Tell us about your pregnancy with Kawa.
I’d fallen pregnant for the first time just the year before. It was by accident and it resulted in a miscarriage at ten weeks. I really mourned the loss of the life that was growing within me, and I was quite shaken up afterwards. It was a defining time for me in understanding that I was innately female and capable of producing life! I fell pregnant with Kawa the month after I quit my last job at Topshop, where I was working as a so-called creative, and decided to devote my time to cultivating my business, Kawaiian Lion.
The pregnancy was full-on to begin with, as I am one of those thrower-upper-er types. Like, a five-to-seven-times-a-day kind of deal. Once the first trimester passed, I did enjoy it very much. I mean, how awesome is it to experience life grow within you and marvel at the intrinsic knowledge your body has to grow a baby without instruction or much doing on my behalf! We got married in Bali while I was five and a half months pregnant, and we spent a month travelling around there as our honeymoon, with Kawa coming along for the ride.
At eight months I decided to go on a Buddhist retreat where you’re not allowed to talk for days. But the women in our group just could not help themselves when they saw me and my big old belly. In the elevator they would sidle up and ask if I was okay, with their concerned eyes, mouthing affectionate words and winking ‘we’ve gotchya back’ looks at me.
How did you pick Kawa’s name?
Kawa. It translates as ‘river’ in Japanese. I lived in Japan in my early twenties, teaching English, and it was one of the first words I learnt there, and it always stuck with me. Everything is named after nature over there, and I really like that. My Chinese name is ‘Kawai’ but it’s largely unused and no one calls me that. So there is a Kawa within my own name. We decided on a botanical theme for her middle name: Kawa Leaf. She really was like a little river leaf. It fitted her s.
I miss calling her name out, and I find myself whispering it to myself and making conversation with her just to hear her name come alive. Since then, we have also learnt about the kawakawa tree in New Zealand, which produces leaves that are shaped like love hearts.
What was it like to become a mother to Kawa?
I never thought I would have babies. I wanted two big puppy dogs. So when it happened I really had no expectations and didn’t fully realise just how much I would enjoy it. I was all like, ‘WHAAAAT, are you serious? You mean, we get to hang out all day long and just chill the coconuts out and cuddle the crap out of each other? This is epic beyond control.’ Kawa and I seriously just indulged in each other and drank each other up from the moment she was born. When I stared into her black doll eyes and held her in my arms, I truly felt like I had never felt a love like this before. Well, not in this lifetime, anyway. There was also an immense feeling of familiarity with her. An unmistakable bond that extended beyond our time here. Often it was as if she just wanted to crawl back inside me and become one again.
Being a mother took my breath (and sleep) away. I adore it. I am such a homebody and have a terrible (or no real) sense of time. So it totally worked.
What did Kawa teach you about yourself?
Kawa taught me about unconditional love. She taught me to nurture, to indulge and celebrate the feminine within. She taught me to be a mama. She taught me to be thankful for your food and to the flowers and the trees. She taught me that everyone is potentially a friend. She taught me that love never dies. She taught me that souls are immortal. She taught me about the goodness of humankind. She taught me about community and the interconnectivity between us all. She continues to teach me still.
She teaches me now that she and those who have passed are still there. They are without form but full of spirit, so to speak. She teaches me that if I sit cross-legged, quiet my mind and shift my focus away from earth-bound thoughts, we can communicate. She teaches me that there is so much in the unseen and unexplained. She teaches me that we are never alone and to have faith—that faith will carry us further than we have ever been before.
Tell us about Kawa. What was she like?
She was a chill baby. So chill. Well, until it came to naps or bedtime. Kawa just was not into sleeping. Ever. She had to be super worn out, like a little puppy. She had full on FOMO and just wanted to be awake to absorb every single moment in space and time. To get her to sleep, Desmond used to use a technique he called the ‘Prancing Pony’. He would cradle her and jolt up and down the hallway with her until she passed out from the movement. He ended up with a battered knee and eventually had to retire the Prancing Pony. I would lie with her for hours sometimes, singing and reading twenty books, and I would pass out from exhaustion with her stroking my face.
Kawa would fall asleep while eating or with food in her hand. She loved food and was always hungry. She would wake up in the middle of the night, screaming “HUNGRRRYYYYYY, MAMA!!” She went to bed with snacks: two dates and a Cruskit, usually, or a slice of cheese.
Some of my fave moments with her were our little jaunts just down to the local supermarket. We would hold hands and chitter-chatter away, stopping to pat puppies and swing from bars. Little do you realise that these are the most precious times, the ones you will miss the most: beeping groceries together in the check-out line, stopping to pick up Banjo bars from the health-food shop, and making that difficult decision of the day—choosing between plain, mint or coconut.
I’m not sure if I had ever seen a child more charming and cheeky: her cheek and charm worked hand in hand with her adorable anime-style face. She really was out of this world. She would smile at strangers and wave and always stop to pat puppies and babies.
Kawa went through a stage of being super pushy. She was only one and a bit when she started just knocking other kids over. She would stand there all cute and then—POW!—they would be down on the ground, eating soil. We had to go home a lot during those months. She really had no fear of other kids. She had this innate confidence and she was a fighter if she had to be: she would stand there with her hands on her hips and stand up to bullies if they were being territorial about the slide. Des would throw her approving looks when he saw her defending herself, and she would beam with pride.
Oh, and she used to interject in our arguments. When Des and I were in a heated discussion—with exclamation marks—she would stand between us with her hands on her hips and be all like, “Mama! You have to say sorry to Dada. And Dada, you have to say sorry to Mama.” Des and I would stand there, all sheepish, and then on three we would apologise to each other under her watchful eye. She would always smile and nod and then grant us permission to cuddle it out.
What were her passions?
Art. Sculpture. Drawing. Kawa would make these funny little sculptures out of toilet rolls, masking tape, bits of string and any other paraphernalia she could find. She also loved to create buildings and cities out of blocks, and she would come up with the wildest names for the villages and towns. They always sounded like they were from another time or even galaxy. She loved naming things—dolls, teddies, flowers, what have you—and they were very astute and always fitting. She was really into personal styling. From the age of two onwards she would not let me pick her outfits, much to my dismay. She would flat-lay her clothes before she put them on and assemble the most random outfits that mixed up vintage and pieces from friends’ kids who wore labels.
What did she think when baby Rafa came along?
Even before she was born, Kawa was obsessed with her baby sister. We nicknamed her ‘Mui Mui’ (‘little sister’ in Cantonese) and referred to her as that while she was in the belly and after she was born. Siblings meeting for the first time is an unforgettable experience. Kawa had waited so long and patiently for her little sister to arrive; she adored her. She would hug and squeeze her so hard. She would try to pick her up and drag her off all the time! It was a super-intense, crazy big-sister love.
I spent one night in hospital with Rafa before we went home. That night, Des said that Kawa wailed, “MAMA! MUI MUI! MAMA! MUI MUI,” for hours and hours before she passed out from sheer exhaustion. We were all so tight immediately, and excruciatingly so. Seriously, this trio of girls. I’d never been one to hang out with ‘the girls’ exclusively or have a tight gang of girlfriends; our friends are like odd-bod gems we’ve picked up along the way. So to experience this first-hand—the intense pride and elation from having my own girl gang …
Kawa thought Rafa was this little live dolly she could lug around anywhere. You would turn your back for a moment and she would be carrying her across the room or placing toys on her head. She was a fiercely proud sister and would introduce her to everyone. She seriously adored her but also could not quite comprehend why baby Rafa had taken her spot in the bed. At first, she was outraged: “But why can’t we all sleep together?!?” So we ended up getting a little mattress that Des pulled out every night for Kawa. We all slept together in the same room for pretty much her entire life.
What’s some funny stuff Kawa would say?
Kawa would say the most eye-raising things at times, which belied her years. At the age of two and a half, with an indignant look and hands on her hips, she said to her father, “There’s too many rules, Dada! It’s all just conditions.”
Another time, Kawa and I were at the op-shop and there was a larger lady in front of us, and we had to get around her. As we walked past, Kawa noted, “Woah! This lady is so big!” The lady turned and spoke up, “Yes, I am a big lady. And you better be careful with what you eat or you could end up like me!” We both just stood there, mouths agape in silence, staring up at her while she walked away. From then on, I was like, “Okay, Kawa, it’s not cool to say that aloud, as it can upset people. So when you see a big person, you can just come over to Mama and whisper it in my ear.” She was like, “Okay, Mama!” and nodded with understanding.
Maybe a couple of weeks later, we were walking home from the park and saw a big dude walking towards us. Kawa stops immediately in her tracks, looks over at this dude, turns around, runs over to me and whispers loudly, “Woah, Mama! That guy is REALLY big.” I nod, we nod together in agreement, and we carry on home.
Tell us about your last trip to Bali with Kawa Leaf.
It was one of those trips that just popped up suddenly. My sister was turning forty and we decided to fly over from Perth to surprise her, and we would also pop past Bali so I could combine a visit to my maker and a little family holiday. Kawa had been to Bali three times already, including once while in utero, so she was accustomed to the Balinese ways and adored the people, food and travel. It all unfolded on our last day of the trip, a handful of hours before we were about to fly back home.
Grief is so different for everyone. Can you share your process?
After seven months without my baby girl by my side, I am only now beginning to recognise the cycle of grief. It builds over a few days, for me, and then there is a huge release—an uncontrollable torrent of tears. Our grief counsellor calls it a “grief storm”. And that’s exactly what it is—when it hits, it completely takes over my body and shakes me to the core. My heart feels like it’s about to surge out of my body with ache, and my eyes are wincing and my fists are clenched so tight from the pain that soars through me. It’s like an electrical current of sorrow that just jolts and leaves no part of you untouched.
I have learnt to completely surrender to these grief storms—to give them the time and space to be and to just roll with it. I cry for hours—sometimes for three or four, shaking with the waves of grief coursing through me. By the end, I am rendered useless, my eyes so swollen that I can’t see, and I can barely breathe from the watershed and choking. The day after, I am exhausted beyond belief, but then, little by little, I pick up what is left of my wits and I begin again. When it ebbs away, the pain is not so severe. I never for a moment stop missing her, but after the storm I am able to breathe and get on with things. And you can go, “Fuck. I survived that. And I’m okay. I’m still here.” I laugh all the time and enjoy life very much. I just am also terribly sad. I have learnt that these emotions can be carried and felt simultaneously.
Surrender and acceptance are key. I watch my husband cry every single day. Desmond grinds his coffee beans daily, and Kawa would often help him. She would wrinkle her nose in concentration and use her “big muscles” to turn the handle to grind the beans for her dada. So every morning, while he grinds his coffee beans, tears fall and drop into his coffee as a father recalls his baby girl and their ritual together.
How best can and should people respond to a person’s grief?
Carry it. Take it everywhere you go. And help with the load. Wherever possible, help carry the grief load. I have learnt that grief is universal. It is shared and it ricochets through us all. The mamas of the world have helped me carry this grief. Kawa was not only my baby girl—she was everyone’s child. And we lost an earth child of ours together.
When it all unfolded, I felt like a mama whale who had her little calf taken away. And all the mama whales of the world wailed with me—I could hear them wailing in unison across the seas. You have all shared this loss with me, and I wouldn’t be where I am today without the outstretched wings of love that carried me through. I really felt it—like an invisible buoyancy that kept me here and protected me from any other harm.
I have a wonderful group of friends who all flew into WA from all around the country while we were in hospital with Kawa. They are my A-team. They handled all the practical bullshit: media, food and all the other mundane crap you cannot manage when you are grieving beyond belief. Accept help from all corners and allow loved ones to take care of you.
Also acknowledge the passing of the person when you see them. I think it’s really strange when people think, Oh, I don’t want to upset you or talk about it because you will get sad. It’s like, derr. I’m fucking sad all the fucking time. Nothing will ever replace that. And I love nothing more than talking about my baby girl. I adore talking about Kawa and recalling her perfect fringe and button nose and telling silly stories about her. Not for a moment do I ever want to shut that all away and put it in a box and shove it under the bed.
My Kawa is so alive in my heart, and when we talk about her, we honour her. Don’t ever feel scared to talk about a dead person, because while they are not here walking on Earth within a human body, in your heart and in spirit they are very, very much alive.
What have your learnt through grief?
I have learnt that life goes on. And if you’re still here, you still got a bunch of shit to do. I have learnt that our time here on Earth is finite. I have learnt that if you look within and tap right into your heart, the answers are there. I have learnt that love never dies and that spirit lives on.
I have learnt that miracles do happen but perhaps not in the way we expect them too. Kawa’s heart stopped beating for forty-five minutes and she was brought back to ‘life’ by a doctor who happened to be out surfing next to Desmond in Uluwatu. We thought this was the miracle, and we were able to bring her back home. When we found out that Kawa had lost all brain function, we had the choice to turn off the machine that was keeping her body alive and donate her organs. I could hear her voice in my head, going, “That’s okay, Mama! I don’t need my heart! Here—you take it!” with her arms outstretched, giving her heart away. Literally. Amazingly, her heart, liver and kidneys found matches. All three recipients are currently healthy and all at home healing with Kawa’s organs within them. It blows my mind. I birthed this baby girl with Desmond. She passed on but her heart that we created remained so strong that now it lives within another human being, giving them life force! Kawa saved three human lives and that is a bloody miracle.
What are your thoughts on love?
Love is eternal. It lives on past death. It lives on for lifetimes. I have loved Kawa before, I love her now, and I will continue to love her forever more. I have learnt that love is the only way forward for us as humans. Without love, we cannot possibly move towards a sustainable future as a human race. Without unity and love binding us, we will forever hold ourselves back in hell on Earth.
I have learnt that love is all we have got. All those clichéd lines sung by the Beatles and all those poetic lines uttered by Rumi many thousands of years ago ring true. Without love, shit just ain’t gonna fly.
I have never felt and witnessed as much love in my life as the love that pours out for Kawa. From the day she was born, people just loved her. They would literally say, “Oh, I love her,” when they set eyes on her. She had these big black doll eyes that just drank people up, and they confessed their love for her daily. This little girl just beamed out love like a Care Bear, and the world loved her back. Desmond used to shake his head and roll his eyeballs: “She’s gonna grow up thinking everything is free! Food is free. There are no lines! Everyone is sooooo nice!” And yes, for the entirety of her life, it was indeed that way.
When we paddled out for Kawa, there were a couple of hundred people there—people we knew and people we did not know who joined us on the sand and water. As we all paddled out to sea, the water was glassy and calm. I turned my head to see men and women in Hawaiian shirts and leis with flowers tucked under their surfer wings; others with them clenched in her teeth. We formed two circles with our boards all facing into the middle. A close friend of ours said a prayer and, in the inner circle, we released Kawa’s ashes into the water. Her best boy buddy, five-year-old Aive, sat on the front of his dad’s board and watched with incredulous eyes and awe as we took part in this sacred ritual.
We threw our leis and flowers up in the sky, and we howled and splashed the water so that the tears falling and the sea became one. My heart was bursting, and I knew that every person there felt it—this incredible sense of unity, of community, as brothers and sisters in arms, and we were all there for love. For love of a beautiful little girl who lived every day to the fullest. The outpouring of love enveloped us all, and it was, without a doubt, the most beautiful and heart-bursting day of my life. I felt like my heart was exploding, but now, upon reflection I know it was cracking open.
What are your thoughts on time?
What is time but a human invention? Hey, so have you ever done this? Sit down with your partner and have a very frank chat about how long you guys might live for. I read this article about David Suzuki and he mentioned to the interviewer that he was in the “death zone”, and he says it quite frankly. After reading the article, I said to Desmond, “Look, so you are 42 and I am 36 years old. Let’s say disease and accidents don’t get us—you potentially have forty years of life left in you. And because I am a woman and of Asian descent, I’ve probably got another ten years on you. So I might have fifty. So what do we want to do and accomplish in that time? Where do we want to go or where will we be led? What would we like to expose Rafa to, and what environment will we create for her to be surrounded with? What impact can we make within this human construct of time? Once you’ve had that chat, it’s pretty cool. It makes things very clear: that life is finite and we must make use of this time to do what we are here to do. So quit wasting your time in that shitty job, or hanging out with that meh-dude, and just fucking walk towards that open door.
I figure it’s like this: our human experience is very unique. Our souls are ancient as fuck, but the body we inhabit will only exist once, and the time in which we live will never be again. So while you are stuck inside your body in 2018 with your old soul helping you guide the way, what are you going to do with this time? At most, and if you’re very lucky, you have 100 years to fulfill your destiny—barely a blip in the universal timeline.
I had this moment when I was driving into Freo—the sun really hits you in the eyes when you drive west in the late arvo in Western Australia. I was ninety years old and I was so happy. I was crying. Tears were falling down my face because I knew I would see my Kawa again soon. And when—*blip*—I was back in my mid-thirties body, driving in my car, I was like, FUCK. I still have another fifty bloody years before I will see my baby again. But then my next thought was, Well, that’s okay, because there is plenty to do before then!
Take your time. Give your heart time to tell you which path to follow. But don’t be afraid to fly into action and run when you get a clear road ahead. And once you start running, time flies. When you are doing what you are absolutely meant to be doing, time becomes irrelevant.
What are the small moments where you feel Kawa is with you?
I get this cool air that hits under my chin and I feel like she’s touching me. When I used to cry, Kawa would always come over to me and say, “It’s okay, Mama,” and stroke me under the chin until I felt better. When I drive, I often feel like she’s in the car, riding along with us.
She leaves us little gifts. We find hearts in the shape of leaves, drawn in the street or sand, and in our teacups. I drink chai every morning, and every day I will find a picture left from the tea leaves. Sometimes a very distinct heart, a waxing or waning moon, or a sun. She floats feathers down to us that land in our hair and in Rafa’s hands.
When Rafa sleeps, I have heard her call out her big sister’s name: “Kawa. Kawa.” I know she is there. She visits us in our dreams when she knows Mama is missing her so much. In one dream, she appeared and she just hugged me like a little squid, her arms and legs all sucker-fished onto me. I woke up in the middle of the night feeling her presence and touch all over me.
She is always with me. Grief, I have learnt, is something you always carry with you. It’s like an amulet I will always wear. I feel her so intensely in my heart and know that she is always there.
What has Kawa taught you spiritually?
That we are here for a reason. That we are pure souls that inhabit earth-bound human form to carry out what the heck we decided upon before we got here. That if you sit in stillness you will find a connection to spirit and can develop a relationship with those who have passed on. That we are all interconnected on Earth and beyond, and that we should not ever forget that. That your heart does not break; rather, it cracks open. Kawa has anchored me in the spirit world. When I look at Indigenous paintings, they make so much more sense to me now. The past, present and future are all embodied in the one picture, and spirit is ever present. There is no separation between us here and up there and all around. It truly exists all as one.
What has Kawa taught you about death?
That it is only your body that dies. Our souls never die. Death is imminent. Death happens. Don’t be afraid of death because when it is your time, it’s your time.
How do you like to remember Kawa?
With her huge cheeks squished up against mine. With her perfectly messy beach hair tussled from play and her cheeky smile and wrinkled-up button nose. With her perfect pout and enormous black eyes beaming love to her mama, dada and little sister.
How should we remember Kawa?
As pure joy. Pure, unadulterated joy. As a bright beam of life that shone right into your heart and tickled you from the inside out. Remember her as a reason for love. To love what you do and to do what you love. As a precious reminder to us to fill our lives with purpose.