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Thursday, March 12, 2020

Grief and the little sister

It was a year ago last Sunday that they cut her out of me. A silver scar across my abdomen is the proof. I barely acknowledged the pregnancy, so it was equally strange to have a baby cut from my body and handed to me. A daughter, the doctor said. And there she appeared around the paper divider and into my line of vision with a mess of brown hard smeared across her head.

And now she is here already a year old. She lives in our house. She sleeps in Riley’s room. She holds Riley’s things while she nurses in the chair next to his bed. She reaches for the things hanging on his walls when I change her diapers. She is the sixth chair at the dining table, once balanced with four school-aged kids and two adults, only to be completely unbalanced after Riley died. His empty seat. His voice not heard. His laughter gone. And now there is a high chair at the table. It is not a replacement. Only a different kind of chair holding an entirely different child. Even though all of the seats are full, the table is still unbalanced. It will always be unbalanced. And I will always be unbalanced, even though my arms are full right now.

She cannot replace him. I never thought she would, but it was my fear. That somehow holding her and hugging her and nursing her and reading to her and feeding her and bathing her and loving her, that somehow, somehow she would rub away his memory that is seared into my heart -- my Riley-shaped scar. But that isn’t the case. I didn’t know what it would be like, but it isn’t like buying a new gallon of milk to replace the empty gallon of milk or getting a new candle after the wick is gone on the other. I haven’t stopped thinking about him. He is in my thoughts just about every waking minute of every single day. Maybe more intensely now. Now that I spend so much time in his room surrounded by his things. As I remember him at one month old, six months old. As I think of his weight and remember marveling at his tiny body, my first baby born.

Sometimes I call her Riley by mistake. Sometimes I wish she were him and that she would grow at high speed and become the nearly-17-year-old young man that he is supposed to be. But most of the time, I try to focus on appreciating her. It’s a messy, imperfect approach to living in a seemingly impossible world where she is here and he is not. It’s not her fault that her 11-year-old brother died. It’s not her fault that she was born. Yet here we are.

She is goodness in an abyss of pain. So I work on telling myself that at every chance. I want to make sure that I flip to the things that she is, instead of the things that she isn’t. I want to strengthen the neural pathways of love and appreciation for this being that has come into our lives unexpectedly. Here are some of my appreciations: I appreciate that she is an excellent sleeper; I appreciate that she is generally good natured; I appreciate that she will happily sit and play on her own while I make dinner; I appreciate that she will contentedly be in the carrier on my back while I do the things that need doing; I appreciate that she lets me hold her; I appreciate hugging her; I appreciate that sometimes she hugs me back. I appreciate that she continues to wake up even when my mind says that she will not. I appreciate that she didn’t die the night she choked on her dinner and was rushed to the ER. I appreciate feeling her weight and her warmth on my lap and in my arms and across my chest. I appreciate seeing her torso rise and fall on the monitor. I appreciate her tiny hands that reach for mine. I appreciate her eyes that look for me. I appreciate her cries that indicate her aliveness.

When I’m holding her and hugging her, I feel slightly less sad. This doesn’t mean there is less grief. It just means that the grief is being temporarily combated with this 19-pound force of love. It’s an internal battle sometimes to let it feel like love and not betrayal. But I hear his voice saying, “Love her like it’s me because she’s part me because she’s half of you.” It’s flawed 11-year-old logic, but I think what he means when he whispers those words into my head is that it’s okay to love her because he loves her, too. Of course he does. He was an amazing big brother. And she is his tiny sister, who already knows his name and waves when she sees his picture.

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