Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Toddlering

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.


video
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.


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.

$1,300,000!!

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