A favorite childhood story of mine used to be the story of the birth of me and my sister--our hilarious entrance into this cruel world.
“What do you mean there’s another one?!” my mother had screamed in the doctor’s face, yanking him closer by his scrubs as he told her to get ready to push again not long after I had spilled into the world in a rush of fluid and cries.
Lo and behold, my sister and I had been surprise identical twins. She had been hiding behind me in all of our mother’s ultrasounds, cheeky and mischievous even in the womb.
Lily and Lotus were the clever names our parents gave us since their namesakes both symbolized fertility, a joking nod at Lily’s surprise appearance and their professions as florists.
I hated my name growing up. It was an odd name to have, and I always envied my sister--who seemed to be the epitome of beauty and elegance which lived up to her name--while I was bumbling and clumsy.
“Did you know,” my father had told me after he found me crying again after kids teased me over my name, “that lotuses start in murky waters, but then they bloom beautifully in the day, untouched by the water? Sometimes the most beautiful things come from rough beginnings and they blossom anyways.”
His words hinted back at the other meaning of my name, a reminder our names weren’t just about fertility and beauty.
In the most ironic joke of all time, however, while my sister was blessed with four kids and was currently about to give birth to a fifth, I was unable to have children--something I desperately craved with everything in me.
Now, besides my nieces and nephews, the only children I had to nurture were the plants and flowers I raised and arranged in the floral shop I had inherited after our parents had passed away.
Flowers had quickly become an obsession of mine, especially after everything. I now preferred to talk through the subtle language of flowers, a symbolism not understood by many and one that gave me peace. Every arrangement I made always had some sort of secret message for each customer (“Good luck!”, “You’re beautiful!” “My condolences but what a kind person!”) and the ones around my home spoke only words of loss and mourning (“Regret, regret.”, “Pain, loss, anger everyday.”) even to this day.
My baby girl, Sofia, was born as still as the night with blue-purple lips and silent lungs. I could still remember the adrenaline high as I smiled, panting and crying, so relieved after the last push that I finally felt her slip free from me into the doctor’s waiting hands only to then see the staff standing still before I hoarsely demanded in terrified confusion, “Wh-Why isn’t she crying?” before they burst into a flurry of motion.
“My baby! Give me my baby!” I remember screaming myself raw as my husband, Mikhel, held me back to the bed as they rushed her away.
She was already dead by time the afterbirth was finally guided from my numb body with gentle, pitying hands as I stared blankly at the ceiling, Mikhel’s voice lost to my ears as I clutched his hand like a lifeline.
The loss of Sofia had sapped all the life from me. My grief used my bones as kindling to sustain itself, and I gladly fed myself to the fire, prying open my ribcage so it could lick at my insides and consume my heart. And in the wake of the ashes, I had almost nothing left to give my husband.
It had been five years since Sofia passed, and we found out that I wouldn’t be able to carry another pregnancy to term. While Mikhel never filed for divorce, I could feel the weight of all the unsaid paragraphs weighing down the air between us, growing increasingly heavier as we sought second opinion after third opinion after fourth opinion with no change in the conclusion.
I knew that he wanted kids as almost as desperately as I did and felt the loss of our daughter like it was tattooed across his heart, but I also knew that he had made his peace with it, while I was still clinging to the shards of our broken dream no matter how much they cut me. I could feel him wanting to bring up the prospect of adopting children but always losing the words when his eyes met my dead ones. And as a man of few words, he was at a loss as to how to reach me.
I had waited for him to leave me to rot alone in my grief, for him to move forward and find a woman who wasn’t content with drowning in the past, but he never did.
I pretended not to, but I could always feel him softly kiss my shoulder, his beard scruffy against my skin, whenever he thought I was sleeping each night. Compassionate kiss to my forehead, reassurances, and quiet promises to me, acknowledgement of my pain yet his commitment to stay with me as I worked to meet him where he was on our journey through the loss of our daughter. The love I felt for him was indescribable, and I regretted every day that it had become overshadowed by the grief.
I kept hoping that with time the pain would begin to disappear, to numb, like everyone said it would, but that never seemed to happen.
"It’s not true that with time our pain gets smaller. We can’t wait out the pain in hopes that it will get better. Since our grief doesn’t get smaller; we need to grow bigger around it", my therapist told me one day while I sat staring at my shoelaces, ready to unravel.
If I was meant to grow bigger around my grief then I had already failed. Rather than growing bigger, I had made myself even smaller, curling up in a fetal position around my grief as I cradled it close to my heart with clenched fingers.
And I clutched that grief even closer to myself as Mikhel and I settled into the black chairs of the hospital waiting room, having immediately rushed over when my sister’s pain-stricken voice groaned out that she was in the middle of contractions.
My stomach was a war of excitement and nameless feelings I tried to dampen so that I could be present in this beautiful moment. The effort, however, simply made me even more nauseous.
Years ago, I was Lily’s cheerleader as she pushed with all her might, sweat rolling down her brow as she created life before our very eyes, but after my own daughter had died, I couldn’t enter the hospital room. I had tried once only to have a panic attack during Lily’s third birth because I had a flashback to my own baby, lifeless and its silence so loud that it reverberated around the room just the same. Now, I simply waited in the waiting room, ready to celebrate and shower the new mother and baby with unconditional love and flowers.
A bouquet of marigolds was grasped firmly in my hand, almost as artfully arranged as the smile plastered on my face. We both looked like rays of sunshine ready to exuberantly congratulate my sister and welcome my newest niece into the world.
Admittedly, it was a silent war of cognitive dissonance that led me to give marigolds to Lily every time she welcomed another life into this world.
A beautiful sunlight-hued flower, marigolds--which folded in and around themselves with loving, delicate petals--symbolized joy, optimism and good luck. Yet there was also the lesser known symbolic undercurrent of jealousy, grief, despair, and mourning that was hidden within the way the petals bled into one another in brilliant ombre. It captured the complicated emotions I felt every time my sister announced a new pregnancy.
What should have been celebratory golden flowers were fools gold in my hands. For me, they were funeral flowers. A celebration of life, yet the acknowledgement of loss. They were also believed in some cultures to attract the dead, so I left marigolds fresh in vases every day around the house and the shop in hopes that it may draw her near.
Sometimes, lying in bed at night with the almost uncrossable distance between me and my husband, I would scroll through my sister’s social media, and see her smile with her arms around her kids who rarely sat still, squirmy and blurry. And I would imagine myself in her place. It was easy since we were identical. Almost like peering into an alternate universe where my womb was a habitable place. And, sometimes, I would pretend that it was me in the pictures and videos--my children indignantly shrieking “Mom!” at me as they let out peals of laughter.
The real-time shriek I heard broke me out of my reverie as I saw a pigtailed little girl running full force in my direction with all the determination of a train.
“Auntie Flower,” Hailey, almost a clone of my sister with her long black hair and golden brown skin, smiled widely--showcasing her missing front teeth excitedly. She was practically bouncing up and down in front of me.
“Wow, goodness!” I exclaimed as I tried not to smile and ruin my illusion of worry, “Did someone steal your teeth?”
“No, silly! Unless the tooth fairy is a thief,” she laughed.
“Hmm, I don’t know. If she’s a thief then she’s a clever one!”
“The best!” Hailey giggled as Grandma Alena, Lily’s mother in law, walked in searchingly before making a beeline for us. No doubt Grandpa Vern and the rest of my nieces and nephews were right behind.
“Now what I tell you about just running off?” Grandma Alena demanded, her brows furrowed.
Hailey turned to sheepishly answer when I caught sight of something that had my stomach drop to my feet.
“What happened to your arm?” I demanded, every inch of me suddenly vibrating with worry.
Grandma Alena sighed heavily at my question as she shook her head, already frustrated with whatever had taken place, “Lord, Lotus, this child is going to wear me to death. Climbing trees like a monkey.”
Mikhel peered over his book at the situation but didn't say a word after he saw she was fine.
“I got stitches!” Hailey said proudly. It was an ugly cut that slashed across her arm jaggedly, held together by neat black stitches.
“That’s going to scar,” I tsked, peering closer.
“It won’t be as bad!” Hailey protested, laughing and completely unbothered, “the doctor said when I’m bigger I’ll barely be able to see it anymore!”
For some reason her absent-minded words struck something in me. All the rushing of feelings in my stomach had settled so much so that I barely heard them say they were going to go check on Grandpa Vern who had clearly gotten lost in the maze of the hospital.
And then we were alone. Just me and Mikhel and the words of a little girl which echoed the words my therapist had told me but I was not ready to accept yet.
“Mikhel, I’m ready to adopt,” the words escaped my mouth before I had even realized I had said them.
The book Mikhel was reading slipped out of his hands, the clatter it made when it hit the floor almost soundless because we were so focused on each other.
He searched my eyes for a long time before he firmly took my hands in his and gave me a watery smile that seemed to heal something I didn’t know needed healing.
“I’d love to,” he simply said and then the conversation we had been putting off for half a decade, that we left clogging and polluting the air in our home, rose gently and carefully between us, buoyed by hope and a willingness to finally move forward together.