person 1

Shortly after I’d returned from San Francisco, I was sub-letting an apartment downtown. It was 2000. I’d been on my own and reading a lot. Watching reality TV and discovering the subduing power of crossword puzzles, which I pulled from the paper each day and fell asleep solving. I’d wake up with inky smudges on my cheek, where I’d fallen against the newsprint.

This was the time I started reading self-help books avidly. Tony Robbins, Dale Carnegie, anything I could get my hands on. I don’t remember what book or what phrase even, that caused my epiphany. Perhaps it was the force of all that advice all at once. My lesson was: I was depressed. And I needed to get out into the world and face it. I suppose a shrink could have told me that. But I didn’t have one. I made an effort to go for a walk every day. And though it would be years still before I involved myself in the community fully, and regained a sense of self, it was a small step.

During this time, a Census taker had come to the door looking for information from the household. What could I say? The family was in Africa. I wasn’t really living there. The interaction with another human was too much. I mumbled something like no thank you and shut the door in his face. I’m sorry, man.

There’s a place on the Census form for the head of household. That person is called Person 1. Here’s a poem I wrote about that time.

Person 1

2000 is 4 years beyond the clear-front cage
of my daughter’s bed

48 months past nights swiveling on the stool
kissing her feet with my hands, patty-cake

2000, the Year of Lists: books read, letters sent
replies, junk, movies, recipes, the Year I Discovered Grits

208 weeks following 24-hour nurses
the needle of despair barbed to her forehead

2000 folded half-inked crosswords littered
my sublet, my massive stain

1460 days after I chose my father’s name
she was person of the earth, Phaylynn

2000: Year I Forgot Myself
2000 times a thousand plus a thousand times

1 Leap Year later, those 9 days of milk
labeled, frozen just in case

talking, not talking

Sometime in January of last year, I had noticed a flyer on a community billboard looking for bereaved parents to form a support group. I tore off the number and held it in my pocket for a month. Found it, lost it again. The gold colored stub wrinkling and softening in my pocket. I had not had the courage or the wherewithal I had been looking at these little scraps of paper for the last decade. Numbers of people to call and “talk” to, locations of the local Hospice or Compassionate Friends meetings. Nothing the I came across Nothing called out to me. This was not any different, except that I’d been tired of carrying this secret around. And I thought, what harm could it do? It was probably time to get on with my life anyway.

Then the floodgates opened up for me when her birthday came around. I was, as usual, unprepared for it. And so I put off calling the group. I didn’t want anyone to see me in this mess. So I called the number later that month, told the woman my name and situation and attended my first ever bereaved parents support group in March. It was held in the spacious basement meeting room of the local library. The parents were gathered around a long conference table and the place echoed when we spoke and the heat registers clanked in the background. I arrived fifteen minutes late. Everyone had already introduced themselves. Someone was the woman I had spoken to over the telephone introduced herself and asked me a little bit about me. And I told them, I don’t know where to begin I said. I think they asked me questions.

I know it was not long before I started blubbering and hiccupping through my sentences. And this is where I always end up when “talking” about it. And talking is what most compassionate friends ask from me. “If you ever need to talk, call me.” “Here’s my number. Call me if you need anything.” “Do you want to talk?” “Maybe you need someone to talk to.”

It’s not fair that I didn’t know what “talking” meant. In my family, it was taboo to “talk” about our problems outside of the family. But we’d also never talked within the family either. I don’t fault anyone for this. It was what it was. By the time I started junior high, I’d started talking to school counselors. By the time I was done with high school, I’d been scolded over and over again for “talking” to them.

If I’d have had a blog when I was still living under their roof, I can’t imagine the grief I would have gotten. But since my family no longer holds as much power over me as they did then, I will tell you: I loved them, and I wanted so much to talk to them. Openly. I wanted to hurt. I wanted them to witness my hurt.

For reasons unrelated to Akira’s death, my family broke apart and went their own ways. I ended up in San Francisco a year afterwards and many times walked the streets in search for something that “called” to me, that “spoke”. Something that fulfilled the emptiness.

The two agents of relief I found were these: The weekly Friends Meeting and the San Francisco Public Library. The Friends Meeting was held in an unassuming building in the Mission (I think) and was filled every Sunday with professionals of every stripe on the padded chairs that we later folded up to make way for the noontime potluck. I never stayed for the social. I cried through every meeting. I never introduced myself. And I never was moved enough to speak. But I sat in the stillness and felt. At meeting, I was allowed to feel and felt protected in that space. I felt mostly sadness and despair. And I cried. And when Meeting was over, I shook hands with everyone, gathered my things and left. I remember one man reached out to me and asked me to volunteer a night’s service in the soup kitchen, which I gladly agreed to.

And the SF library, once I found my way around, was the most fantastic wonderful, magical place in the whole universe! Books, upon books. Hundreds of people reading books and looking for books. And here is where I found the authors I never knew I was looking for: Kerouac, Baldwin, Hurston, among many others. I lived at the library. And every free moment I had was spent riding the bus there so I could walk the floors and look over the balconies onto the patrons below. And discover books.

But running away to a beautiful and carefree city like San Francisco was still running away. And so here I am back in Vermont, not “talking about it”, not knowing how.

After my rapid spin into grief last February and my lack of composure at the bereaved parents meeting the following month, I resolved to be more aggressive in my “coming out”. It’s what I wanted all this time really, to have my experience as a mother validated in some way. I have no other children and am still fairly youthful looking. And most people assume that I have never had children, that I am not a mother, much less a mother of a dead child. But I’m not looking for sympathy. I’m tired of hiding a fact that is so integral to who I am. Perhaps in a future post I will tell you how I could never be the wonderfully contented and happy person that I am, if not for this experience. Later.

I will tell you that this summer, at my last year at the Kundiman Emerging Asian American Poets’ Retreat on the University of Virginia campus, our workshop with Staceyann Chin took a turn towards the tightly held secrets of our past. She asked us, in regards to our families, what we were really grateful for, and what we is our most painful relationship and why. She required that we skirt the excuses and apologies and tell the heart of it.

So there I was, in this maroon carpeted room crying onto the conference table. Telling my fellow poets that I didn’t want sympathy. That I simply wanted to honor Akira by no longer being shy about her birth or her death. And this was my greatest sorrow. Not knowing how to do it.

I read a poem at our last salon about Akira. Something I wrote in that afternoon, as an exercise to illustrate a new form that my friends and I invented—the freeTouplet. Somehow, admitting it to a roomful of peers was a first small step in building her into my history. Here’s the first draft, below (unformatted, since I do not know how to do that on the blog ).

Phaylynn Akira Luekhamhan 1996
You are nine days. A shadow on the moon. You are swaddled. Buried. Swallowed. My sandwich meat. Scalpeled. Baby, you are engineer of my grief. You, shadow on the far side of my belief.
Say it.
Dead. You are dead. Dead.
You refuse.
Alive as fire,
you are bed.
You are coal.
You began, begun
My undoing
I am
Of without
I am
I am
Of collapsed

You my bedside.

My advocate.

Reader daughter.

Become my risk.

My give/take.

little gypsy

my reel

girl on the platform meditating

girl on the platform meditating

girl on the platform meditating

Seems like ages ago that I wrote this poem, and just as long that Jennifer Karmin put it into action as part of her “Walking Poems” project in Chicago.  It’s recently published on How2.  Check it out.

I know I’ve grown so much as a poet since the writing and submission of this poem, but it still retains sentimental value for me.  I wrote during my brief little tour of New York City in January of 2006.  A country girl from Vermont in the big City for a weekend, I sent short emails home to my friends of my first impressions:

Finally got a taste of a real chocolate souflee, which I'd been dreaming 
about since the dessert party this summer, where it was noticably absent 
from the menu...found myself in an apartment with two guys playing Go, and a 
woman about to leave for Bejing early the next morning.

the smell of take out lingering in elevator carriages, the sounds of 
unidentifiable languages, people so familiar yet not my own. I could walk a 
long time down these hard gray streets before I needed rest. Bent pizza 
boxes, posters weathering off the walls, jewel-colored lamp shades in the 
park, the ghost of myself in the windows I walk past. So much tactile 
sensory information.

I had taken the trip to New York to read at a Kundiman-sponsored event at Verlaine.  I stayed with another Kundiman fellow, Rona Luo.  I had drinks at the Telephone Bar, where fellow Kundis were reading.  We went to Chinatown for dinner and ice creams.

I was broke and dreamy-eyed.  I had been practicing daily meditations on gratitude and love.  And as I waited for the train, I closed my eyes…

Slept in, per Rona's suggestion. Squatted on the station platform and 
meditated in the sun. Gorgeous no jacket day. Perused bookshops, killing 
time before lunch. Mongolian pepper steak, halo halo, Thai iced tea, gossip 
and poetry shop talk with one of the most beautiful women I know.What do I 
want? Someone who is comfortable in his body, and who can cherish mine. We 
ate next to fish the size of my head in their blue tank.

Oh, how young and dreamy I was then.  And in love with every new experience!