do in life right now that it is necessary to do it all in fast forward.

You have an undeniable love of life, and a willingness to show your love for all things in the world.  When you are intrigued with some object or item, you don't just gaze at it with interest.  You kiss it.  Yes, the people in your life and your favorite toys gets kisses, but so too do the insects on the windows, little children in pictures, employees in the grocery store that you've come to know, cell phones, flowers, Mickey Mouse, computers, fruit that comes directly off of a tree, and so much more.  At one point, you even discovered a hot pile of cat vomit under the table and--- since it was new and fascinating--- you blew it a kiss. It's as though you feel you must reciprocate to every little thing that tickles your mind with curiosity.

This is the case with numbers, as well.  Whenever you see the numbers 1 through 14 in the store or on a screen or on the side of a box, your finger shoots out, you smile and giggle, then lean in to give it a kiss.  You have a favorite book for each person in the house, and your favorite book with me is "Numbers on the Farm."  It's a rather hefty book that you still have trouble lifting, but no matter where it is you ferret it out and then drag it across the room to where I'm sitting, then say "Daa Doo."

Which brings me to your nascent speech.  You are advancing quite well in most areas, but because of your history with eating issues (which is still present, but not as harsh as before), its taken a toll on your ability to speak as well.  You have a raspy little voice, as though you've gotten a head start on the bad habit of smoking.  The assumption is that your prolonged encounter with the endo-tracheal tube in the NICU permanently re-shaped the structure of your esophagus.

But while this impediment slows you down a bit, it certainly hasn't stopped you from trying to speak.  You have a number of words, but they are mostly just words you invented yourself.  Like the word I mentioned before: "Daa Doo."  It can mean a variety of things, all of which revolve around your desire for something which someone else must provide for you.  It can mean "I want you to read that to me" or "I want that food" or "take me to the cat" or "lift me up so I can spin the fan."  You also add emphasis depending on how much or how desperately you want something.  If you want to gently pet the cat, you'll say softly "Daa Doo."  If you are adamant that I read a book for you, you say: "Daaaaaa Doooooo."  If you are desperate for something, you'll say it in quick succession... like when I gave you some spicy food for the first time.  You seemed to like it, but then immediately pointed at your water bottle and said: "Da do, da do, da do, da do!"

Once you've gotten the thing that you want but wish to express your desire for more of it, you switch to "Copaaw."  You've learned a few other words, too.  "Up" for when you want to go up, "please" for when you want something that you shouldn't have, maa maa for your mother, naa naa for your grandmother, etc.  Daa daa used to be your word for me, but because you only have a limited vocabulary, you re-appropriated the word "daa daa" to something more important... in this case, the coffee maker.  But don't worry.  My feelings aren't hurt.  Given your early aptitude for numbers, your love of computers, and your fascination with coffee, I think its pretty obvious that you are shaping up to be a computer programmer.  

I can confidently say, though, that you will not be a basketball player... you are a tiny kid, even by preemie standards.  It's an easy thing to go unnoticed until I see you next to other toddlers your age.  That's turning out to be in stark contrast to your sister, though.  Your mother is still hanging in there at 35 weeks of pregnancy, and already your sister is inching past 6 pounds by the doctor's estimates.  There are still a few irregularities with your mother's pregnancy, but its now thought that the stitches sown through her cervix may have been unnecessary... which means the cause of your premature birth is perhaps as yet unknown.  Which means your sister could come today or tomorrow or on her due date.

I'm still wondering how you'll react to having a little sister, but my suspicion is that it'll work out just fine.  After all, your mother's mother's pregnant belly is another thing that you enthusiastically kiss.

You, trying to be classy

A picture of Minnie Mouse.  Not sure where you are...

You and Annie

You and Darth Vadar

Sunday, October 11, 2015

The Forest Fire

Dear Ellie,

By far, the last few months have been the longest gap between letters since you were born.  I feel guilty for it in a way because your mind has flourished so much in the time since I last wrote to you.  You are now, unambiguously, a person.  A normal person.  A normal person with a growing vocabulary, a budding love of numbers, an irrepressible sense of humor, a prankster streak, and a willingness to express your love and affection to all things beautiful, kind, and furry.  You have at least a dozen forms of laughter.  The chuckle, the mischievous snicker, the full throated bellow.  And the kisses are as abundant as the laughs.  Ever since you learned to kiss, they have been dispensed liberally.  Mommy, Daddy, Grandma and Grandpa get them, but so too does the cat, the dog, the cookie lady at the grocery store, your favorite books, my cellphone, the remote control to the television and of course, Oliver the Eel.  Sometimes, if you judge that your own affection is not enough, you'll demand that myself or your mother shower kisses on Oliver the Eel as well.

Pictures of you snuggling with Oliver the Eel.

But while you are quick to laugh and kiss, you are also heartbroken easily.  On the occasion that I am callous or cruel enough to toss Oliver the Eel over on the couch like a sack of potatoes or Grandpa walks away without saying goodbye, your eyes take the shape of little teardrops, your big, expressive eyebrows turn up, and the tears start to roll.

It grates at me to see that face, because whenever I do, it reminds me so much of the look you had about you the first time that I ever saw you.  And then, somehow, I feel like I've failed you.

And so that gets to the root of why its taken me so long to write again.  I have about 6 letters sitting unfinished.  Each time I started, I'd get halfway through, then glance over all of the other letters I'd written you during your first 100 days.  Then I'd realize that it could all happen again with your sister.  Then I'd step away from the keyboard and set about convincing myself that there was no sister for you right around the corner.  I never finished the letters about how you landed in the hospital with a meningitis scare, or finished the letter about your first unambiguous words, or finished the story about two mermaids that are very different from one another and who live on an enchanted reef (even after I got the illustration made...)

Hopefully I'll have the gumption to finish it...

Over the past few months, I've intellectually acknowledged that your mother is pregnant, but utterly denied it emotionally.  It still has its troubles and uncertainties, as it has from the beginning.  So I've avoided conversations about names.  I turn away from the newborn clothing and diapers, piling up in preparation.  At 22 weeks, your mother wanted me to feel for your sister's kicks.  In the same way I couldn't feel yours when you were in the womb, I couldn't feel hers either.  As the pregnancy continued, your mother kept trying to get me to feel for them, but I grew more and more unsettled until eventually, I just refused to feel altogether.  At first, I didn't understand why I was even acting this way.  But then, I remembered the night before you were born.  How I only felt you kick once we discovered that you would be born the following morning.  How it might be the first and last time I'd ever feel the thrum of your life.  And so now, even after your sister has passed the 24 week mark, and then the 26th, and then the 30th, I've still pushed it all out of my head.  All the while I've had this vague sense that I'm letting something important slip away.

What strange things we do out of fear.

So why am I finally writing now?  Well, my perspective began to change about a month ago when a violent thunder storm rolled through.  Lightening lashed the neighborhood all through the night, and at one point, I heard the wail of sirens.  I peeked out the window to see firetrucks racing by.  In the morning while we took our walk, I discovered to what crisis the firemen were responding.  The lightening had sparked a fire, and in the corner of the neighborhood I discovered a charred, burned out section of woods.  Before, it was so overgrown and tangled that nothing new could grow there.  Now, it was an eerie, frightful thing to see.  Black.  Vacant.  Blighted.  At first, it was easy to think that the fire had caused nothing more than destruction.

But as you and I took our walk each morning together, I began to notice that black patch of forest begin to change.  Little buds began to sprout from the ground and the trees and the scored palmetto stalks.  Little green buds, vivid and striking on a canvas of black.  Each day, more and more life sprung forth, and I found myself stopping there often so we could both watch.  Before, that patch of woods was so choked with brush and debris that scarcely anything could live there.  Now, new life began to emerge that had never been there before.  That spot in the woods would have continued to be decrepit and overgrown had there been no fire.  What appeared so unambiguously a trauma just weeks earlier was in fact the thing that was needed to spark and nourish a renaissance of life.

So I began to look at my own life in the context of that fire.  Before you were born, my own life was like that tangled patch of woods.  I spent all my time trying to convince myself that I didn't have anything to offer the world.  But then you were born, and like a forest fire, your struggles burned away all of that stagnant undergrowth that kept the light from the soil of my mind.  In wanting to show you all of the best things about the world, I realized I had to show them to myself.  It started with picking up the pen again and making worlds for you, but it hasn't stopped at that.  

A few months ago, I was thinking about all the things I'd teach you one day and realized I'd never be able to teach you to program, because I didn't know how.  It was something I'd always desperately wanted to learn but with a resigned attitude, I just assumed I'd never have the right kind of brain for it.  Then, with you sitting on my lap, I decided that that needed to change.  I threw myself at the subject and soon discovered that I did have an aptitude for it after all, and it was far more creative and far more enjoyable than I ever thought it would be.  As I write this, I'm gleefully imagining little games of charades that we'll play one day when you are little to help you understand the logic of coding and programming.  

And so I understand now that I don't need to live in fear of what happened to you, or what might happen to your sister.  In the same way that the fire stained the forest black for just a short time before spurning a Spring of fresh life, a trauma or tragedy can spurn a Spring in your own life, if you are willing to let it.  

A day or two ago, we were walking at sunrise on the first day of Autumn.  The rabbits were out in force.  You pointed and squealed with glee as they darted through the grass.  I stopped.  Knelt down next to the stroller and took a deep breath.  I wanted to remember that moment clearly, because it was the moment I wondered whether these could be the best years of my life.  And the moment I realized that the only true tragedy would be if I let any part of those years be smothered by unnecessary fear.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Father's Day

Dear Ellie,

We've been through one Father's Day previously, but this past Father's Day I think was the first in which I've actually felt like a father.  One year ago, we were too busy running around to doctors appointments and physical therapy appointments for me to pay much attention to made up, second tier holidays like Father's Day.  Ever since you became a toddler though, we've had the sort of "mental space" necessary to enjoy and observe "the little things" of parenthood.  And the timing was perfect.

You are changing so quickly its hard to get a grasp on it.  Now that your teeth are finally coming in, you spend all day experimenting with new sounds and tones.  This tends to be handy, because you rarely want to ever stay still.  Should you happen to sprint away from our field of vision, your persistent toddler babble acts as a sort parental sonar.  What's more, your babble encodes information, too.  Loud and boisterous means you are on the move.  Quiet and contemplative means you are either flipping through a book or petting the cat.  Silence means mischief.

I don't have to worry about silence while you
are pounding on the piano.

Everything is interesting now, especially
stuff that you can wear

Your comprehension has grown quite impressively, too.  You understand a fairly broad range of instructions, including requests for a kisses.  I'm not sure why I'm surprised, but you seem to rather enjoying dolling out kisses, though for some reason, kitty cat seems to get the most kisses (as is evidenced by the allergenic bumps and cat fur stuck on your face).

I used to complain that you hated snuggling, but as you've grown older, that's changed rather quickly.  Now, whenever I carry you around, your little hands grip my shirt like talons and the side of your head is buried in my shoulder.  I suppose its no coincidence that its around this time that many people start to think about having more kids.

After the long crisis of the prior year and a half, that's not a thought that crossed our mind very often, though perhaps it did more than others.  Not long after you were born, your mother and I went to the doctor to ask about our prospects.  It might seem strange to be thinking about baby number two with a preemie that was fresh out of the NICU, but a year before you were born, we were told we had a very narrow window to have children, and we assumed that that window could only be narrower.  At that more recent appointment after you were born, the news was even bleaker than before.  Not only was your mother's remaining Fallopian tubed 100 percent blocked by scar tissue, IVF was unlikely to succeed either.  We asked whether it was plausible to open up the Fallopian tube with surgery, and the doctor said it would be such a misguided idea that he refused to do it.  That left adoption, which wouldn't be a financially viable option for a long time given all of the expenses that were associated with your pre-maturity.

After that depressing analysis, we reminded ourselves that we should be grateful and that having just one child might not be so bad.  It was a simultaneously intimate but glum thought.  How close we would be, I thought, with all the time we'd have to spend with you, and just you.  But then I thought of all the adventures I'd been on with your uncle and aunt.  About how close we were, and are to this day.  When I think of what my life would have been without them, it feels like reading a book where entire chapters have been torn out.

Sadly, there just didn't seem to be any options, even while the biological clock was ticking.  Despite this, we still held out for the possibility that your mothers eggs might somehow magically teleport around her blocked tube and we might still have a baby naturally (we've had the talk by now, haven't we??)  It was a naive hope, because we knew that if your mother did get pregnant again naturally, it would be a repeat of she experienced a few years ago: a dangerous, life threatening pregnancy inside of the Fallopian tube.  

So you can imagine our concern when, just days after our conversation about having more kids, your mother told me she didn't feel right.  She felt bloated, nauseated, and a pinch dizzy.  She felt... pregnant.  What was even more concerning was the fact that she was bleeding: a telltale sign that an embryo was burrowed into her Fallopian tube, pushing and stretching the tissue while it grew.

So with great fear and trepidation, she took a pregnancy test and sure enough, it was positive.  While most people who want more children would jump for joy upon seeing a positive test, we felt instead a perverse sort of grief.  It's bad enough knowing that you can have no more children, but to then know that you have one growing inside of you, destined only to die and threaten your own life in the process?  It's literally insult to injury.  The worst part was that some part of us hoped that maybe, just maybe it wasn't in the tube after all.  That it might instead be snuggled up in the womb where it was supposed to be.

Not being the type of people to harbor a fool's hope, your mother immediately began calling doctors because a tubal pregnancy is not something you want to leave alone for very long.  A day later, we were on our way to the OBGYN.  The feelings that felt so distant just a day ago--- those feelings of grief and stress that gnawed at us during our years of infertility--- were suddenly fresh in our minds again as though they'd never left.  Once we got to the doctor's office, a receptionist and nurse congratulated us, unaware that we had come to end an impossible pregnancy, not examine a healthy one.

Then, just as we'd found ourselves so many times in years past, we were in a waiting room, surrounded by happy women with bulging bellies while your mother and I quietly, and nervously, held hands.  Still, it didn't sting as badly as it had before.  We'd brought you and your grandmother with us that day, and you bumbled around with her in the waiting room with your clonky shoes, flashing grins and nearby mothers-to-be.

Eventually, I followed your mother into an exam room for an ultrasound, so that we could find where exactly the embryo had lodged this time.  During the previous tubal pregnancy, the location of the embryo was initially unknown.  In fact, the shots that were supposed to stop its growth didn't work at first, at which point surgeons went in to find it and remove it themselves (but still failed).  In the end, a second shot finally did work, and we eventually determined that the embryo had made it all the way to the end of the Fallopian tube, just centimeters from where it needed to be.  That, basically, is where the scar tissue was at, and we informed the ultrasound tech that this would be the most likely place to look with the new embryo.  Even then, as your mother and I both assured the ultrasound tech that she should be looking for a tubal pregnancy, I kept thinking: "Maybe not.  Maybe its where its supposed to be.  Maybe Ellie might have a sibling after all."

I remember right then wondering how I would explain this whole episode to you in a letter.  What would the moral of the story be?  I came up with two possibilities in my head, depending on the outcome.  The first?  "Sometimes, good things happen when you least expect them."  The second?  "Happiness goes to those who learn to be satisfied with what they are given."

As I  pondered these two possibilities the ultrasound tech swiveled the wand toward the uterus.  Both veterans of ultrasound screens at this point, your mother and I searched the screen anxiously.  We saw the gestational sack, a little black blob on the screen.

"Well," the said the ultrasound tech, with some confusion in her tone.  "It looks like this is a normal pregnancy."

And then we heard the heartbeat.  Your mother and I took a deep breath.  I'm not sure whether we even so much as shared a smile.  We sat silently as the ultrasound tech finished her work.  The woman must have thought we were disappointed.

At first, I don't think your mother and I could understand our subdued reaction.  Is this how someone would respond upon winning the lottery (and hadn't we done just that)?  We would quickly understand just moments later.  After the ultrasound, your mother started bleeding again.  The truth is, we were happy, but that happiness was smothered beneath layers and layers of worry and managed expectations.  When we spoke with the OBGYN afterward, she informed us that we fit into a special category of extra high risk.  Not only did our only successful pregnancy result in a micro-preemie, but the current pregnancy began with persistent bleeding.

What followed after the appointment was a flurry of activity.  Trips to special pharmacies for progesterone and prenatal vitamins, old pregnancy books dusted off, and lots of planning.  Your mother immediately went on to limited bedrest.  No straining and no lifting anything over 20 pounds.  We kept the news on a need to know basis.

That night, your mother and I talked for a long time.  We choreographed what our reactions would be to a negative outcome before hand.  "Before we got the news, we were happy with Ellie," we reasoned.  "If for some reason the pregnancy doesn't work out, doesn't it make sense that we should go right back to being happy again?  Even with a miscarriage, nothing more would be gained or lost.  We would just go back to the way things were before."

While it helped to accept this perspective, what followed were tense weeks.  The bleeding continued, the cause of which is as yet still unknown (and to be clear, bleeding even once during pregnancy is not a good thing.  Bleeding persistently is an even worse thing).  Every cramp or twinge made us wonder whether the end was near.  And what's more, the specter of delivering at 22 weeks was on our minds once again.

A few days ago, we took a trip to the our high risk OBGYN: the same one that attended to your mother during her 2 weeks of bedrest.  The questions on our minds?  How do we prevent another premature delivery, and why did it happen last time?

We weren't expecting to learn much given that your mother's uterine region has been a black box of mysteries, but as has happened often lately, we were pleasantly proven wrong.  As to the question of how your mother became pregnant with a completely blocked tube?  The doctor seems to think that the test we ran to see whether it was blocked may have partially blown the blockage open.  And as to the unsolved mystery of what caused you to be born early?   It appears as though there may have been a cervical malfunction, and once the cervix was open, the bulging of the gestational sack out of the opening caused the placenta to tear from the uterine wall.

With this suspicion to work with, the doctor came up with a course of action to hopefully prevent a repeat scenario: he decided it was best to stitch your mother's cervix closed.  In fact, as I'm writing this, the surgery just ended and your mother is back at St. Mary's Hospital, sitting in the very same recovery room she was in after you were born.

It's encouraging to know that we've taken measures to improve the outcome, but as of now, I still don't know what the "moral of the story will be."  For now, it appears the fetus is in tip top shape, and just like you, is described as "unusually active."  During the ultrasound at our high risk appointment, she was spinning around in circles inside the gestational sack like one of the three stooges.  Oh yes, and in case you missed that last pronoun I just snuck in there, the genetic test informed us recently that you'll be having a sister if all goes well.

Our fingers are crossed.  

Wednesday, May 20, 2015


Dear Ellie,

As of today, you are officially a toddler.  That is, you'd be one year old, had you been born on your due date.  I didn't expect your transition into toddlerdom to be some kind of grand transformative shift but strangely... it has.  The second you took your first step a little over a month ago, something happened inside of you.  You stopped hating milk, you started loving food, and all of the little residual preemie quirks that were making your life difficult all just evaporated: gagging and choking often while eating, acid reflux, sensory sensitivities, tight and tense muscles...  Even the little scars on your face that we assumed would be permanent seem to have said their goodbyes.  In front of us now is a normal little toddler, bursting with a lust to explore a world that--- as far as you know--- has no end.

Something inside of your mother and I has changed, too.  Years ago when we were in our early twenties, there was a special place we used to go in our imaginations together.  It was a place in our thoughts where we imagined our future with a family.  A place of warm weekend mornings.  Of evenings filled with games set to the soundtrack of worry free laughter.  Of late nights, when we awake at odd hours and look to the sky for some rare cosmic occurrence.  And most importantly, at the center of that place was you.

We lost track of that place during the long years of infertility, because we weren't sure if you would ever exist at all.  No place, imagined or real, is anything but lonely if it is empty.  During your time in the NICU, too, we could only see that place as the faintest of glimmers.  Even this past year, our plans for what we thought a family should be were shunted aside and smothered by a sense of urgency and emergency that pervaded every part of our lives.  All through the past six or seven years, I've wondered when I'd be able to return to that place without it being painted in sorrow or fear.  But then, as I was putting you down to bed last night, I realized that I never would imagine that place again.  We wouldn't need to.

I'd gone through that entire day without any worry.  No more scrutinizing your little nuances to determine whether something was wrong with you.  No more waking up in the middle of the night, believing that you are somehow suffocating.  No more turbulent future, wide and dark in its uncertainty.  Instead, we spent the day out at the beach, jumping on beds, and laughing at anything and everything.  I spent the day examining not your frailties, but instead your budding personality: sometimes intensely quiet, focused, and contemplative; sometimes cranky; often jubilant.  I spent the day smiling at your excitement each time you discovered a new word or new sound.  At how you bounce your legs and flail your arms upon witnessing a new book.

Somehow, when we weren't even paying attention, that place we had so often imagined was no longer some place of fantasy, but the place where we live.

 Here you are giggling with Uncle Zack

 This is right around the time you discovered that
food is delicious.  Just a week before, it used to take us 5 minutes 
to give you five spoons fulls.  Now you'll eat an entire jar in the time.  

 Here we are at the Hobe Sound Wildlife Refuge: the best kept secret
on Florida's East Coast.  When you get bigger and your mother and
I make you angry, you can drive here to get some solitude.

 And here we are at the Palm Beach Inlet, where your grandfather grew up 
(and in some ways, me, your Aunt Andrea, and Uncle Zack).  Great Grandma Eleanor
used to walk us across the island to inlet here.  Above the waves, things have
changed a lot since then, but beneath the waves, it still looks quite the same.

 You've just recently learned how to sleep in beds, rather than just cribs.  You
looked funny to me at first seeing you like this, but then I realized I rarely
got to see you sleep in anything but a dark room.

 Since you hated drinking from a bottle for so long, you never learned to hold
the bottle (rather, instead, you learned to swat it away).  Thankfully, however,
this does not apply to containers with straws!

 Last Saturday, your mother and I took you out to a restaurant for
the first time.  As you can see, you handled it quite well.

 After the restaurant, we took a tour of the Treasure Coast.

 Here you are standing next to downstairs-wing of the Great Library of Elliexandria.

 You are obsessed with computers, but this is the last time I'll leave
you along with my laptop.  Somehow, with your crazy computer skills,
you managed to make 100 shortcuts for each and every program.

Relaxing in the swing...

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Friends in the Forests

Illustration by Tze-Chiang Lim

In meadows, swamps, and flatwood spans,
In pastures, brush, and cyprus stands,
The Florida Tomtens live in peace,
Behind each pine and palm frond leaf.

Like little old men, they have long beards,
Worn red hats and pointy ears,
They stand just inches off the ground,
But move through woods without a sound.

By day, they hide in fallen logs,
In morning mists and wetland fogs,
They watch us with a wary eye,
They rarely speak, for they are shy.

But in the woods lies secret worlds,
Where Tomtens speak with birds and squirrels,
Upon swift snakes they dart and rush,
At lightening speed through thick and brush.

They whisk above upon fierce hawks,
Or with large gators, take long walks,
At night when things are still and cold,
They sleep in armadillo holes.

Though sometimes far and sometimes near,
We never need to live in fear,
Should you see a shadow, late at night,
Fear not, they aren't the harmful type.

They may just want to make a trade,
To take a doll, or garden spade,
If in its place, you see a pine cone,
You know a Tomten was in your home.

The Tomtens may take other things,
A thought, a key, a word, a dream,
Of mysteries, they may snatch clues,
They may take even people, too.

Those parents who are mean and mad,
Who make their children glum and sad,
May find their children whisked away,
To live with Tomtens, night and day.

But for those children, the Tomtens swap,
A special gift that they have caught, 
When bad parents check their children's beds,
They may find rattle snakes instead.

Look close at dawn toward the swamps,
For children's faces, wild and gaunt,
Pity them not, as they skip between trees,
A better life, they've found with new families.

But good parents never need to fear,
And all good children may take cheer,
The Tomtens help those gentle souls,
Who find themselves in places foul.

If ever lost in forests dense,
If ever wracked amid suspense,
You may get help along the way.
To help you keep your fears at bay. 

A cheerful chirp, a footpath worn,
A helpful shelter amid a storm,
Are all the things a Tomten makes,
To help their friends out of mistakes.

But even if they're on your roof,
You'll see them not, for they're recluse,
But there are signs that they exist,
Just turn your ears toward the mist.

Listen closely, at sunrise,
And you'll be in for a surprise, 
Far away, you'll hear violins,
A second before the first birds sing.

Open your window, breathe the air,
Sing back a song, and don't despair,
If kind and good, you've passed the test,
And earned some friends amid the forest.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Hit the Ground Running

Dear Ellie,

I think now it's official: physical therapy is over.  They set numerous 6 month goals for you about a month ago: goals to pull yourself to stand, to stand alone, to take a step or two...  as of now, you've already met them all, including the final one: walking.

Last week after I fastened a little baby mirror to your (outsized) playpen, you were so intrigued by your own reflection that, without thinking, you turned around from where you stood and walked three or four steps right on over to the mirror.  I think we were both a bit shocked.  You, because you didn't even know you could walk without holding anything, and me, because babies are expected to walk somewhere between 11 months and 15 months developmentally.  Last week, when you took those first conspicuous steps, you were only 10 and a half months.  Since then, it's been game on.

You're mother bought little play "islands" in your playpen for you to walk to and from and every chance you get--- using every excuse you can think of--- you are walking back and forth between those little islands and the couch.  It doesn't always end "pretty."  Sometimes you end up on your face.  Sometimes you trip over an obstacle and your feet fly up in the air.  Regardless, nothing seems to discourage you, and in a few seconds, you're back up and back at it.

At first, I wondered why or how you'd learned to walk so quickly, but the more that I think about it, the more it seems obvious: you are a very active, very determined baby.  Just like the days after you were born, you're still that same wiggly kid.  In the NICU, you thrashed and flailed and everyone called you a "wiggle worm."  After you came home, even though you couldn't flip over, you'd "pseudo-crawl" the second we set you down.  Once you learned to flip, you'd flip from front to back, front to back, over and over and over with no apparent objective.  Upon mastering your crawling and climbing skills, you'd unfailingly look for the biggest obstacle as soon as someone put you down and set off to conquer it.  The couch, of course, is one of your favorites.  Just a few days ago, I watched you struggling to scale it for about 10 minutes.  You grunted and growled and bellowed in frustration until, at last, you succeeded.  But did you savor your victory?  Nope.  Instead, you immediately went about climbing the back of the couch.  On to the next challenge.

It seems almost as if you have zero regard for the pain or exertion required to achieve some new physical feat.  Even now, as you free stand from a sitting position then walk toward me, your face looks like that of a competitive weight-lifter: red, straining, grunting.  When you finally do make it to my arms or lap, you look me in the eye with a victorious grin, then start it all over again.  Its almost as if you are actively pursuing things that are difficult.  Set you down at the base of some stairs?  Thems look like climbin' stairs.  When I lay down on the ground next to you?  I'm suddenly a much more appealing obstacle than a daddy.

The thing that really strikes me, though, is that all through your progress, I've never stopped noticing those little preemie qualities that should be holding you back.  Your tight muscles.  Your stubby little body.  The pain of reflux whenever you weren't sitting upright.  Still, you've made up for those handicaps with a super dose of grit and resolve.  It's inspiring, in a way.  After all, it's one thing to be born with some talent or attribute.  It's quite another to achieve it through determination, resourcefulness and effort.  The former lets you thrive at one particular thing.  The latter lets you thrive at all things.

 So far, I've mostly failed at taking walking pictures,
usually because you do a healthy amount of 
flailing which throws off my camera focus.

And here you are celebrating with Mommy.

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.