Siblings

Siblings 416 527 Brooke A. Kowalke

Soapy water runs over my hands as I scrub the remains of lunch from the plates in the sink, and I think of you. I try to remember how you felt in my arms. I try to remember the sound of your cry. The way you smelled. How was it, again, that you looked at me?

I look up and see your big brother—just a toddler when you were here—playing on the floor, chattering to his brown owl with the zig-zag striped belly. I wonder how you exist for him. If my memories of you flit away like small birds when I run after them, what is happening to his memories of you? I worry that he won’t remember you. Worry that he will only remember you as a picture in a frame. That your little sister, separated from you by the space between your death and her conception, will only ever know you as a set of facts we teach her.

Just across the kitchen, on a nearby counter, your old-soul eyes stare out at me from a frame shaped liked a life-preserver that your brother colored with his favorite blue. I took that picture of you just three days before you died. You are lying in the big hospital bed we shared during those final days, wrapped in a white muslin blanket printed with hearts in various shades of pink given to you at Christmas by a family whose child, born with only half a heart, was already gone. The thick cannula delivering heated-high-flow oxygen to your lungs is taped to your face, along with the pastel-yellow NJ-feeding tube that bypassed your stomach to safely bring you nourishment. Your eyebrows are arched, and your perfect lips are parted as if you are about to speak. I imagine what you might have said, had you been able. I know what I would have loved to hear. But instead, I have a dream space that hovers between the camera lens and your dark-blue eyes. It is a gap filled with hope and pain, love and longing.

That space is shaped by the fact that you survived when they said you wouldn’t. You fought through surgery and illness, and, for almost five months, you lived among us. Our dreams of getting to know you came true. Your eyes lit up when you saw us enter the room, even though we were told you’d “never be able to identify your caregivers.” Together, we proved them wrong—we weren’t just your caregivers, we were your family. We are your family. And you knew it then as you know it now. You demanded to be held and bounced in particular ways, refusing to calm until we got it just right. You occupied space in our home and in our hearts. Let us get to know your broad strokes. The fine details. When my memories falter, I look within and see that you changed me indelibly. You gave me new eyes with which to see the world.

The last dish clatters into place in the dishwasher. I return to the here and now as I look over to see your brother kneeling on the floor by the baby sister you share. He’s holding something in his hands. As I look more closely, I see it’s the little blue plastic photo album whose pages crinkle loudly every time we turn them. That cheap little “brag book”—purchased from an end cap at the camera store when you were in the NICU and your brother wasn’t allowed to visit—is still one of his most prized possessions. Why? Because it is filled with pictures of you. Your baby sister, happy in her bouncy chair—the same kind you loved—is watching him intently and examining the picture he holds towards her, arms extended. Softly and sweetly, I hear his high-pitched now-four-year-old voice repeat the truth over and over: “This is your sister! This is Grace.”

And I see. As ephemeral as it sometimes seems—like soap bubbles and small birds—your place in our family remains firm.

Header photo © Hananah Zaheer.

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