ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday March 9, 2008
Vol. 42 - No 41

New York love story, now a tragedy

What should have been the happiest event in his life has turned into a nightmare for young Sri Lankan, S. Arachchige living in the US

By Nina Bernstein

It sounds like a throwback to another century: A healthy, middle-class woman sickens late in her pregnancy, gives birth and dies two and a half weeks later, leaving her young husband to care for their newborn son alone. Tai Ling Feng, a United States citizen was born in Taiwan. Her son, Brian, was born on Jan. 24, and she died on Feb. 11.

Sunil with his new born baby

Even the new father, Indika S. Arachchige, 34, grieving in their Staten Island home under balloons and streamers that exclaim, “It’s a Boy,” still cannot quite believe that so much everyday American happiness could be swept away so fast. A pending autopsy may explain the death of his wife, Tai Ling Feng, 36, who worked in a bank. But to the young widower and the multiethnic circle of friends who had cheered on the couple’s courtship as a uniquely New York love story, immigration law now seems to be compounding a New York tragedy.

Mr. Arachchige, a legal permanent resident from Sri Lanka who manages two Subway sandwich shops on Staten Island, finds himself without a relative in the United States, struggling to adjust to life with a newborn while mourning his wife, who died three weeks ago.

He “desperately needs the support of his family in this time of need,” a social worker at Staten Island University Hospital wrote to the United States Embassy in Sri Lanka, urging American officials to grant Mr. Arachchige’s 24-year-old sister permission to visit to help care for the baby.

But despite pleas from doctors and hospital administrators, beginning before the mother’s death, American officials have denied the sister a tourist visa — apparently because they are not convinced that she would ever return to Sri Lanka, a poor country torn by civil war.

Such denials are routine, said Cyril Ferenchak, a spokesman for the State Department, noting that he could not discuss individual cases because of confidentiality laws. While people with European passports can just get on a plane and expect to be granted a 90-day visit, citizens from less prosperous countries must apply for a visa under rules designed to prevent illegal immigration. And a young, unmarried, unemployed woman responding to her brother’s need would have great difficulty showing she had “compelling ties” to Sri Lanka to guarantee her return, Mr. Ferenchak said.

Moreover, he said, her care for the baby might be construed as working — that is, taking an American’s job — because she would be “filling a void as a caregiver.” So the father’s buddies from the sandwich shop and the mother’s girlfriends from the bank were trying to fill the void after the infant left the hospital on Feb. 24, the day after his mother’s burial.

Mother and Baby: Tai Ling Feng died a few weeks after giving birth Home alone: A house decorated for celebrations that soon turned to mourning

While the new father was at prayers for the dead at a Buddhist temple, the mother’s girlfriends, most of them Hispanic, decorated the house with balloons for the baby’s homecoming. The sole female employee at the sandwich shop, an Irish-American mother of three who had sat beside the father at the wake as he sobbed uncontrollably, gave up her days off to baby-sit.

And his mostly Sri Lankan male co-workers, knowing that he dreaded being alone, dropped by with food every evening and stayed for hours.

Still, when his son, Brian, began to cry, it was up to the dad to scoop him up from the crib and try to comfort him with a bottle, a fresh diaper or a rocking embrace, as the nurses in the hospital had taught him. On a Friday at the end of that first week, after a night when the baby had awakened three times and a snowstorm kept friends away, the father seemed dazed by grief and exhaustion.

Softly, he recounted the days and nights since Jan 17, when Ms. Feng was admitted to the hospital with a fever that baffled medical specialists — as a doctor involved in her care confirmed. Hospital officials would not discuss her case, citing privacy laws. Labour was induced on Jan. 24, a month before her due date, and she gave birth to a healthy 6 pound 4 ounce boy.

But her condition worsened. Mr. Arachchige told of shuttling from the hospital nursery on Staten Island to his wife’s bedside at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Manhattan, where she was transferred about two weeks after the baby’s birth, and where she died five days later, on Feb. 11, just before she was to undergo an emergency liver transplant. “I was crying, crying,” he recalled. “I told the nurses, ‘Please, do something, I can’t see her like this.’ But nothing they did worked.”

Through the baby monitor, his son’s whimpers grew louder, and Mr. Arachchige loped upstairs, past a framed photo of himself and Ms. Feng beaming in a flower-filled marriage ceremony in Sri Lanka last October, two years after their simple 2006 wedding at Staten Island’s Borough Hall.

Was the baby wet again? Hungry? No. His father cradled him, stroked his cheek and laid him down to sleep.“When he gets older, how am I going to say to him, ‘Two weeks after you’re born, your mother passed away, maybe because you came to the world?’ ” the father said. “Everybody’s going to ask, ‘Where is your mom?’ - (Courtesy The New York Times)

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