Love Song: an Excerpt from The Song Poet

by Kao Kalia Yang

I learned how to sing love songs long before I learned how to love. I knew the love of a mother, of brothers and sisters, and the continual turns that good friends take through years of being together. When I married Chue Moua I was bathed in a torrent of desire to love and be loved by her. Throughout our nearly thirty-seven years of marriage, I have told her many times of my love for her, but I have never spoken of the moments in which love bloomed in my heart.

I sang songs of finding love, of losing love, of loving through the ages, of loving through different lifetimes. I have been unable to sing the one song of how love found me, how love never lost hope in me, of how love taught me to grow up, and how love is helping me grow old, Chue.

This much, you know. I’ve yet to tell you all the things that you don’t know.

When we were young, it was the narrowness of your waist, the rise of your breast, the smooth strands of your long, black hair, the clean curve of your cheek, the gentle turn of your head, the feel of your small, soft hand in my own that pulled me, one day at a time, toward the possibility of us. This much, you know. I’ve yet to tell you all the things that you don’t know.

***

I loved you when the Pathet Lao soldiers came into the jungles of Laos with their guns and their shouts, their threats and their warnings. We had been married for just six months. To save the women and children, the men had to run. We couldn’t afford open gunfire. There was no time for goodbye in the hustle to part. You and I stood beside a stand of bamboo trees. The wind blew through the fine leaves. We stood beside each other, holding hands beside a big bamboo truck. You were carrying my child in your belly. You were wearing my one spare shirt. You would not let go of my hand even as the sound of the soldiers approached us from all sides.

You would not let go of my hand even as the sound of the soldiers approached us from all sides.

I loved you when I pulled my hand free and saw the look of hurt on your face, to be replaced by fear because the soldiers had discovered we were there. I will never forget running away from you into the jungle after my brothers, leaving you behind with my mother and my sisters-in-law and their children, and those soldiers running toward you with their guns high in their hands. You looked young. You looked lost. You looked so brave. You placed both your hands on top of your belly, spread your fingers wide to protect our child; and you watched me run for a moment, and then you turned toward the soldiers and you faced them.

I loved you when I found you again, thin and pale, with our child strapped to your chest, your hand curved around the small globe of her dark hair, supporting the fragile neck. When I stood in the mouth of that mountain cave and I took our child into my arms for the first time, unburdened you from the weight of her during the months of your captivity, I felt her warmth and smelled her breath against my cheek, felt softness I had never known, and held something I could never own, I knew I loved you. You, who had carried her so far, to share her with me. You had given her a name to live by, Dawb. Her name was the color of white in our language, white like the clouds on the mountaintops or the flowers that perfumed the air in the cool months of the New Year.

I loved you when I heard you cry in the middle of the Mekong River because the silver necklace your mother had given you had slipped from your neck and you could not free your arms from our child to grab it in the strong current. I heard you cry on the banks of the Mekong River with the baby in your arms. In the months it took to get to the river, she had turned from a chubby baby into a small burlap sack of skin and bones. In the crossing of the river, her head had fallen beneath the surface of the water. She had stopped breathing. Her arms and legs dangled limply from her small, bloated belly. You clutched her close to your body, you rocked on your heels, and you stared not at the dawn or the new world around us but at the world in your hands. I watched your chest rise and fall, and your heart hammer in your throat, as you breathed life into our child, one breath at a time, your body swaying with the weight of a war lost, a country left behind, the future at its end.

I watched your chest rise and fall, and your heart hammer in your throat, as you breathed life into our child…

I loved you during our first night in Thailand, sitting beneath the United Nations compound, our child strapped to your chest, when I heard you whisper, “When we get to the refugee camp, I want papaya salad. I want the taste of spicy and sweet, of sour and bitter in my mouth. I want papaya salad when we get to the camp. I want the taste on my tongue.” I saw you shaking with hunger. I watched as your thin frame bent over our baby, our baby who hung on to life only because you refused to let her go. Your breast was infected and you were so thin, you had no milk for the baby. You extended your hand out of the shed overhang, your fragile wrist white and delicate, the thin blue vein throbbing with the beat of your heart, so you could catch the rain drizzle. You dipped your wet fingers into the mouth of our little baby, again and again, the long night through.

I loved you when we walked into Ban Vinai Refugee Camp and all you owned was the sarong around your waist, the torn shirt on your body. You walked with a limp because your little feet were so badly torn. The infection in your breast hadn’t gone away. You couldn’t hold the baby close to your breast because of the pain. You held our little baby strapped to your back. Your hair was swept away from your face, tied back. Your spine was straight. You held your chin parallel to the ground, the way I will always remember you in our weakest moments. Your eyes were trained ahead even as mine swerved to look behind, tried to find the mountains that had been our home, the country across the river, the family you left behind so you could be with me and mine.

You held your chin parallel to the ground, the way I will always remember you in our weakest moments.

I loved you when we had our second daughter, Kalia, in Ban Vinai Refugee Camp and you were scared of her because the night of her birth she cried each time one of us made a move to turn off the precious oil lamp. You were so exhausted, your head against the shirt we used as a pillow, but you looked at her the whole time, the small bundle of red and white in your arms. I couldn’t sleep the night through because our older daughter, Dawb, was only a year and nine months old and she had never been separated from your warm embrace in the dark of night. I remember her reaching for my breast, pulling at my nipple, on the brink of sleep, whimpering. I saw you looking at me as I offered her my breast, a poor substitution for yours, and allowed her time to suckle, held her in my arms so that she could find sleep in a night that offered no rest.

I loved you when you had your first miscarriage. We were so excited about the pregnancy, about the possibility of a son. You woke up in the early morning. You left the door open so the dawn could stream in on us. I was holding the girls close against the morning chill. You were on your way to the garden, to till the rows of green onions you had nurtured in the dry, hard soil. You wanted to haul water from the well so you could water the few rows of cilantro before the hot sun grew strong. You were four months pregnant. Instead of getting up and going with you, or telling you to stay with the girls while I attended to the chore on my own, I allowed my eyes to grow heavy and the warm breath of our daughters to lure me to sleep. I can still hear the screams of the women, the sisters-in-law, each in turn, as they called out to me to run fast. You were at the garden. You said you felt cramps. You were on your way to the toilet sheds when you fell. Blood seeped through your sarong and pooled in the uneven earth. You cried for help. You reached for the women who ran toward you. Your first words were for me.

I can still hear the screams of the women, the sisters-in-law, each in turn, as they called out to me to run fast.

I loved you during the second miscarriage. I heard you poke me in the night, and the shortness in your breath as you whispered, “The bleeding won’t stop.” I felt the thick wetness of warm blood between us. The girls slept their deep sleep by the wall. You said, “I don’t want to die on the bed with my girls.” Your voice broke. I grappled in the dark for you. I felt the tremor in my legs as I lifted you up from the bed. Your head went limp on my shoulder. I started screaming for help. Voices from the sleeping quarters around us: “What’s wrong? What’s happening, Bee?” Footsteps rushing our way. The door into our room rammed against the split bamboo wall as lanterns were raised. I saw you in my arms, your pale face, your eyes closed. I heard your labored breathing. I heard my mother say, “Bee, you are covered in blood.” My heart jerked, and I ran with you to the water wagon. I pushed you the distance to the camp hospital. I stumbled on rocks I couldn’t see. I lifted the wagon across the sewage canal, and my heart was hammering so hard against my chest, all I felt was its beat, not the water, the waste, the cold of both in the night.

I loved you during the third miscarriage when I stood beside you on the single bamboo bed and watched as the doctor and nurses circled us. I was helpless as I saw you wince in pain when the needle went into your arm. The nurses struggled to find your small veins. The doctor yelled, “She needs an IV. Now!” Your gaze was trained on the bedpan on the tray. Our baby was laid on the cool metal, on his side, six inches long, eyes closed, mouth open slightly, thin arms and legs, little red fingers and toes. You looked without blinking. I wanted to put my hands over your eyes, to block what you were seeing, to stop the gasps that you expelled. Your eyes did not blink and your gaze did not waver until one of the nurses noticed and took the baby away. You blinked. You blinked again as if you were in a dream, waking up for the first time. You turned toward me, you raised your hand a little, but it fell back on the bed. I saw your hands fisted tight, your knuckles white against the hospital sheet.

Our baby was laid on the cool metal, on his side, six inches long, eyes closed, mouth open slightly, thin arms and legs, little red fingers and toes.

I loved you during our fourth miscarriage when I helped you home along the dirt road, your light weight against mine, your feet directionless, your eyes on my face, and the words you kept on saying: “I’m so sorry, Bee. I know how much you wanted this baby. I tried to be so careful. No matter what I did, I felt the baby slipping away. I tried not to open my legs. I tried not to squat. I tried everything, Bee. I’m so, so sorry.” All I wanted you to do was be quiet. All I wanted you to do was stop apologizing to me for the pain you just went through. All I wanted was to be the person for you to rest on, to trust to lead you home again.

I loved you during our fifth miscarriage when the little baby was the size of a Coke bottle, its head round and pink, and you kept on screaming and screaming, and crying like you had never done before, deep from your belly, bellows up to the sky. I tried to hold you still but you fought me, in your wash of blood, you struggled away from my arms, moved toward the corner, put your knees up, and put your arms around your knees, shaking so hard. You would get tired, and when I thought you’d given up, you’d start again until your voice grew raspy and your screams were just muscles of the mouth and throat moving. I told you then, “We stop trying. This is our last time. I don’t want you to have to go through this again. We have two girls. We will be fine.” I told you, again and again, “This is our last time” — until my voice grew hoarse and I lost the energy for words.

I loved you during our sixth miscarriage when we thought it would be our last, and all I could do was bury my head in my hands and cry by your side at the camp hospital.

I loved you during our sixth miscarriage when we thought it would be our last, and all I could do was bury my head in my hands and cry by your side at the camp hospital. I heard the scream of a mother in pain and then the cries of her baby being born. All I wanted you to do was reach your hand for mine, but your hands were cold and they held your belly, and your eyes looked up at the ceiling fan, and the only reason I knew you were in the room was because streams of liquid flowed down either side of your cheeks. It was you, then, who said, “This is our last time, Bee. I’m not going to try again. I can’t make it through this again.”

I loved you in the early morning when you got up to stoke the embers from the night fire, blow into the red lines in the burnt wood, and wave your hand in front of your face to ward off the smoke.

I loved you late at night when the sound of the crickets grew fierce and unafraid, and we could hear the scurrying of mice along the floor, but your head was on my shoulder, your hand was on my heart, and the smell of your green Parrot soap wafted up to my nose and invited me to play in a garden of fresh flowers lush with rain, to swim in streams warmed by the day’s hot sun.

I loved you when you set aside the thigh of a chicken for my mother at dinner, spooned the softest part of the rice from the metal pot onto her plate, and made sure she had a bowl of broth by her side to help her swallow down the food we shared.

I loved you when you bathed our girls at the small well on our side of the camp. You hauled buckets of cold water up from the dark depths. You told the girls to close their eyes. You poured the water over their heads. You used your hands to create suds from our soap. You washed their hair, made them giggle with the tickle of your soft hands on their scalps. Your gentle hands ran over their arms and legs, brushed the expanse of their bare backs, slapped at their bottoms. You washed inside their ears, under their necks, in their armpits, everywhere, the crooks of elbows and knees, in between fingers and toes. You held the bowl of water high over their heads and you created a fountain of love for their growth.

I loved you when you refused to let me sleep so that we could talk about a journey to America.

I loved you when you refused to let me sleep so that we could talk about a journey to America. I told you that my mother wanted us to stay together in Thailand, that losing Shong in the jungles of Laos was too much already, that we couldn’t lose each other in a journey to a country whose language we didn’t speak, whose people we didn’t know, whose work we probably wouldn’t be qualified to do. But you just kept on shaking your head; you said if we left, then so would the others and eventually my mother would have to agree. You said what happened to Shong was a consequence of war, and that we would lose our children to poverty and a life of fear if we didn’t take this chance with our fate. You said we were young, still, and that in America even if we never mastered the language, we would learn enough to survive. You said if we never got good jobs in America, at least we could get jobs that allowed us a chance to educate and raise our children so they might one day find good work. You said so many things that when I closed my eyes and my breathing evened out, your words led me into dream worlds where you and I ventured far and grew brave and fearless, we went to a place where buildings shone and walkways were paved, lived a life where there was food on the table the long week through and cars to drive whole families from one place to the next.

I loved you when you did not cry as we boarded the orange bus for America. You sat straight in the seat and you held Dawb in your arms, and when you looked at me there was no fear in your gaze, only a determined focus on the future. You showed me in that moment the heart and the hope that allowed you to walk away from your own mother to be with me, the courage that I lacked but have always loved.

I loved you when we arrived in Phanat Nikhom Transition Camp to America to find ourselves encircled by barbed wire fences taller than grown men, beneath watchtowers guarded by men with guns. You held the hands of our daughters and stood by my side as we both turned toward the gray peaks far away and breathed our last breath of captivity in a country that could never be ours. Late at night, on the hard cement floor with just a cloth spread on the ground to buffer the cold, we slept with our girls between us. The cloth walls that separated our sleeping compartment from other families’ billowed in the night wind. The open entryway beckoned our eyes to the stars in the black distance. Our feet touched in the night and I felt the cool softness of your skin. I knew we would walk from this long night together.

Our feet touched in the night and I felt the cool softness of your skin. I knew we would walk from this long night together.

I loved you during the hot, endless days of preparing for life in America in classrooms of people our age, men and women, with hands covering mouths, practicing American words slowly with stiff tongues: “Hello. How are you? I am fine. Thank you. Goodbye.” We said the words again and again to ourselves before taking away our hands and slowly repeating the words to each other. Your eyes glittered with fearless mirth as you said the words while I struggled to find the laughter in our situation.

I loved you on the plane to America when your new shirt from Thailand began soaking up the blood of our youngest, Kalia. She leaned into you on the seat, across the hand rest that separated you two. Her head rested against your side, the tail of your shirt clutched in her hands, as she wiped at the blood that dribbled from her nose. I took her from you so you could rest. In my arms, her eyes grew heavy with sleep. The red on your shirt dried to the color of rust, and in the dark chamber of our flight across the heavens I watched your fingers scratch at the dried blood, trying futilely to remove the stain. I watched you hide the stain in the fold of your fingers.

I loved you when we stood up on the bridge, overlooking Highway 94, side by side, in our American clothes. We wore jeans from the thrift store. We had on sweaters whose sleeves bunched at our wrists. The church basement jackets were too big and too long. We stood without words, looking at the cars that rushed below on the fast highway. The sky was a layering of dark clouds. The rain drizzled lightly. Half the trees that rose high from the walls on either side of the highway were bare without leaves, arms reaching hungrily toward the gray. The other half carried brightly colored leaves in yellow, orange, crispy brown, shades of pink, some of them still clinging to the last of the summer green, all a sharp contrast against the day. A brisk breeze blew. We had no words for each other or our new lives. You kept both your hands in your pockets. Strands of your long hair flew across your face, and I knew you would cut it soon, and I could not ask you to stand young beside me for longer than I could stand young beside you. We knew we would age in America.

I could not ask you to stand young beside me for longer than I could stand young beside you. We knew we would age in America.

I loved you when you asked me, “When are we going to get a washing machine now that we are in America?” I hadn’t expected the question. We’d walked through Sears and I had seen you touch the tops of the washing machines with their matching dryers. I had seen you flip price tags and look at numbers. I hadn’t expected you to ask me that question in the car. The children were loud. They grew quiet. I tried to focus on the road but everything was blurry for a moment. My throat grew tight. Words were hard. All I could do was swallow my hurt and my pride and tell you what you already knew to be true: “I am sorry I cannot get you a washing machine, even now that we are in America.”

I loved you when you were pregnant with our little boy, Xue. Your stomach hadn’t been growing much. You had been bleeding. You felt pain. I couldn’t believe we would have a baby and I chose not to believe it even after the ultrasound. I loved you when you gave birth to Xue. I couldn’t believe he would be in our life until the moment he cried up at me, his head all bruised from the vacuum, his little face suffused with purple. His hands were in fists and he punched up at my unbelieving eyes. He was angry because I had not dared to accept him as part of my reality. He was angry because the journey to us was so long. The look in his brown eyes, so fierce and focused, worried me. For the first time, I wondered if I could be a good father to a son. I felt my own reservation and fear in the wrestling of his fist against my hold, the soft fragility of fingers I wanted to fold into my own. I looked at you, exhausted, hair mussed, eyes closed, sinking into the hospital’s pillows, and I knew you would leave this for me to figure out, my son and my relationship, leave it to our own making. Your trust in me then and now scares and reassures me.

For the first time, I wondered if I could be a good father to a son.

I loved you all those years we worked every hour we could to feed our children and clothe them and the young ones kept on coming, and our hearts were full of love but our heads hurt trying to work around budgets that never balanced. I loved you on the cold dawns when we dropped off the younger children at my brother Chue’s house. We scurried in the dark, up their icy walkway, tinkered with the lock — all in the shadows of night. We sat the children down and took off their jackets and snowsuits. We turned on the television set and placed them in front of the flickering screen. We propped bottles nearby. We watched Xue hold Hlub as Hlub sat close to sleeping Shell, as they waited for their cousins to awaken into the day, for their aunt and their uncle to gather them close in the morning light. Each day you whispered to the children that it was your last day of work, of leaving them. I had to nudge your arm to get you to move. I had to be the one to open and close the old brown door. I had to watch as the Minnesota cold stung your eyes and its icy wind bit into your face, as you tried not to cry for the three little ones and yourself. Each and every day, those long years through, feeling but unable to do a thing to alleviate or help the sorrow that grew and grew inside of you for the time you could not give the children, the gift you could not give yourself, my love for you grew.

I loved you when you said we couldn’t get up at three in the morning anymore to go to work away from our youngest children, and you wanted me to change jobs, to get work that would allow me to take care of the children during the day. I wanted to tell you that we were assemblers who did not speak much English in this country. I wanted to ask you who would drive you to work in the mornings and back home again when the shift is through. We only had one car. You were afraid of cars. I wanted to tell you that I was scared to go looking for a job and come home without one. I wanted to tell you that I was scared to go to work without you in the same place with me. Who was going to help you move the heavy boxes of machine parts to the stacks when you’d filled them? What if something went wrong in the factory? Who would hold your hand and run with you outside? How would I ever work in this country, raise the children, without knowing that you were beside me? You were the only reason I felt we had a chance going forward as a family and you were asking us to part our days for our children. I loved them too much to speak to you of my fears, so I said I would look for a job, even at lesser pay, on a different shift, so that I could take care of the children, and we wouldn’t have to part with them each morning for work before the light of the sun could comfort them from the dark.

I wanted to tell you that I was scared to go looking for a job and come home without one.

I loved you through all the years when we couldn’t be together because we worked different shifts in different places. Each day, you continued our old routine. You woke up at three in the morning. You brushed your teeth, cooked food, and then dressed. You pulled the front door behind you and the key turned in the lock by four. By five you were at Phillips & Temro Industries in Eden Prairie. I took care of the children until you got home at two in the afternoon. My shift at the new company started at three. We had the minutes in between to say hello and goodbye. I didn’t get home until midnight. The only light in the house that was on each night I came home was in the kitchen. The small, moldy house was fogged up by winter and our efforts to stay warm. The house was quiet because you and the younger children were already asleep. The older girls looked up from their homework at the small dining table, called out greetings, made an effort to get up and come give me hugs, but I always thought about their safety first, I always told them not to come close. I was working as a polisher in a machine factory and I didn’t want the residue of the chemicals and steel particles I worked with to get on them. I knew that it could cause cancer. I said, “After I shower, I’ll give you hugs.” Each night, I showered and then I kissed my older girls good night, and then I made my way to our room, where I clung to my edge of the mattress, the three younger ones in between us, their even breathing my song in the night. Rest never came until you woke at up at three again, and I could scoot the children over, closer to your vacant place by the wall, and sleep on my back.

In those years, it was only in my dreams that we were together.

In those years, it was only in my dreams that we were together. There, you reached out to me and you held my hand across the heads of our children. There, you spoke softly and asked me how I was doing with my new work. There, you held me close and told me that I was doing a good job right alongside you, but our life wasn’t like my dreams. I never asked you what your dreams were. I was scared of them, as you were of mine. On the weekends, we were shy and angry, tired and exhausted, too happy only to be with the children, unsure of how to be with each other, our voices colliding, crashing, silencing, pleading on the weekends when we shared the same house, the same children, the same life.

I loved you when you said we had to move because our little girl Taylor had gotten lead poisoning in the small, moldy house, and there was no room to breathe. You pushed the air from my chest with your fervor and your fearlessness. Financially, nothing added up. We were barely making ends meet. The house we lived in we bought for $36,500. We were on a thirty-year mortgage. You said we had been in America for sixteen years. You said we had lived in the McDonough Housing Project, in a haunted Section 8 house, in a two-bedroom apartment, and in this rotten house for eight long years. You said you wanted more than nine hundred square feet. You wanted more than one bathroom. You wanted more than two and a half bedrooms. You wanted more for your six children and yourself. You wanted more for me. I looked at you, chest heaving, your short hair touched by gray, and for the first time since we came to America, I saw what our life here had done to you.

I looked at you, chest heaving, your short hair touched by gray, and for the first time since we came to America, I saw what our life here had done to you.

I saw your trembling hands, hurt by carpal tunnel. I saw the turn of your head, ear angled toward me, your loss of hearing because of the loud machines. I saw the heavy curve of your shoulders, once clean lines of flesh and bone, muscled and toned. I saw the force of poverty that pulled you down, the gravity that sucked you close to the ground. I saw you trying to rise up in life, one more time, perhaps the last time. I worried about you, and I said, “I want a house like the one you want. I want a house with a big yard where my children can run and I can have chickens.” Then, we began smiling, tight at first, rigid with fear, and then we began laughing, crazy and loud, and the children noticed, and the young ones danced around us in joy and celebration. But they said, “We don’t want to move. We love this house. We want to stay here.” We turned to each other, perplexed by their love of a house that had destroyed so much of our health, and we called in our crazy laughter and reined in our fear, and we said, “We are moving to a better place where we can be together more often. We don’t know how we are going to do it, but we will figure it out as it is being done.”

I loved you in 2003. In 2003, our oldest daughter was at Hamline School of Law. In 2003, our second oldest graduated from Carleton College and was on her way to Columbia University in New York City. In 2003, my mother died.

In 2003, I realized you stood with our children in the place my mother had stood with me. She was alone in the fight to feed and clothe us. I started worrying that I had left you alone for stretches of the fight, that you alone had been the engine for the journeys of our family ship, as my mother had been in a life without a husband to help.

In 2003, I lost all the songs inside me because I had not written them down, and when my mother died, my heart grew weak and could no longer hold the songs intact.

In 2003, I lost all the songs inside me because I had not written them down, and when my mother died, my heart grew weak and could no longer hold the songs intact. For the first time in my life, I had become an orphan, this person I had always felt I was but had never really been. I looked at our children and you and I knew that even without me, you would raise them to adulthood.

In 2003, I realized what I had done to your life. I married you when you were only sixteen years old. I took you far away from your family. You never saw your own mother die. You had been an orphan for a long, long time. As we buried my mother in the frozen earth, all I could feel was the empty space inside where once my songs had been. My mother had told me to bow down toward the rising sun on the morning of her burial. She said what I needed would come. My mother died on February 18, 2003.

On November 26, 2003, nine months after my mother died, you gave birth to Max, a little boy with an American name, a little boy I didn’t think we could handle and had said maybe we should consider not having, a little boy who looked up at me with almond eyes, who smiled my smile. Max was a surprise. Nearly nine years after our youngest daughter had been born, long after we said we were done having children, long after I had tried my hand at being a father to a son and was beginning to feel I had failed, out of the blue, cloudless sky a little boy traveled into our life on the wings of my mother’s death.

In 2003, I realized I had never written you a love song.

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