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.