When I was two, my mother had a baby who only lived for eight weeks. My sister Rachel Ann was born with congenital heart defects so complex that none of the doctors heard the irregularities in her tiny valves before it was too late. Because I was two, I don’t remember anything about her. I don’t remember her being born, I don’t remember her dying, but I do remember her birthday parties. Every July 9th, we celebrated Rachel’s birthday with a special dinner and a birthday cake, but no presents because there was no guest of honor. The six of us sang “Happy Birthday” in the middle of summer to a little person I was told was my baby sister who died because she had a hole in her heart.
Rachel was present on other holidays as well. Each of us has a different color Christmas stocking hand sewn by my mother. Seven in total hang on the mantelpiece: two for my parents, four for the kids and one for Rachel. Hers is made of soft pink corduroy trimmed in ribbon embroidered with baby blue rocking horses. As the years went on, the contents of our stockings matured with us from Lipsmackers, to lipgloss, to lipstick, to liquor. But like the taste of my mother’s spinach quiche, the contents of Rachel’s stocking never changed. Every year on Christmas morning, her stocking was and is filled with a bouquet of pink carnations. It wasn’t until very recently that I realized that because Rachel died in September, my mother must have made the stocking after she died. That’s why Rachel’s stocking has the baby ribbon on it. She knew that this particular pink stocking was for a baby who would never grow up. Until recently, I also didn’t think about my dad ordering those flowers every year for Christmas morning. A strange thing to do, order carnations on December 20th, as they are not exactly your standby holiday fauna.
To this day, when we decorate our Christmas tree each year, the last ornament we hang is a small golden tree with five leaves. One leaf has fallen away from the other leaves, off its branch and rests on the ground. As my mother quietly hangs that tiny golden tree, my father puts his arm around her as if to say, “Merry Christmas. It’s okay to still miss her.” After Rachel died, a number of my parents’ friends who lived on the Naval base in Philadelphia with us planted a tree in her memory. We call it the Rachel tree. We visited her tree and brought balloons to her grave during our yearly visits to the Naval Academy in Annapolis, my parents’ alma mater.
I wonder what rituals like this do to a kid, when ornaments and plants and graves and poorly attended birthday parties are all you can base your experience of someone on. And this is someone you’ve known your whole life, but you can’t remember. I don’t have any memories of my sister. All I have are memories of the ways in which we acknowledged the fact that she existed. I used to think we just did all of this for my mom, that it was something my mom needed because it must have been terrible for her, so terrible to lose something she grew. So terrible to only get two months with someone she held inside her warmth for nine. She must felt cheated and like she had failed and angry at the God which she so, so fervently believes in. I thought we were doing all of this for her because, honestly, I never really got much out of celebrating her birthday or looking at the few photos of her we had around the house or even visiting her grave. I didn’t know her so I didn’t miss her.
But then I went off to college and I missed the Rachel days. Her birthday came and went unnoticed. I haven’t seen her grave in years. She stopped feeling a part of my life.
A few years ago, during my third year of actor training, I had a dream. In the dream, I was in a Michael Chekhov class doing an exercise. I don’t know if you are familiar with Michael Chekhov exercises but they involve imagining a particular set of circumstances as you walk around the room, like imagine the floor is on fire, imagine you are at a cocktail party with the president, imagine your butt is a magnet, that sort of thing.
So in the dream, my acting teacher said, “Okay, walk around the room with your sisters.” And for some reason, dream Maura asked him, “With all our sisters or just the ones that are alive?”
“All your sisters.”
So the picture changed like a flash, because this was a dream, and all the sudden, I was walking around the room, milling and seething, with two other women. One is my younger sister Claire and the other is a woman, about 20 years old, who looks just like me and just like Claire, but different. And the three of us just walked, in silence, weaving in and out of each other, smiling in awareness of each other's presence. Then it was over.
That’s all I remember of the dream. But I swear, I know, it was Rachel. I’m sorry, I don’t believe that my brain could through random firing of neurons and chemical reactions create that vast an experience. I just don’t. I’m not saying it was a ghost or an angel or a vision or proof of the supernatural. I’m just saying it was amazing and eerie and I know it was my sister.
Shortly after the dream, I asked my mom about the decision to make Rachel such a part of the fabric of our lives. Many families experience a miscarriage or the death of a young child and do not discuss it openly or often as we do. She told me something I’ll never forget. She said, "I wanted you all to grow up knowing that bad things happen, for no reason, things you think you can't survive, but you can, you do. We did.” She said something else that struck me during that conversation, about how people sometimes say things like, “Well, you are a stronger person or a better mother because this happened.” She doesn’t think about it that way. Although she probably did grow in unexpected ways by knowing Rachel, my mother knows that the purpose of Rachel’s short life was not to teach her something about herself or the value and unconquerable fragility of life. The purpose of Rachel’s tiny life was to live, for as long as her little, imperfect heart would allow. It’s nothing but vanity to think otherwise.
I never knew how to answer people when they asked me how many siblings I have. To form the words “I’m one of four” has always felt a little wrong in my mouth. Since the dream, when people ask me how my siblings I have, I usually say I am one of five. In the first photograph of the four of us with the Rachel tree, it is a small sapling standing only a few inches taller than my five-year-old brother. We visited the Rachel tree a few years back. In the photo from that visit, the four of us are sitting in the tree a half a dozen or so feet off the ground. It’s funny, in the ornament she’s the fallen leaf, but in the photograph she is holding us all up the way we carried her when she was a baby. In a way, it’s the only picture of all my mother’s children: two girls, two boys and a tree with deep roots into the earth and lush, extending branches reaching towards the heavens.