Missing Moments

“Where have I come from, where did you pick me up?” the baby asked its mother.
She answered, half crying, half laughing, and clasping the baby to her breast, –
“You were hidden in my heart as its desire, my darling.
You were in the dolls of my childhood’s games; and when with clay I made the image of my god every morning, I made and unmade you then.
You were enshrined with our household deity, in his worship I worshiped you.
In all my hopes and my loves, in my life, in the life of my mother you have lived….”
Excerpt from The Beginning
Rabindranath Tagore


People used to say things to me when I had only one child that they never say now that I have two. My two children are 7.5 years apart, so that still garners some questions, “Accidental pregnancy?” OR “Wow, you sure waited a while.” While most of the time these are innocent and naïve sentiments, the resulting answer is usually discomfiting for most. I wanted a second child from the time my first was two, mostly because he was so wonderful that I wanted another jewel like him. But for a long time it just didn’t work – until it did.

I have a friend who remembers her miscarriage each year. I can’t really do that, mainly because there were so many. The first time I lost a baby I was 17 weeks pregnant – it was my first pregnancy. Far from the time that I thought a miscarriage could happen to me. “Wait 12 weeks and you are golden,” everyone and every book said. I was showing, I had told everyone. And we had just come back from a trip to Hawaii. Sun kissed and tired, I went to the bathroom that morning and some water came out. “Something is wrong.” I told my husband. “No, I’m sure it’s fine,” was his response. “I want to see the Doctor.” So that day, July 1, 2005, we went to the doctor. I told him what happened and he said, “let’s just do an ultrasound to see what is going on.” As I lay on the table I saw the baby, “whew, there is the baby.” But then the doctor continued to feel around slowly and then with a slight frantic edge. Suddenly I realized. “Where is the heartbeat?” “Where is the heart beat…?”

“I’m sorry.”

 That was when I screamed and cried and asked for my Mother. My doctor, one of the most caring individuals I have ever met, looked at my husband and asked for my Mother’s number. He called her himself, told her what had happened and asked if she might try to come. Meanwhile he held me and then said that I had two options. Let the baby expel itself on its own, or have a procedure to remove the baby.

“Should we bury it?” we asked.

 “There probably won’t be much to bury,” he said, “the bones are not complete.”

That was when I told him to get it out of me – it was no longer my baby.

He had plans to go on vacation that afternoon. But he changed his ticket so that he could do the procedure for me. As my husband and I walked out of the office, on our way to the hospital, we ran smack into a set of our best friends. They were 10 months pregnant. She was in labor at that moment. And they were on their way to the hospital too.

While I went in to have my dead baby removed. Their beautiful daughter was born.

I cried for days. And then something happened. Women started coming over and telling me their stories. Horrible, difficult, hard stories, that brought me so much comfort. This type of tragedy had happened to so many people I knew. And they lived to tell about it. Their hearts mended. Most of them had babies afterward and those that didn’t adopted lovely children who completed their families. Why hadn’t I heard of these stories before?

Because they are uncomfortable. They are not happy endings. They are painful.

My husband and I went to Big Sur and floated a stick out on the river for our son. My parents went to the temple and prayed for us.

Then I jumped back on the horse, so to speak. I was pregnant in two months and my beautiful boy was born 9 months later. But this pregnancy was fraught with fear. For the first 20 weeks I went to the doctor’s office EVERY WEEK to hear his heartbeat. And the minute I heard it I would break down into sobs. I talked with the baby every day, and asked him to live and be safe inside me. I was SO careful, just in case the other time it was my fault for traveling, or painting, or something.

Silly almost.

Because I am a geneticist.

I knew that the first baby did not survive because he wasn’t OK. There was something wrong, and nature took its course. But that did not stop the fear.

The fear that maybe genetically I couldn’t have kids.

Or maybe my husband and I together were not matched for a surviving child.

 Or Or Or.

 But in the end a gorgeous baby emerged.

And I was SO happy.

After that pregnancy I thought we would just be a family of three. However, when my son was 2, I looked into the back where he was quietly sitting in his carseat and thought, “I want another face back there.” Also, my son did not have any first cousins, so he was always with grown ups. “It would be nice to have another child around to take the constant focus off him,” I thought. So we tried again, and again, and again, and again.

I became pregnant four times and lost the babies each time at around 9-12 weeks. After each miscarriage I told myself, “this is the last time.” Then I tried again. I guess I didn’t really try, I just didn’t use any birth control.

My scary age went from 39 to 40 to 41… Then between 40-42 I did not become pregnant at all. “Maybe that is it for me,” I thought. I looked into adoption from India. But at that time it had become more difficult and very expensive. “So one child it will be,” we decided.

Then at 42 I became pregnant with my daughter. My Mother did not tell anyone I was pregnant because of my age, and because she did not want anyone to say things like, “Goodness isn’t she concerned about xy or z?” I got all of the genetic testing done. Happily, I did not need to have an amniocentesis, because a new blood test had been designed based on the premise that a certain amount of the fetus’ blood sloughs off into the mother during pregnancy (http://www.ariosadx.com/expecting-parents/faqs/). Therefore, sequencing the blood allows for an accurate determination about Down Syndrome and other chromosomal issues. When I received the results, the genetic counselor told me that the risk of having a spontaneous abortion with an amnio was much higher than that of me having a child with a chromosomal issue based on the data. And she told me that the baby was a girl.

That girl was meant to be. When I see the joy she brings my son who adores his baby sister, and the way she completes our family I know that she was just waiting in there, a little egg, until her time came. I tell her that she and her brother were probably two eggs next to each other in my ovaries from the time I was born, and when he left her, she told him she would meet him again, as his sister. They love to hear that story, and giggle thinking they were bumping into each other in me for so many years. I’m glad that I persisted. Though I know that not everyone can. And I know how LUCKY I am to have my two kids.

That is my story. Miscarriages happen. They happen often. They are a part of many women’s lives. Often we don’t know the reason for them, but they are not a shameful or embarrassing event. They are just a part of the story. It’s important to know that if it happens to you, that you are not alone, there are people to lean on.

And as Rabindranath Tagore writes, “On the seashore of endless worlds children meet. Tempest roams the pathless sky, ships are wrecked in the trackless water, death is abroad and children play. On the seashore of endless worlds is the great meeting of children.”

I imagine that there is a seashore where all of the children who did not make it to our world are playing and blessing all of those who did.

Standing on the Porch in a Blizzard -initially published on www.sulekha.com

I wrote this story 18 years ago and it was published on an indian blog site called Sulekha. It is a true story from my life that I rewrote as “historical fiction”. I hope you enjoy it.

Her mom watched her from the big living room window. Sita always felt comforted that she could look up and see the small, round face giving her warmth as she waited at the bus stop across the street. Most days she wished that she could stay at home with her mom and pad around all day in her foot pajamas while helping with the chores. Sometimes she asked but her mom would just smile and say, “Sita, school is fun isn’t it? You get to read, do math and play with all of your friends.” Mom didn’t know that school was usually fun, but sometimes it was lonely and scary. It was much nicer to be at home where everyone loved you no matter what.

The bus stop was a big rock on the corner of the Wilson’s property. Every morning her mom would help with the big backpack that seemed to engulf her 60-pound frame and her Bernstein Bear lunchbox, kiss her cheek and watch as she crossed the street. Sita’s friend, Lily, would get on at the next stop. They always had fun on the bus together because Lily had this neat electronic calculator that you could play games on! Once Lily got on the bus Sita had someone to talk to. At the bus stop no-one paid any attention to Sita because all of the girls were in the 4th and 5th grades while she was only in the 2nd grade.

Sita lived in Allentown, Pennsylvania with her sister Anu and her parents. They were the only Indian family on the street, actually the only Indians for miles around. Her parents had emigrated from India six years ago and had recently moved from West Virginia. Sita’s mother Lakshmi wore a sari every day and was a stay-at-home mom. She was a great mom. On cold, snowy afternoons, her mom would make the yummiest hot chocolate in Allentown. All the kids loved it. Her dad worked at a big company where he was an engineer. Sita didn’t know what the word, “engineer”, meant, but she knew it was very important because daddy got up very early every morning and went to work in his white Volvo station wagon. Daddy prayed to Lord Srinivasa every morning. She liked that because he burned sandalwood incense, the kind of incense that floated up into the bedrooms and made the house even warmer and toastier on cold mornings. He also used this interesting oil lamp that each morning required the cutting and rolling of a wick. She loved watching him meticulously roll the wick between his fingers and moisten it with cooking oil that her mom kept on the bottom shelf of the kitchen cabinet. Sometimes she or her sister Anu was allowed to roll it and her father would patiently wait in his white cotton dhoti with a smile on his face.

This morning was like any other at the bus stop; Sita smelled of residual incense and the talcum powder her mom liked to put on her chest. The powder was called Cuticura, and it smelled deliciously like India. As she grew older she would still find herself going through phases of wearing that powder just so she could feel closer to her mother and her country.

On this cold afternoon, Sita was standing alone watching all of the big girls swish their blond hair and smooth down their pretty clothes. Sita’s mom had made her wear her pink hat and matching mittens. Every winter mom knitted new one’s for her, she liked this year’s because Anu had a matching set. Anu was too little to go to school, as she was only one year old. Sometimes mom would hold Anu while she watched at the window. Today her mom was alone at the window and Sita looked over and waved. Mom pointed up to the sky, and as Sita looked up she felt the sprinkling of new snow on her face. She smiled at her mom as the bus pulled up and took them all to school.

That afternoon the snow really began to fall and by the end of the day, it was a full-scale blizzard. Everyone talked about how it might be a snow day tomorrow. Sita was very excited because snow days meant no school and playing all day! The next morning she and her mom listened anxiously to the radio, but Allentown Elementary was not called out. School was still in session. Dejected, Sita got herself ready for school. Mom helped her put on thermal underwear and her big scarf and she marched out to the bus stop. The snow was falling fast and all of the kids were shivering.

“Brrrr,” Sita thought, “I can’t wait for the bus to come”.

Mom watched her from her seat in the warm, toasty living room. Sita was thinking about how nice it would be if she could wait inside with mom or if she should wait for the bus when Julie Wilson came running up. “Hey everyone, my mom said that we can all wait up on our porch since it’s covered, ” she yelled. Sita followed as everyone gathered up their things and started walking up the path. She was about a quarter of the way up when Julie came up to her side.

“Umm, Seeetta?” she said.

“Yes?” smiled Sita.

“My mom says that you can’t come up to our porch because your parents are weird,” she stated matter-of-factly and ran up the walk.

Sita just stood there for a second. Even at six years old, she knew what Julie had said was not very nice. Confused and a little hurt, she turned and slowly walked back to the rock. She looked at the porch, all the kids seemed to be staring at her so she turned her face down and pretended to be examining her lunchbox. “What is wrong with me?” she thought, “why do they think that my parents are weird?” Sita began to think, was it the music daddy listened to, or the food that they ate? She was upset because everything Indian seemed so normal, ok maybe mommy wore saris instead of slacks and her hair was in a long braid instead of feathered and dyed but she was a pretty mommy anyway! Suddenly, the garage door across the street opened and the brown Nova that her mom drove pulled out. Sita watched as her mom drove directly up to the rock and opened the passenger door. “Come on honey,” she said “mommy is driving you to school today, won’t that be fun?” Sita looked at her sister sitting in the bassinet/car seat in the back and smiled.

“Yes mommy! How exciting, you never drive me to school, can we pick up Lily on the way?” “Sure rani (princess),” her mom replied as she frowned in the direction of the porch.

Sita thought nothing of Mom’s look. In fact, she forgot all about that day until one rainy afternoon eight years later. She was 14 and her family now lived in Auburn, California. A “friend” of hers was making fun of Indians. She said that they were weird because they decorated elephants for holidays and wore weird “spots” on their foreheads. Sita and her mother were deep in conversation.

“Why mom?” Sita was asking “it’s 1984, not 1950, I thought kids these days were taught to respect other cultures?”

“Oh, Sita,” her mom sighed. “Don’t you remember the bus stop when you were six?”

“What are you talking about mom?” Sita said, annoyed.

She couldn’t remember what relevance a bus stop would have in this situation. After her mother relayed the story, Sita was incensed.

“Well Mom, what did you do? Did you go and tell off Mrs. Wilson for being mean and cruel to a CHILD?”

“I mean, remember when we first moved to California and Matt Grindon kept calling me an Iranian and saying that we were responsible for the hostage crisis and should get out of town?”

Sita took a long breath and continued, “as I recall, Dad went over and talked to his father so the next day Mark came, apologized and told me that he knew that Iranians and Indians were different and that what he had said was bad.”

Sita looked sharply at her mother and asked, “what was the difference between the situation with Mark and the one with the Wilson’s?”
“So much honey,” her mom replied, “your dad and I talked and decided that the best thing to do would be to say nothing but never acknowledge those people and whenever it snowed hard to drive you to school.”

Sita was silent.

Her mother took the silence as a reply and continued, “the situation with Mark was dealing with a child’s perceptions and the bus stop incident was a problem with adults.” “You see, you cannot reason with those types of actions, so you must just be the greater soul and learn from it,” she concluded gently.

Sita was infuriated. Her parents could be so passive at times! Her mom smiled at her anger and walked out of her bedroom only to emerge a few minutes later with two books, one was Gandhi’s autobiography and the other, that of Martin Luther King Jr.

“These are two people who dealt with tremendous adversity with what you would call passivity,” her mom said.
Sita glanced at the books and looked up at her mom, perplexed. “These are REAL issues mom,” she said, “and you bring me books!”

“You would be surprised at how much books can teach you Sita,” her mother replied.

“But mom, how am I supposed to use their example for my daily life? ”

Sita was beginning to feel as though this were a generation gap thing, perhaps her mom just didn’t get it, after all she was raised in India where everyone was just like her, maybe she never had to deal with the types of situations that Sita frequently found herself in.
She thought of another example to help her mother understand, “remember when I was in grade school and all of the kids called me Dexter because I had straight A’s? You told me to say that I was proud to be a Dexter and that way I would be ABOVE the teasing. It didn’t work.” Sita looked at her mother pointedly.

“It never seems to work Sita,” said her mom, “but it does, it works here,” and she pointed to her heart.

The conversation went on for hours over tea and cookies and the topic would arise many more times in different ways, in Sita’s life. She would read those books again and again until tattered and worn they sat like old friends on her bookshelf. Sometimes she would pray to Lord Krishna and ask for understanding, other times she would feel very alone in the world. As she grew older she began to understand the power of silence and the nature of people. Some are good, some are bad, and some just won’t let you stand on their porch in a blizzard. You just have to choose your battles, and your silence.

The Nose Pierce

In 1998 I got my tongue pierced. Yes, my tongue. The short, sad, story is documented in an article that was published in the San Jose Mercury News – you are going to have to take my word for it, because that was many computers ago, and before the internet started saving everything. Suffice it to say, the article, which the Merc paid me $100 for, spurred my writing career. It was the clip I used to help get me into the Santa Cruz Science Communication program, and redemption for getting my tongue pierced on a strange whim, and then five days later, pulling the ugly, painful thing out.

That same year, I got my nose pierced. Now, you may say to yourself, “I don’t need to read on, getting your nose pierced is a normal Indian girl thing, plus tons of non-Indians have their noses pierced.” Sure. That sounds about right. But for my Mom, getting my nose pierced was equivalent to telling a mother who lived through the 1960s bra burning period, that I was going back to wearing a corset.

When my mother was young she refused to get her nose pierced. Of course, she never told me this when I was younger, so when I called her and told her happily that I got my nose pierced I was surprised to hear her response, “Oh.” “Oh?” “That’s it Mom?” “I’m so excited, I’ve wanted to have my nose pierced forever, and it feels so glamorous.” Her answer, “OK, great, just make sure it doesn’t get infected.”

Some tiny part of me thought she would be proud for some reason. Even though at the time I was in the midst of getting my doctorate, there was that piece of me that wanted her to be proud that I loved to flaunt my Indian heritage. Especially since one time she came to my home (decorated with Indian knick knacks and tons of little statues of the Gods) and said, “Hmm, I come to my kids’ homes and they are so American, not Indian like my Indian friends.” Wow. That hurt. I was really thinking that my home looked Indian, but again, I wasn’t here nor there. Not Indian enough for Indians, not American enough to be completely American (whatever that is). Later when I asked her about it, she shrugged and said, “I have no idea why I said that, you have an idli maker in your house and more Indian tapestries than many Indians.” After ten years of mulling the initial comment over I almost keeled over. That is Mothers for you.

My nose piercing made me feel beautiful. And it has for almost 20 years now.

But what is it about the penchant for piercing in the hotter climes (Africa, India, Asia) that doesn’t seem to exist in the histories of the colder areas? And why do Indians pierce their noses? Where does the tradition come from?

The tradition it is thought, hails back to the Mughuls that invaded Northern India in the late 1500s. Once I found this out, I realized that I knew very little about the Mughuls themselves, except for what I read in little Amar Chitra Katha comics as a kid (more on those in another story). So to get at the history of the Mughul empire I began reading a lovely series of historical fiction novels that uniquely describes the rise of Babur, the first Mughul emporer in India and goes on to chronicle the rest of his descendants (The Empire of the Mughul series by Alex Rutherford if you are interested).

Babur, who was related to Tamur (A Turkic lord) and Genghis Khan, sought to build an empire, but was thwarted throughout his conquest of the Turkic lands. After the city of Kabul in Afghanistan was passed on to him via the death of his uncle, Babur looked to the rich lands of India to satisfy his lust for power. By the time he died, Babur had conquered much of the Northern portion of India. He kept a meticulous journal which documented his trials and serves as a historical reference.

Now, one of the reasons that we think the Mughuls brought nose piercing to India is because there are no real references to nose piercings in ancient Hindu texts. Once the Hindus took on the cultural ritual, philosophies for its benefits emerged. Piercing on the left nostril alleviated menstrual cramps based on Ayurvedic medicine and its reliance on pressure points. Also, the Goddess Parvathi is thought to be honored by the nose piercing – hence many women were forced to have their noses pierced on their wedding days in a painful process to ensure that their marriage was truly blessed. I did consult my Mother as to the correct side to pierce my nose, in Tamil Nadu, South India it is common to pierce the right side, while in Maharastra women pierce the left side. But these too can be inconsistent, as my cousin has her nose pierced on the left, and mine is on the right (both of us are from the same area of India originally).  I do know that my Mother felt that a nose pierce symbolized “ownership” and she was a tough cookie, not to be owned by anyone, least of all my sweet father. So, she refused to have it done.

The mukkuti (as it is called in South India) is commonly shaped in a mango pattern- I would like one of these, but probably have to wait until my next trip to India, for now I wear a simple diamond stud. Mukkuti literally means nose pierce. While most Southern Indians traditionally wear a stud that has many diamonds on it (my grandmother had one with at least 7) rings are often only worn for weddings. Northern Indians (Punjabis etc..,) however, more commonly wear rings.

I remember when I got my nose pierced back in 1998, I was in graduate school, and I asked my advisor if he thought that people would judge me as odd because I had a facial piercing, when I applied for postdoctoral positions and/or jobs. He looked at me like I was crazy, shook his head, and said, “no”. Of course, his experience with piercings stemmed from his postdoctoral advisor Andrew Murray, who, along with being one of the geniuses in Cell Cycle research, was also at one time one of the MOST pierced people I ever met. So of course one little nose ring on an Indian woman would never be a problem.

Interestingly, more than ten years later, while working at my current institution, I was photographed for a flyer advertising the school. For years, the flyer sat on my bulletin board on my desk and I often would look at it and wonder why the picture did not look quite like me. One day a student came in and said, “Why does your nose look different in the picture?” It turns out that the photographer had photoshopped out my nose ring. One of my colleagues was incensed. But it didn’t quite bother me, I felt that perhaps that photographer just wasn’t enlightened enough to understand the significance of a nose ring on an Indian professor. Or it just may not have photographed well and he took it out to maintain the integrity of the picture. Who knows?

Nowadays my little daughter loves to touch my nose ring and ask, “What is that for Mommy?” I tell her it’s for beauty and signifies my Indian-ness. She then asks when she can get her cute little nose pierced. Whenever she wants is my answer. Pressure points, custom, and desire are all perfectly good reasons to get a piercing in my book, besides, if you don’t like it, you can just take it out (like my sister in law did long ago-you can’t even tell that she once had it pierced). My son has his ear pierced, and was the first boy in his elementary school to do so. Self expression is a beautiful thing.

To me the nose pierce is just another way to signify my culture. And to feel beautiful. I think my Mother has forgiven me. Besides since that time I’ve broken some other major cultural barriers by getting my belly button pierced and marrying a vele kara (white guy), so a tiny stud in my nose is probably the smallest of transgressions.

Post script: I know I did not yet answer question #1 that I asked above: “what is it about the penchant for piercing in the hotter climes (Africa, India, Asia) that doesn’t seem to exist in the histories of the colder areas?” That will take a bit more research… so stay tuned!