You would be three and a half now. First of all, I don’t know how that can be. Frozen as you are in black and white photos, doctored to cover the signs of hospitalization and death: No angry, red irritation on your skin wherever there was tape. No purple nail beds from the pooling of non-circulating blood. No flopping, unresponsive limbs. You could be asleep in the pictures, the way the photographer posed you, propped you, gave us a view of you we never saw. When I think of you now, I often think of your picture since I see it frequently, and not as you really were in your humanness, your animalness, your flesh and blood, dying in my arms.
Papa hung your photo above his desk and realized that that was it. That was the only picture he would have of you. There would be no more. It’s funny how a simple, normal action like that, hanging a photo, reveals so much truth. You will never change. You will always be a baby, an infant, a newborn.
Even as you grow in my mind. Even as you age. Even as I track the progress you are not making. It’s the same, except the exact, horrific opposite. Still.
When you died, your sister was three and a half. I’m trying to put my mind around that. Trying to understand that we would have had you, now, for as long as we had her, then. When the world stopped. There is so much frozen in time for me then. I remember her so clearly. More clearly, then any other time of her life, except for the recent past. I remember clothes she wore and individual trips to the park though it was a daily occurence. I remember the roundness of her cheeks, the bounce of her ringlets, her little hand in mine as we walked the stone path to the playground. As that little three and a half year old, lead me through my life, through the haze of my unrelenting grief. So much of that time of my life is gray and hazy and gone but not your sister at three and a half. It is an age I remember so clearly.
She has lived half her life without you. Half of her life with relatively happy, contented, light parents and half with the bereaved version of us, the broken version, the picking-up-the-pieces parents. I have a hard time recognizing myself still. I can only imagine what that shift from one day to the next in late April of 2013 and all that has followed, must have felt like to her. With no words for it, no real understanding. Just feelings, just sensing and noticing something had gone terrible wrong. Very little felt familiar anymore. I wonder if she felt us trying to make it so, too. And if that just contributed to the confusion.
Your three and a half birthday is another strange milestone that goes unnoticed except by me. I often feel like a baseball statistician as I navigate the days, months, years after your loss: “Wow Bob! This is the first time in baseball history that anyone has gotten on base against a pitcher named Thomas on a Tuesday afternoon at 4:13 in July! Just incredible!”. I see the details. I keep track. I notice. I can’t help but. There are, like all dead people have, birthdays and death anniversaries. For me, there is the 27th and 28th of each month that I track. There is the half birthdays. The due date and, because I happen to know it, the conception date. The around-the-time when you don’t “fill in the blank”: roll over, sit up, eat food, crawl, walk, talk, smile, clap, laugh, fall down, dig in sand, climb a stair, cut a tooth and on and on and on. The day you don’t start preschool. I have friends who know the exact number of days since they held their babies. And there are a million of other dates, silently on the minds of bereaved mothers. We anticipate them, we experience them, we feel the aftermath of their passing. Time and again. For the rest of our lives.
These milestones don’t sting the way they used to. Sometimes, I even smile. Often, I marvel at the acceptance I have accomplished. I find you in my heart, now. That time is so far away now. In the early months and years, I watched other people living out the life I had planned for myself. The one where you have babies and they don’t die. The one where you space your children just the way you planned. the one where you hold your older child’s hand while adjusting the straps of the baby carrier strapped to your chest with your living, breathing baby in it. The one where you didn’t even noticed that you brushed up against death in the dynamic dance of birth. But now that I am so far away from having a second child: no infancy, no toddlerhood, no no no, I can no longer even imagine what my life would be like had you lived. I no longer see myself in the lives of other people who take theirs for granted. It stings when a child is revealed to be three and a half. I try not to flinch. But that’s all these days. I just try not to flinch and move along. It’s amazing.
Tonight though, that 7 year old sister of yours, that 3.5 years plus 3.5 years sister of yours, the one who was the age you would now be when you died, told me a story. She tried to make it elongate post-dinner/pre-bedtime but I insisted she tell me once we were laying in bed for books. And so she did. Her eyes heavy for sleep from the time change but also wide from her imagination weaving it’s own narrative this time. She used words like “eagerly” and “lured” correctly and well which suprised me. She flourished her story by describing tone of voice: “… she nervously said “. She even built suspense with her voice: pausing appropriately, whispering, changing the pace and lilt of her speech. I’d never heard or seen such craft from her. I thought, “We are good with her words, her dad and I, and here are her genes, her proclivities, her leanings, her talents, showing up in a way I have never seen before.” And I loved it. I loved watching her little face, so close to mine, and listening to her words and watching her little brain twist and turn the story around as she went. It was amazing.
But most amazingly was that she stayed in third person the whole time. This was amazing because the story was about a sister and a brother, the sister’s name was Vesta and the brother’s name was Harvey. At 7, she told a story about herself, never veering from third person, never slipping into “I” statements. She created conversations between Vesta and Harvey. When frightened, Harvey crawled into Vesta’s bed. Harvey, being the more mischievous and adventuresome of the two, cajoled and convinced Vesta to sneak out of the house, despite Vesta’s warning that their parents would be “worried sick” if they left to investigate the mysterious flickering lights outside. I fought the tears as the children in the story, my children, both alive and living together for these few moments, talked to each other, doubted the other, encouraged, abandoned, touched, rescued and rejoiced together, for the first time. For the first time, she told me a conversation you had together, an experience you shared, a snuggle you had in her bed. A fiction, and yet we lay there, with you animated in a way you never were, never could be, but there you were all of the sudden. I wondered (truth be told, I longed) to see what you looked like in her mind’s eye. What does his voice sound like? How does his body look as he runs? What does his skin feel like when you lay with him under the covers? How does his hair smell? But I was quiet, holding the tears in for fear that they would stop the story, red eyed and enthralled. Trying to stay present.
From the fiction of a young girl, came a moment in the life of her dead brother. And, I imagine now, that she could commit to third person so easily because it is a fiction. You are a fiction. There is no brother Harvey to get confused with the character Harvey. You, my love, are a character in our lives. A person that we cannot see or touch or feel or smell but who is very much present. Less and less, it is true. Less and less, in a daily manner. But there, none-the-less, as a character, as Vesta’s brother, as a force in her story that encouraged her to be brave, that she was able to stand up to even though she was afraid to, to face the darkness and the flickering lights and the scary dwarves turned werewolves together. Vesta left Harvey there at one point, at the strange cabin with the mythical creatures, to fend for himself and he did. He out ran them, climbed into his bed and fell asleep. But she got back up, and snuck back out without him, against her better judgement, to make sure the coast was clear, to make sure no one was after him. And it wasn’t and they were and she took care of it and then went back to bed in her own bedroom in a house that had a bedroom for each of the children. A bedroom for Vesta and a bedroom for Harvey. You even had your own room.
There is space for you. There always will be. At every age. I will carry you with me and so will she. We won’t forget you. We don’t have stories to tell about you but we will tell them anyway. We will never have even one new photograph but that doesn’t mean you have to stay frozen. We can animate you. We will fictionalize what it’s like to have a brother and a son who is alive and we will tell each other about it now and then. Sometimes, we will take the feeling that is you, in our lives, in our psyches, in our hearts, and we will tell each other about it. In new and unexpected ways as well as the same old, sad, tired ways I love so much.
This will be one of those days that only will I take note of. It’s a baseball stat day: The day your sister brought you back to life. For both of us.