When I was 4 years old, my parents had a new baby - a little girl, Ellen. Two days later, she was dead of a congenital heart condition. I've always been aware of this as a fact of my life, a part of the story but not a source of grief or real sadness for me. I was too young to understand what was going on, and while I've been conscious of what it means to my parents, I've generally thought of it as a bad thing that happened, but not one that happened to me.
With our own journey, that has changed. I will never forget the look on my mother's face when we told her the baby was gone. I could just see her break apart inside, no control, and I remember thinking about what this must mean to her, and what it meant to me, and I broke too. It felt like echoes across time and space, across generations, the sort of sadness that should never be repeated coming back for a second painful round. Those echoes grew louder when my father was speaking to his dad (well, one of his dads, long story) on the phone later, telling him what had happened. He mentioned how the hardest thing wasn't the loss, it was seeing the impact it was having on his son. My grandad had two words for him, and they still break my heart: "I know".
I think about Ellen a lot more now. I wonder about what she would be like, and how she would have changed our family, how she would have changed me. I have two younger brothers - they're much younger than me, and in many ways very different. How would we be different if Ellen had lived? How would the addition of another female presence into our family have changed the dynamic?
I also think about the impact it has had on my parents. They've always carried her loss with them - and I think I can go some way to understanding now how deeply they must feel it. I'm sure it has informed some of the way my brothers and I were raised - consciously and unconsciously.
We had a great upbringing - loving and open. Mum was able to spend a lot of time at home during our early years, which I think was massively important (and which Annamarie is now fortunately able to do with Sam). Dad worked a lot, because he had to - but he still took the time to coach our sports teams, play with us in the evenings on weekends, all that stuff. I now appreciate how exhausted they both must have been.
We were always encouraged to be whoever we wanted to be. no matter how impossible it seemed. In my teens, I harboured dreams of one day becoming a rock star, in spite of my questionable level of talent. My parents were front and centre cheering me on. They let me do an Arts degree at University (which by the way has ZERO relevance to my current career), even when friends of mine were being pushed into business studies or accountancy. I could have turned around to my parents and said that I wanted to leave Uni and go farm salamanders, and they would have said "great, follow your dreams". Not everyone can say that. I think that was just the sort of people they were - but maybe their loss had an influence as well. I certainly know that for me it has crystallized the importance of living for happiness, of doing what you dream of before you run out of time.
My mother has always been very protective of us, and of other children in our extended family, I don't know (and I guess she doesn't know) whether that has been intensified by what happened, or whether it's just a natural personality trait. We're also sometimes a bit of a sarcastic family, and we can be pretty cutting with our remarks to each other at times (though everyone knows it's in jest). I wonder if that has come from a reluctance to really wear our emotions too openly, in fear of opening deep wounds? Or maybe it's just a symptom of having lots of testosterone in the house? How can we ever really know? And is it even worth knowing? None of this is "bad", in fact most of it was really good for us - I credit my ability to communicate clearly and confidently in my work life to the verbal sparring I was able to partake in with my family. And none of it can be changed. It is part of the story, it's part of me.
I think I have some memories of Ellen. I have this image in my mind of the hospital room, of seeing her in one of those clear plastic hospital cots, with tubes and things attached to her - but I'm not sure if that's real, or detail I've subconsciously filled in from the pictures I've seen, stories I've been told. I'm sure I remember the funeral, that I was insistent that she be buried with my toy Kermit the Frog - and then proceeded to absolutely lose it when I realised I couldn't get it back. But again, that's a story that's been told and re-told in my family. Is it a real memory, or a construct of my mind? And does it matter? My parents say they talked to me about the loss. my feelings, all the same things we try to do with Sam - I believe them, but I honestly don't remember it at all. Or maybe I do, subconsciously? Is it one of those things that's just in you, like that moment when you say to your child "I'm going to count to five . . ." and you realise that's exactly what your parents used to say to you, in exactly the same tone of voice, at exactly this sort of moment?
Now I'm raising my own son, who has also lost a sister he will never know. He seems really aware of the fact that she existed, and what it means that she's gone, but will he remember that, and carry it with him into adulthood? Will it make him sad later, or will it just become a bad thing that happened, but not to him? And which is better?
I think about whether all this has changed the way I treat Sam. Annamarie and I have tried really hard to stay consistent and calm with him throughout this time, and apart from the occasional blow-up (usually when we're all dog tired, he's just peed on the floor instead of the toilet and is now dancing a jig in the mess), I think we've done pretty well. But how skewed is our perspective? In what subtle ways has our parenting been shaped by this grief, and how might that show up for Sam later on? I don't feel like we can properly answer these questions, beyond just being aware of it and course-correcting when something doesn't feel right.
But I still can't escape the feeling that this story was somehow already written.
A few months ago we were driving back from a holiday out of town when we hit traffic. We made a judgement call to get off the motorway, find some dinner for Sam and take an alternate route home. We got off at the next exit. We happened to drive past the local cemetery, Annamarie said to me "That's where Ellen's buried". We pulled over, and Sam had his dinner while we paid her a little visit. After a few minutes, I remembered something - we had taken T.J's ashes with us on our trip, thinking we might scatter them while we were away, but it hadn't felt right. That meant T.J was in the car. I went and got her, and brought her back to Ellen's grave. I sent my mother a picture.
I don't believe in God, or in fate, or in a traditional concept of "destiny", but I do believe that everything in the world is connected - that what I do today could impact you, directly or indirectly, maybe today or maybe 20 years from now. The system is flawed, and it's certainly not simple, but the connections are there. What you and I do every day is infinitesimally small compared to the vastness of the universe, but like the ol' butterfly flapping it's wings and causing a tsunami, our actions do matter.
I feel like what happened that day was another echo, rippling across generations to remind me of that, and to reaffirm that every person in your life, whether they lived for 2 days, or 2 weeks, or never saw the world outside the womb, shapes your story, changes you in some way. You take yourself with you, and you also take them.
We are a family of 3. This blog is the story of how we almost became 4, why we didn’t, and what we are doing to recover from that experience.