November 23, 1980. I am in labor. A midwife attends me at my home. The pain is greater than anything I could have imagined.
“Is it close?” I ask.
The midwife nods. She’s a Mormon hippie, and she’s smiling.
“Hurry,” I moan.
“Oh no,” says the midwife. “There’s nothing to hurry.”
“I think it’s a girl,” she says. “I can’t say for sure, but I can feel her spirit. It’s a sweet, tinkly spirit. Yes, I think you’re having a girl.”
“I can’t do this.”
“Margaret, your baby is almost here. Give me your hand.”
I do, and she guides it to my baby’s tiny fingers, almost born.
“Say hello to your baby.”
“Hello, Baby,” I whisper.
“Can you feel her hand?”
“She’s holding my finger.”
“You can do this,” the midwife says. “It’s your daughter.”
And I do. A few more pushes—each harder than the last, the final one excruciating—and my daughter is born. My pain is instantly over. My daughter is taking in her first air and wailing.
We’ve tape recorded the birth for my parents, who are in China. My dad tells me later that he burst into tears when he heard his first grandchild cry.
There is another recording of a little girl. Me. I’ve heard it only once. I am four years old, and my dad—so young—is asking what I want Santa to bring me. “Dolly,” I say. I’m sure I got a doll that Christmas. I can smell the new plastic as I try to remember. It would have been one of many dolls I got for Christmas. When I announced to Dad at age nine that I was over dolls, he said, “Well, you’re growing up! I’m proud of you.”
He believed in me. That was his greatest gift. When I was in my early twenties and convinced that I needed to leave home, he gave me a father’s blessing hours before I got on the train. He set his hands on my head—the same hands that had held me before my memories began. He wept as he spoke. I had never seen him weep until that day. It was an amazing thing, that my father would weep because I was leaving, that he loved me so much.
When he saw me as a bride, he said my name as though he had never said it before, as though he were seeing me for the first time. “Margaret!” He made it sound like something God could say to create light.
When he saw my daughter as a bride—this same daughter whose fingers I touched before her birth—he had a similar look. She was revealed in glory, and he was astounded.
There are permanent bruises on his left hand and forearm now. The veins in his arm have been conjoined to accommodate dialysis. For five years, a machine has been cleaning his blood three times a week. At first, the hardest part for him was that he couldn’t travel. His last visit to China was six years ago. He loved China. He loved learning languages and crossing through walls on sound waves—words. Even during dialysis, he worked on Chinese materials with my brother.
The hardest part now doesn’t involve travel. It’s that he is so tired.
Yet there is a blessing: Time. When I sit with him at dialysis, I have him all to myself for hours, if I want. I tell him my secrets—my disappointments and yearnings. I hold his hand.
Sometimes he tells me his secrets, too. “I wish I had been better to my mother,” he said a month ago. “I was so selfish. I wish I could tell her how much I love her.”
“You’ll be able to. But she already knows,” I answered. “And she’s so proud of you.”
I help Dad move with his walker when dialysis is over. He broke his femur last month, so walking is slow. One foot, the walker scooted forward, then the other foot, dragged. We stop frequently to let him rest, and I hold on tight. One of my arms is crooked around his elbow; the other holds him firmly around his waist. I say, “Aren’t you glad you put me on swim teams? I’m a swimmer, Dad. Major muscles. I’ll catch you if you fall.”
“I’m going to walk again,” he said to me last week. “I’m going to get well.”
I said, “Of course you are, Dad.”
Who will come for him? His mother? Arms outstretched, pronouncing his childhood name as though it could make light: “Bobby!”