Barest Hint of Family
I remember when they finally brought you home from the hospital.
My mom was the one who cut your umbilical cord, and she stood there for hours over you after, as you cried and breathed your first gasps of life in this world. They gave you two middle names, just like my two biological sisters and I have. They told us that even though we were not related by blood, you were a part of our family now.
I saw you for the first time just a few days afterwards. You looked like a little blonde bean, stringy and warm with the wild energy of new life. The second time we met, my sisters and I washed you in a yellow popcorn bowl in our kitchen sink. We laughed as the water ran smooth across our curling fingers and your simple, pink skin. We all splashed around and called you popcorn and watched the bubbles slowly spin into the drain.
You swiftly grew hair, gained weight, became a beaming, healthy child. Your mom moved in with my mom and they bought a new house, began to build a new, safe life together. We learned to cut grapes in half and we watched you stick wide fingers in your mouth as you were teething. We always made sure to shut the basement door behind us so you wouldn’t come tumbling down the steps. We covered the sharp corners in every room and made sure you didn’t swallow any toys and bought you a baby seat for the car. We took you cruising around the neighborhood, bouncing around to an eclectic mix of old tapes and pop radio gaga. The Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat soundtrack (go go go Joseph, you know what they say...) and Rihanna’s Disturbia (dum dum dee dum dum dum day dum dum...) always got you dancing the most.
Here is how you learned to walk: my sister put your feet on her feet and the two of you waddled around like penguins. We played too: you’d have us lie on the floor and hold your soft palm to our backs saying just relax, just relax, then BOOM, leap on us cackling as we yelped in mock surprise.
I remember many things from the years after the popcorn bowl. My sisters and I would read you stories in your bed, giggling, and we all tried to fall asleep with the lights off, but couldn’t stop laughing and tickling each other for hours. You loved it when we’d rub your back. You’d put up a huge fuss but then my sister would go into your room and rub your back and sing to you and soon you would be sound asleep.
We played in the room with the alphabet letter carpet on the floor, pushed you around in a tiny carriage and called you baby. We’d pretend to sleep and let you crawl over us and plug our noses as you tried to wake us up. We read you picture books and fairy tales and even young adult novels, winding narratives and complicated plots that you were always smart enough to follow.
Sometimes we went swimming in the local pool, and your little legs would kick and splash in the public water. Once, a man with a thick belly walked past. He’s fat, you shouted, pointing. Oh my gosh I am so sorry, my sister blurted, wide-eyed and horrified.
When you were still small, I’d toss you up in the air and you’d scream with delight at flying so high above the ground. I’d always catch you, and you’d wrap your limbs fiercely around my belly, laughing and calling to our moms across the room: watch this, watch this. As time passed, my arms felt weaker and weaker and it grew harder to lift you up without any effort.
One night your mom (or mine, I can’t remember) had a pretty bad asthma attack and they both went to the emergency room in an ambulance. The four of us kids crawled into our moms’ empty bed and quietly hid under the sheets for hours, scared and alone except for each other, watching the smoke alarm blink red in the dark until they finally came home.
Before I met you, I never knew how far a mind could run with the tiniest bit of fuel. When you came along, I think we all got comfortable enough to imagine, like parents, what your future might look like. I let myself wonder what it would be like to share advice about high school, to chauffeur you and your date to prom, maybe even to sit in the pews – or stand up front – on your wedding day. An assuredly harmless series of creative, fictional snapshots of your future percolated through my mind whenever I let them – and why wouldn’t I think this way? Siblings are for life.
Then our parents broke up. You were entirely too young to understand what was happening. To me, it felt like my mom and dad’s divorce all over again. It was hard. But none of us expected that you would vanish from our lives. No one expected you to be erased from our family tree, to have your name stricken from the record books.
But that’s what happened when things got ugly. We had found out that your mom did some bad things to our mom. You both moved out, got an apartment a couple of towns away. We continued to hang out with you on Wednesdays after preschool – my favorite part of each week – until my mom started dating again. Then we got a coolly-worded letter from your mom saying that our mom wasn’t allowed to see you anymore. Shared custody collapsed, and without any legal protections for our peculiar kind of family to turn to, we had no hope of keeping you in our lives.
My mom loved you as her own flesh. She held the scissors when you first opened your eyes in our world. Yet with a few strokes of jealous ink, her connection to you was irreversibly severed. She hasn’t seen you more than a few times since. None of us have.
That was seven years ago. No one speaks of you now, except for my sisters and I when one of us is feeling sad and weak and needs to be reminded of how real you were to us. Your mom still texts us pictures on major holidays – Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas- themed outfits and Halloween costumes let us know how much you’ve grown. Sometimes your mom tries to reach out, even asks if we want to get together. Knowing everything that’s happened, these half-measures make the pain feel sourer, the wounds newly opened. Who are we kidding, what are we trying to hold onto? Was is left of our family other than scraps of memories? Your mom’s pictures make me cry, and I don’t know how to respond, to salvage this. I don’t reply to most of the texts.
I don’t talk about you to anyone. It would be too hard to explain, too long and painful and rupturing of wounds that have just started to scab over. Not even my closest friends really know that I helped raise a sibling who I have now lost to human treachery and heartache. No one but my sisters understands why my heart feels so much heavier without you, and why it seems like it will never heal.
When I do force myself to remember, the sadness overwhelms me. I am still wracked with questions. Among them: will you even remember me? If fifteen years from now you saw me on the street, would you know my face, my name? Would I recognize you? You were six years old when you were ripped from our lives. Is that old enough to understand what you meant to us? There are so many things that I wish I knew.
I cannot begin to express an ounce of what we have felt at your loss. An impossible fear has been realized. To the world, we have become nothing but strangers, bound by neither law nor blood; we now share not the barest hint of friendship nor family. It’s a fate I never could have imagined. While I sometimes allow my mind to run and hope that things will change, I also know that the days gone by are unreachable – that our family can never be reconstituted in any meaningful way. Maybe you’ll read Gatsby in high school. He learned the hard way that dusty memories of love and laughter can never be recaptured; they ride away eternally upon waves, “borne ceaselessly into the past.”
I have grieved your loss as I needed to, as a kind of death. I chastise my conscience and imagination for reaching beyond their means. And I will always love you, Sophia, as long as I’m alive. I will grieve you a thousand times before you ever think to remember me.
your big brother,