After a week in the hospital—a week of taking the elevator to the eighth floor, a week of listening to machines beeping, a week of eating packaged Corn Nuts from the cafeteria—it starts to feel like our son is never coming home. I know this isn’t true. The nurses tell me it isn’t true. He just needs a bit more time. He’s doing great, they say; his little lungs just need to grow. I spend the days reminding myself of this, like a mantra.
On what is supposed to be our son’s discharge day, the doctor runs some tests. Then he brings us over to his desk, swivels his computer screen, and points to some numbers. “He still needs more time,” the doctor says. The room gets smaller and smaller. My hands crawl through my scalp and I begin to yank at my hair until I finally crumble into a crying mess. A nurse hands me a tissue that disintegrates into my fist, and I excuse myself because my behavior is frightening everyone. Up until this point, I’ve only been optimistic, cracking jokes. But my optimism has reached a boiling point. The numbers make sense. They’re logical. It’s logical to keep him here. But there’s logic and then there’s feeling, and despite all logic, it feels like we’re stuck here. Even then, I knew there would be a part of myself that would always be trapped in that room.
“How is he?” my mom asks over the phone one morning. My husband and I are in the NICU just before the sun is up. This is the easy part of the day. It’s the evenings, when we go home and leave him here, that are starting to destroy me. He’s great, I whisper, trying not to wake him up, even though the nurses tell me he likes the noise. We still don’t know when he’s coming home. I keep the part about breaking down in front of the doctor to myself. Instead, I say, “He’s growing.” “Hang in there,” my mom says. “And send me some pictures!”
I mention that I’ve been trying to sing to him. I bring it up casually, like I’m telling her about the latest season of Succession. Just a little small talk. Then, I go for it: “Do you remember the song we used to sing together? ‘Pang yau loy ba, pang yau loy ba,’” I sing, humming the rest of the melody. “Oh, yeah,” my mother says, “I remember.” Then she sings the next line, jogging her own memory of it. “That’s the one,” I say, still treading carefully. “What’s the rest of it?” I ask. “And what does it mean? Where did it come from?” It wasn’t something she made up, she tells me. “I remember hearing it as a kid, but, you know, I have no idea where it came from.” She sings the next few lines. Friends come, friends come . . . together we gather at the beach. “Tsing san luk seoi.” Green mountains, clear water. “Bak wan, yew yat.” White clouds, a beautiful day. Hearing her sing even these small bits of our song is comforting. I can feel my own heart rate dropping. Even the beeping has softened.As it turns out, I’ve been singing a lot of it all wrong. Some of the lines I remembered were out of place. Some of the words I remembered didn’t exist. The two of us hum it together over the phone. I sing the parts I can recall, and she corrects me and translates what I mean to say. My mom tells me what it all means: It’s a story of a perfect day. I’m brought back to the two of us lying on the floor, staring at the ceiling. Singing and giggling. “Da dum da dum!”Just like there is a part of me that will always be stuck in the hospital room, there is a part of me that will always be four years old, singing on the itchy carpet, nuzzled up against my mother.
We hang up the phone and the sun starts to rise. I open the windows so my son can see the tsing san, the clear mountains. I’m not sure how much newborns can really see, but if nothing else, it makes the room brighter. I sing the lullaby to him the right way. With the right words. There’s no way of knowing if he recognizes any of it, but it’s my way of saying “I love you.” My way of connecting him to my mother and to his Cantonese heritage, however lost it may seem. It’s my way of saying it’s going to be okay. That everything is fine, and though the world is a tough and scary place, he’ll be coming home with us soon and this will all be a blip in our memory, like the doctors keep telling us.
I take a picture of him sleeping in his plastic bassinet. He’s wrapped up like a burrito in a swaddle I’ve brought from home, hoping the smell will comfort him. His eyes are open and curious and full of light. He’s looking right at me. Can he see my face? Does he know I’m his mom? For now, the computers are quiet, and I send the photo to my own mom: “Almost home.”
Kristin Wong is a freelance writer and journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Times, ELLE, Travel + Leisure, and The Cut among other publications. She frequently writes about behavior and identity and is also a staff writer and researcher at Hidden Brain Media, where she contributes to the Hidden Brain podcast and radio show.