I don’t know you. I’ve learned of you just today. Your brother Kou called me up out of the blue. He’s a good friend, but we haven’t talked in years. He told me that your wife has died. It was a rare form of cancer that killed her. He told me that you’re a year younger than him. This makes you and me very close in years, products of the same culture, the same times.
You don’t know me. I’m a stranger here to share your grief, as if grief is something that many shoulders can steady. I know, though, that you are in your own cyclone, captive to the winds that rage around you, the gaping hole that sucks you up.
Your brother has asked me, a writer from our community, to find words that may comfort your heart. All I have is my own experience of grief and the lessons I’ve learned. I share the following experiences of my life in the hopes that it will help you travel through yours.
It begins with a love story, perhaps not so unlike your own.
You’re walking with someone you like. The wind picks up. The clouds roll in. The sky rumbles with hunger. Soon, lightning is flashing across the sky. The sun is gone. The world is gray. Rainfall, heavy and strong. You find yourself holding hands, running through the storm. There is nowhere to hide. You end up hiding in yourself and each other because the world has grown wet and wild and you are both scared.
When at last you get home, after you’ve dried yourselves, you laugh from the adrenaline of your flight in the gray. You know you’ve flirted with danger, and perhaps each other. No matter how young or how old, in that moment, you know that life would be dangerous. You realize that somehow you were braver together than apart.
My love story, like yours, led to marriage. I found myself in a shared life, planning a shared future. Late at night, when the world had grown quiet and the busyness of the day dimmed, we both looked out our bedroom window, a square full of sky, starlight and moonlight mingling, airplanes and shooting stars shifting across the high heavens. We talked of the future. We whispered of babies. There in that talk, without our knowing, we planted our first seeds of grief together.
My husband and I were very much looking forward to having a baby. Nineteen weeks into that pregnancy, our baby died. He was delivered, a small weight across my palm, limbs loose, fragile skin and bone, a face that looked like mine. In the days after, we went through our lives, a piece at a time, looking for the parts that could hold him, a ghost baby, a dream baby, a baby that was but never will be.
It was autumn. I remember my flowers were beginning to die. The leaves were drying out in the sun. My heart was so heavy I could not find the strength to water them. I decided they would die anyway. What did a few more days of bloom matter?
The autumn passed between moments of life feeling almost normal, me talking to the people I love who loved me, trying to find perspective, and then other moments when I wished I had never met my husband and fallen in love with him, gotten married, gotten pregnant, when I wished I had never delivered a dead baby into the world — a baby the world would never know as mine. Then, I would cry and cry and cry until there were no more tears, until the throbbing in my head grew stronger than the beat of my own heart.
One day, I went outside in cold November. I looked upon my dead plants, pots full of earth and debris, spider webs where once petunias had bloomed. Small snowflakes started falling from the gray skies. The cold air cooled the heat in my chest. I breathed deep and watched as white flakes began covering the world, bit by bit.
My birthday was in December. I could not get up. I was so tired, deep in my bones. I felt I was on water, floating in some dead sea. My husband insisted I take a pregnancy test. I complied only because I did not have the will to argue.
I was pregnant that December. By late August a little girl entered my life. I was pregnant two Decembers after that. By late August, two little boys had entered my life.
From somewhere in the high heavens, the places I could not see, far beyond my gaze, there was a future floating down. I was alive, feet on the earth, so I could not outrun that future and slowly it covered me up.
There is, my dear friend, in the heart of every living being, the will to go on.
For all the dark days ahead, for all the love story you’ve lived, the lives you’ve loved, a spark of light, a hope for life grows stronger day by day, night by long night.
You will find the strength you need to continue putting your feet, one in front of the other, firmly on the earth. Some future somewhere is floating on down.
Today, though, is a gift from the past, the final days of your love story as you knew it to be, not as it will always be, but as it once was.
I did not know you. I did not know your wife. All I know is your love story ended long before you were ready, and now you live in a story unfolding. Like a tapestry, ib daim paj ntaub, your threads have come undone. I know the hopelessness of holding on, of letting go.
I think more often these days of my living babies than my dead one. I know with more certainty every day that meeting my husband has given me more of life rather than less of it. Still, no love story lasts forever; it doesn’t take forever to be together for always.
Dear friend, she will be your wife long after she is gone. She will be your wife until you go. There is, in this, salvation to be found, my friend from the same generation, my brother from the same culture. She is yours to keep for always in memory, laughing and living, loving and well. She is and will always be an unforgettable part of your love story, your life story.
May your treasured memories be strong and fierce, make you even as it breaks you, in the days and the years ahead.
Your sister and friend,
Kao Kalia Yang