This is the first post of a multi-part series, covering the last year and a half of our life. I wrote this reflection almost a year ago, and felt it was finally time to publish it.
You may have noticed that I haven’t written much in the past few months. For a long time, it was simply too painful to write about what happened; it was easier to deny it, to detach myself from my own reality and lose myself in someone else’s. For months, I worked through pangs of regret and fleeting stretches of anxiety and despair.* When I’d experience yet another heart-quickening sensation, I would close my eyes and let the feeling wash over me, then dry away.
In early 2013, we had launched the first alpha iteration of Antho, our web application, to a select number of friends and family. There was a flurry of initial activity, but after a few weeks, the app went radio silent. We had studied lean startup methodology, so we knew that this would likely happen. We would need to build and release multiple iterations from the original idea, to refine the product into something truly useful. We had decided we could use a lot more help in that arena, and found out that the startup incubator StartX had just opened an experimental admissions cycle that would include alumni from universities other than Stanford. We put our heart and soul into the application, and even gathered stellar references, only to be flatly rejected at the first round of the process.
It was devastating.** We decided to take a break from our yearlong, day-in, day-out pursuit (other than a few days during Christmas, we took no vacations other than a 24-hour reprieve to the redwoods during our one-year wedding anniversary), and reflect on our journey, our direction, and what we really wanted from life. Were we happy? Did we feel fulfilled? By then, we had a good idea of what we felt was the worst part of the startup journey, barring layoffs and bankruptcy.
And being that we were spiritual people, we asked ourselves spiritual questions. Did God have something else in mind for us? Were we supposed to be somewhere else, doing another thing entirely? We mulled over this possibility the longest, and all thoughts began to converge on one undeniable outlier in our lives: Nicole’s father was dying from cancer. Were we meant to be there, where he was, rather than where we were? We tossed around the idea casually at first, then my humbled, more open heart gave more credence to it by our second conversation. “Perhaps this is why nothing seems to be working out for us here. Maybe we’re not supposed to be here.”
For a year or so, while we learned to code in our private enclave, we had more or less denied the reality of Nicole’s father’s terminal illness. My father-in-law was a young empty-nester in his early fifties, with nearly all eight of his children married away, pursuing distant dreams in faraway lands—as most independence-striving children would, no doubt. But over the course of a year, as friendly-fire treatments slowly transformed his body from impervious to fading away, his daughter and I looked at our dreams and second-guessed them. We already felt conflicted by them, sensing that our own ambitions had swallowed up our lives, holding captive our relationships, threatening the decay of friendships and a growing meaninglessness in kinships. Work ethic, a prized skill of ours, had been overextended, over-prioritized, at the harried expense of our most valuable assets.
Moving to a new city where one has no friends is a daunting, intimidating endeavor. (correction: I had one—wonderful—friend, James, who lives in an outlying suburb of Seattle). After days of research, comparing costs of living, rent prices, weather, and the like, we realized again that none of that really mattered when you know from the center of your being that it’s the right thing to do.
By then it was May, on the cusp of summer, a disorientingly chilly and wintrous season in the city of fog. Two weeks later, Nicole had a miscarriage after a harrowing first two months of pregnancy. We kept that whole ordeal private, even from our friends, which honestly may have been more trying on us than partial disclosure. Miscarriages, I reasoned, happened all the time, to a third of all cases. Though it was sensible on paper, it was tragic in real life.
(The whole idea of joining together the worlds of new parenthood and fledgling startups seemed ludicrous to us, though we felt at the time it was the right thing for us to do. We believed unshakably in the importance of family, and of having children in faith and sacrifice. These are principles widely taught in our church. We understood the truth that doing what we felt was right would not always be convenient, nor professionally advantageous. Still, the thought of adding a child to the early startup landscape flew far past the bounds of even our extended comfort zone. But where is faith without uncertainty? We had a strong feeling that our act of faith would find a way to work itself out.)
The day we discovered that Nicole had miscarried was fraught with trauma. As we were told that the more intense the morning sickness, the higher success rate of the pregnancy, we went to our ultrasound appointment together wholly expecting to see a growing baby. When the black-and-white screen displayed its hazy image, we squinted to see what we expected. Our nurse broke it to us like this:
Nurse: “Normally at this point of the pregnancy we could see the heart beating. We can’t see it right now.”
Me: “Oh, when do you think we’ll be able to see it?”
Nurse: “Well, normally at this point of the pregnancy you’d already be able to see it.”
Me: “You mean—“
Nurse: “The pregnancy will not progress from here, I’m sorry.”
This wholehearted anticipation of ours immediately turned to a discrete, penetrating sadness. I looked down over to Nicole, who had, this whole time, been telling herself that she can make it through 24-7 morning sickness for two months if that meant we’d have a baby. A single tear cascaded downward from her left eye, her face frozen, emptied. The nurse returned the equipment to its proper place and gave us some time and space to breathe and grieve. More tears welled up in her eyes, spilling over onto her face and down to her hospital gown. “I’m so sorry,” I let out. She started to sob. I thought of the night before, when she cried out of nauseating discomfort, and I tried to distract her by reading with her all about the stage of our baby. I was saddest for Nicole, who had waited so patiently for motherhood, and who had suffered all the physical transformation of nurturing another human in your body. We left the hospital in tatters. We just felt so meaningless, so useless, so subtracted of life.***
With our latest despair engulfing us, we had less than two weeks left in California. We were dazed and distant as we wrapped up Nicole’s medical procedures, said some last farewells, and packed up our whole life to move two states away.
We took flight on the last day of May, our trailer packed with every last bit of thing we owned, and ventured on a new life away from the beating heart of Silicon Valley. When we descended on the Wenatchee valley, the sun and rain had cast its hillsides green. We followed the twists and turns of the Columbia River eastward, then northward, stealing glances at the staggering skyscrapers of the countryside—the Cascade Mountain Range.
Early that afternoon, we pulled in to the part-ranch, part-orchard neighborhood of southern Mission Ridge, a refreshingly diverse part of town. As I leapt from the car and fell down limbs apart on the first inviting grass lawn I’ve seen in ages, and let the sun heat into me, I felt a haze ascend before me. The world’s unapologetic and unrelenting love of work, its self-importance of empire-building and resume-padding, its pursuit of a higher standard of living for some, all seemed to melt away. My own sense of self, my ego, my rightful and wrongful desires sloughed off me like fresh-fallen snow off a winter coat.
In typical Bird family fashion, we surprised Nicole’s parents by arriving a few hours before our communicated plan. It was a reunion I still remember; the eyes and hearts of us all were tender that day. When Nicole and her parents hugged, they just held on.
We would be staying for at least a month, until we found a place of our own. We took a much-needed hiatus from our own lives and quickly found ways to be useful around the house. I took on meal planning and cooking, and Nicole helped Cyndi with a slew of postponed home errands, freeing her up to coordinate and systematize Randy’s care.
Randy’s health had been on a gradual decline for months, but when we arrived, he had just started feeling an intense pain that wouldn’t dissipate. He told Nicole that when he went to sleep, he felt so tired he could see himself never waking up. Their sadness surfaced, floating for days. There were too many things that could go wrong at this juncture of his struggle, almost two years since his first inkling of dull pain. It was a backwards progression—a disappointing decline—after so many months of enervating chemotherapy. There were a number of times we thought of moving straight to Wenatchee, forgetting Seattle—our original plan—altogether.
Nicole’s family orchestrated an immediate family-wide fast, just one Sunday after our churchwide monthly fast. Less than two days later, he stopped feeling the pain entirely, with no change in care regimen. Over the course of the month, he restored his appetite, gained weight, and recouped his energy. It was a modern-day miracle. And we felt overjoyed to witness it.
Randy’s siblings and children filtered through, week after week, seeking the kind of solace only found in being together. It was just as therapeutic for Randy as it was for all the rest of us.
Losing ourselves in the service of Cyndi and Randy nourished our souls. We hadn’t been this happy in a long time. It both numbed and chiseled away the resentment and sense of failure we felt during the days of our dual tragedies. It still took weeks to mostly get over our grief, our self-concern, our mental battling between self-pity and self-affirmation. But when we did, it was deeply transformative.
At the time, Randy had still been taking his weekly voyage across the Cascades to Seattle for treatments, and we joined him on occasion, partly to keep him company, and partly to look for housing. When we found an old-world-style apartment in East Queen Anne, an antiquated hilltop neighborhood just north of downtown, we bit. Before we packed all our things back into our trailer for the passage westward, we went out to Lake Roosevelt (hosted by the ever-gracious Heltons, family friends—but really, family—of the Birds) for a couple days of boating, tubing, swimming and jet-skiing. It was here and with them that I learned paradise didn’t always come packaged in white sand and turquoise water.
Our transcendent month came to an end—our own lives beckoned us back. I quote a journal entry from our last day in Wenatchee:
Whenever Nicole and I look back at that time, we consider in awe the grand providence that had led us down that road. Had we been accepted to StartX, we would not have had the chance to be with Nicole’s father during what fatefully ended up becoming his last summer—and last good months—ever. Had Nicole carried out her pregnancy successfully, she would have likely been incapacitated, unable to serve as she did and forge as she had a few last priceless memories with her now departed father. I myself would never have had the privilege to live with him, who I consider one of my great role models of a loving husband in a happy marriage. And perhaps most importantly, it transported us out of our own life of islandic self-concern and into one of continental interdependence. Our faith indeed worked itself out. We were not blessed in the ways we thought we needed, but in the ways we actually needed.
This is the end of the first post of the multi-part series covering our past year and a half.
*In hindsight, and after some research, I found that these are common side effects of being an entrepreneur. See here, here, and here. Entrepreneurship has tested my mettle unlike anything I have ever experienced elsewhere, including my proselyting mission.
**Our devastation was slightly irrational. StartX wasn't our only option. There were other incubators, but we felt like we fit best culturally in the academia-linked accelerator. We decided that we would either join an incubator that we would feel comfortable submitting to, or we wouldn't join one at all. We knew that we didn't need to join an incubator to succeed, but we, admittedly foolishly, hinged our greater hopes for our startup's future on our acceptance into one.
***To add insult to injury, the California Pacific Medical Center (CPMC) in San Francisco charged us an outrageous $1700 for the ultrasound scan. (Apparently, this is rather typical for CPMC.) In marked contrast, our same scan in Seattle cost us a little over $200. The lack of transparency and reasonable similarity in medical pricing is one of the great plagues debilitating the healthcare industry, not to mention this nation’s economy.