Friday, October 4, 2013

On our other sister.

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.
Jeff, Claire, Stephen and Maura in Rachel's tree, 2001


  1. Hello. You don't know me but I was given your link by a friend. In 2007 when my older children were 3 and 17 months I gave birth to their sister at 29 weeks 5 days. She lived for 23 days before passing to God.

    Every year we celebrate her birthday with a cake, we sing her happy birthday and we decorate her grave. We sometimes light sky lanterns.

    We celebrate the day she became an angel. Because that's the day she was born into Heaven.

    My daughter's name was Calypso and she has a stocking at Christmas. She has her own tree of special angel ornaments.

    I've been told by people that I'm 'harming' my living children by doing this stuff. But they LOVE their sister. They don't remember her but she is a part of us and she is a part of our family.

    Your post has meant so much to me. Thank you.

    1. Hello friend,

      I'm so happy that this piece touched you. I am 25 now and I can assure you that I was not harmed by my family celebrating our sister in this way. I suppose death and loss make people uncomfortable so we are encouraged to not discuss or acknowledge it. We never had to ask about Rachel, because we always knew about her. I think a void, a lack of communication can harm a child more than being open about death and loss. Rachel has never been a sad presence in my life, rather a joyful one and it definitely doesn't hurt to have an angel on your side!

      Merry Christmas to you and your family,

  2. I saw a link to your post at Glow in the Woods. I can't tell you how much it means to me to read your story about your sister. I'm so sorry you never got to know her and I am so glad for you that you had a glimpse of her in your dream. That is beautiful.

    We lost our daughter last year at 22 weeks gestation, when our son was 2 years old. We talk openly about our little girl and he often refers to his sister. We welcomed a new baby boy this year and we hope that he will also come to know his sister through practices like your family's: celebrating her birthday, a stocking and ornaments at Christmas, special plantings in our yard. I love the idea of the pink carnations in her stocking and may adopt that for our family. Thank you so much for the idea and for your perspective as Rachel's sister. I have not thought as clearly as your Mom (I love her explanation, and I think it is very wise) about why we have been so open with our children about their sister, but our reasons are similar: we are a family, and we will never forget our daughter even though her life was short. She mattered, and we miss her. Lots of love and good wishes to you and your family. Thank you again for sharing your experience so eloquently.

    1. Merry Christmas to you and your family. Thank you for sharing your experience with me. I am so happy that my writing found it's way to you.

    2. Hi Maura, I'm checking back in here to forward this page to another friend who has a friend who lost a baby at birth. I also shared it with my therapist, who shares it with her babylost patients. Thanks again, and best wishes to you!

    3. Aurelia,

      I'm so glad that you are sharing this story and I hope that it continues to bring comfort to others. How's your new baby boy? Must be growing quickly! Many happy wishes to you.


  3. My first child, Cora Rei, was stillborn 2 weeks before her due date. Over the years, we have developed many of the same traditions your family has. We release butterflies, go out to dinner, and have cake for her birthday. She has a stocking for Christmas. In it is a yearly letter from me and a gift to the family from "Santa." This gives me hope that as my living children grow (Cora's got a 6 year old sister, a 4 year old brother, a 2 year old sister and I am 2 weeks from delivery of a 2nd baby brother), they will "know" her too. Because she may not have lived outside of me, but she *did* live, and she is family. So thank you.

  4. I love your story, we lost our only child a daughter Mary Clara at 37 weeks 5 years ago. We have created several traditions that we do every year in memory of Mary. On her birthday we do a balloon release at the cemetery and we write messages on the balloons that we send up. My mom and I have donated decorated Christmas wreaths to the Festival of Trees that raises money for Primary Children's Hospital. One other thing I do is at Christmas I always buy an angel ornament for us and one for my parents and one for my husband's parents and give it to them from our daughter, we give it to them several weeks before Christmas so they can hang it on the tree all through the holidays.

  5. This is beautiful. SImply beautiful. In August of 2007 I gave birth to stillborn identical twin girls. Chloe Danielle and Zoe Grace were my 7th and 8th children. Their siblings were 19, 17, 10, 8, 3 and 23 months when they were born. My oldest two children moved away from home just days after the girls were born (they left for college and started their own lives) and my youngest son doesn't really remember that time in our family. But Chloe and Zoe are very much a part of our family, they are part of our holidays and their birthday is most certainly recognized and celebrated. My children plan an activity each year that they want to do as a family (we've hiked the falls, done a waterpark,etc.) and we spend the day wondering if their sisters would have enjoyed it as much as we think they would have and how much mischief they might be getting into this day. There is cake, singing, celebration and balloons. And of course some tears. My oldest two always call to let me know they are thinking of me, thinking of their sisters and missing them,too and celebrating in their own way. They send me pictures of their own balloon release or whatever they decide to do to personally remember the sisters they never got to meet. (They also got memorial tattoos to surprise me one year.) Many people including my mother in law have frowned upon our celebrations and our "insistence" at acting in such an odd manner about babies who are dead. I don't care. These were and are my children just as much as the six who are still living and breathing. And for as long as those six want to continue to celebrate the memory of the sisters they anticipated and lost we will continue to do so. I want my children to know that it is ok to grieve our loved ones openly. It doesn't make you odd or abnormal. It means you loved and loved deeply. It means you miss someone. It means you are human. And I will take that any day over the alternative. Thank you for writing this and thank you for always remember your sister and for sharing her with the rest of us.

  6. Thank you, thank you, thank you. This is beautiful validation for those of us who celebrate a missing child. It is like a snapshot 15 years into the future. I hope my living children understand. It is a little bit for me, but also very much for them. So thank you, for telling me that I'm doing it right and that it matters.

  7. Thank you, thank you, for sharing your expirience, your mother's wisdom and your sister Rachel with us. We are only two years out from the loss of our youngest daughter, AdiaRose. Her older sister is only five, and misses her every day. She is very firmly in the heart of our family.
    Thank you for reaching your hand back to all of us who's losses are so fresh and new. The value of long perspective cannot be measured.
    I am so sorry for the loss of your sister. I am so glad you had the dream about her.

    1. Jen,

      I love that phrase, "The value of long perspective cannot be measured."

      I think we can benefit from long perspective in so many aspects of life. As Rachel's older sister, I can assure you that your little one will benefit from AdiaRose being a strong presence in her life.

      May you and your family have a lovely holiday and many blessings in the New Year.


    2. My Dearest M...

      Please look for my response on your Email Account. Evidently there is too much to say to fit within the parameters of your blog. Sorry. Uncle Ben

      The day that the news of her passing arrived was the day that we had decided to let Benjamin (who is now 33) ride his bike for the first time without training wheels. We were all outside of our home in Shenandoah, near Baton Rouge, Then-wife Karen was chasing BJ all over the neighborhood as he tried his hand at two-wheeled suicide, running into trees, cars, mail boxes, and, once in a while, an errant pedestrian, who didn't move quickly enough to get out of the way.

      The phone rang, and as it happened, I was closest to the house. I ran inside and picked it up after about the fifth ring, believing it was State Police HQ, calling me regarding an assignment. As I listened, I walked back out into the garage courtesy of the extra long extension cord I had recently purchased from Radio Shack. I was finally able to say "Hello", and was greeted by your grandmother's voice, solemn in its timbre.

      "Ben", she said, "Rachael, David's youngest child has died". I can't really say what happened next. After all, I had never met, or held, your little sister. But for some reason, this news absolutely broke my heart, I began weeping and, with my back to the garage wall for support, slowly sank to the floor.

      Mother was not prepared for my level of expressed grief; but, once she determined that I would be OK, she rang off. Meanwhile, Karen heard me crying loudly from down the street and rushed home, her peripatetic boy and his bicycle in tow, to see what had happened. And that is how she found me...sitting and sobbing, more quietly now, in our garage. Truthfully, I do not know why her death struck such a chord in my heart, but it did...and it does still.

      Benjamin didn't understand what had happened, who Rachael actually was, or what HIS reaction was supposed to be, but Karen sent him on his way to play in the safer environs of our back yard while she tended to her wounded husband.

      Years passed, Karen and I were divorced after 15 years of marriage and two beautiful children, and life moved on. I retired from State Police, and relocated to New Orleans with my job as an Instructor for the US Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

      I was attending the Nativity of our Lord Catholic Church in Kenner when one Sunday, The Angel Tree Project was announced. It would be a monument with an embossed Tree with Golden Leaves adorning it. Each leaf would represent the name and date of death of a child, either taken from us prematurely, as Rachael was, or as a result of an Abortion. I submitted Rachael's name and date of her demise and it was accepted by the pastor of the church and approved by the Bishop. Once the monument was erected, I took pictures of the tree and her name and sent it to your Dad and Mom.

      So, my Darling M, unless Hurricane Katrina has blown the Church and Angel Memorial away, your sister, along with all of the other children so prematurely removed from our lives. still lives in the hearts and minds of all who view this special memorial. I just wanted you to know that I still weep for your little sister, but I pray, and I am confident that these prayers are answered, that she is with her great grandmother and the patriarch of our family, Big Ben, that they watch over her, and that she is far happier than we could ever be here within this veil of wrath an tears.

      The Tree of our memorial was not a living tree, and it is probably good that it wasn't, for the Hurricane so scored that land that it was unrecognizable in some cases. But it's branches reach heavenward, as well. In silent tribute to tiny Angels' silken tread, which left footprints in our lives and upon our hearts.

      Uncle Ben

  8. First off, thank you so much for writing this post.

    As a mother with two visible children and one who's "invisible" — one whose existence is celebrated in many of the same ways your family acknowledges Rachel — I struggle at times with striking balance between honoring the memory of my son Ryan and being present in the present for my girls, Ryan's little sisters. They of course never knew him — my oldest girl arrived 3 years after his passing — but I feel that it's important that they understand that he's still a member of our family. My oldest understands why we attend the butterfly release held by a local hospital, that his little light blue Christmas stocking hangs from the mantle along with everyone else's, that Ryan can't blow out his birthday candles or receive presents, why we planted "his tree," and why we light a candle for him at each holiday, as well as other activities we do to honor his memory. In the back of my mind I've often wondered if my girls' involvement in these activities was good for them or was it selfishly only for my benefit; some people outside my bubble would argue it's the latter only. But after reading your entry, I am both reassured and comforted that I'm not damaging my girls or scarring them permanently or anything else negative by involving them in keeping their brother's memory going. They are a part of him and he, a part of them. The invisible string ...

    Ryan was a heart baby like Rachel; none of his complex heart problems were caught until after his birth. The doctors did their very best to save him, but without a prenatal diagnosis they had lost precious time scrambling to treat him after delivery, once his heart had already begun to fail. He fought so very hard for every moment of his 54 hours with us but his little heart was just too broken. We barely said hello before we had to say goodbye to him.

    All that said, thank you again. I hope more parents read this and that they too find comfort in your words the way I have. It's put so many doubts to rest in my mind and given me renewed encouragement to keep on doing what I'm doing.

  9. Someone linked to this on Glow in the Woods again and I came back to re-read it. I just wanted to thank you again. It is such a beautiful post and I am so grateful that you wrote it. The part at the end about Rachel holding all of you up really struck me. What a beautiful idea. XO