This picture is from an internet story commonly called "The Rescue Hug." When I verified the facts at http://www.snopes.com/glurge/hug.asp I couldn't help but think, "So it really wasn't my imagination!."
My life was changed by two deaths when I was 19. On July 30, 1976, my father died from a heart attack. Describing the second event, following a month later, as “a death” isn’t completely accurate. It was news of a death and affirmation of a life.
My mother simply cleared her throat one morning while we ate breakfast, avoided meeting my eyes, and began to speak.
“Whenever I go, I don’t want there to be any surprises.”
“Okay,” I said.
“You had a sister. A twin. She died a few days after you were born. I never saw her.”
Even 35 years later I am struck by my immediate reaction to this information, almost more than the information itself. Never before, nor since, have I experienced such a physical reaction to news. As soon as my mother said, “You had a sister,” I was flooded with two simultaneous thoughts. They were words, but it was more like a wordless certainly, vibrating through every cell of my body.
I knew that.
That explains everything.
I have never known anything else with a physical certainty. This spontaneous knowing, this naming of a truth that had been a silent part of me my entire life, was a tremendous gift. My loneliness, my sadness, my longing for connection, for something more, began in the womb.
I knew that.
That explains everything.
“Why did she die?” I asked.
“She was too small. It was a double pregnancy. I became pregnant again after I was pregnant with you.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” My wonderment was streaked with filaments of anger. It was a gift, but it was a gift I was supposed to have been given 19 years earlier. How many times throughout my childhood had I come to her, jealous of the close relationship my brothers shared, and lamented, “I wish I had a sister.” Times were different, I know. No one would have even considered the possibility I might in some way have known of my sister and grieved her absence. But it would have been so easy to say, “You know, you did have a sister once . . .”
“Your father thought it would be better. He was afraid you might feel guilty that you survived and she didn’t.”
I accepted that my parents acted with the best intentions. Maybe my Dad thought it would be easier on my Mom, too, to pretend my sister had never existed.
“You never saw her?” My Mom shook her head. “What was her name?”
“There’s no grave?”
“I think she was cremated.”
In my early 30s Rick and I attended a grief group for parents who had lost children under one year. I had miscarried twice and we were still hurting. At Parent Care I learned that cremating stillborns and scattering ashes in a hospital garden was a common practice in the 1950s and 1960s. My Mom didn’t know what happened to my sister’s ashes, but I’d like to think they grew into roses somewhere.
The raw grief over my father’s unexpected death soon subsumed the power of the news of my twin. I spent a lot of emotional energy with several therapists over the following ten years resolving my feelings about my Dad. I had a volatile relationship with him through most of my adolescence, though typically limited to dinner table skirmishes. We had reached a tentative détente during the year before he died.
It wasn’t until I married Rick that I realized something didn’t feel “done” with my sister. I believed getting a copy of Susan’s death certificate would help me affirm her life and her passing. I called the Bureau of Vital Statistics in Newark, NJ, our city of birth, and asked what I needed to do. A letter of request stating my relationship to the deceased and a $4 check led to an unsettling discovery. There is no death certificate for my sister, not in Newark, nor in Trenton, the repository of statistics throughout the state.
A series of sporadic inquiries over the following six years confirmed the lack of legal verification of her death. I received her birth certificate and learned she carried my mother’s name, Lucretia, as her middle name. Clerks in the two government agencies were unable to tell me whether death certificates went missing with any frequency, or whether it never happened.
My imagination went into overdrive after this discovery. I wasn’t sure I wanted to know any more. Throughout the last nine years I had been ignoring a persistent concern: why did my sister die after three days? A part of my mind was convinced that my father, a surgeon and chief of staff at Beth Israel Hospital, had ordered she not be fed. There had been something wrong with her beyond a small size, and he had decided it would be best for the family to be complete with three healthy children and did not want to add a fourth, handicapped child.
Before the eerily familiar novel The Memory Keeper’s Daughter was published in 2005, I wondered about a possible reality similar to this fictional plot. In Kim Edwards’ novel the doctor-father of twins banishes the new-born daughter with Downs’ Syndrome to an institution, brings home the healthy boy, and tells his wife their daughter died. A nurse decides to raise the child herself rather than send her to an institution. If my father had given some kind of “no nourishment” order, perhaps a nurse couldn’t tolerate the decision and secretly took the baby. My father would have been told she died and the nurse would have entered that in her chart. These ideas feel like crazy thinking, yet they stay with me.
I hate the fact that it is emotionally plausible to me that my father would intentionally let his own child die. I want to defend my father, to assure myself that of course he could never do anything like that; but why doesn’t it feel impossible?
Did my mother say that Pop told her, it was better to let nature take its course? I don’t know why I can’t remember her saying those words yet feel that’s exactly what she said. The only time she spoke of my sister was that humid August morning a month after my father died. She wouldn’t talk about it again. When I’d ask in later years she’d say, “Ellen, I can’t remember,” or “I’ve told you everything I know.” She passed away in 2003. My brothers knew nothing about my sister, and there is no one else alive to ask.
I didn’t contact the hospital for copies of medical records until 1991. While I didn’t think they would keep anything that long, I wonder if part of me wanted to maintain the fantasy that she was alive somewhere. It wasn’t an especially pretty fantasy; in my minds’ eye, she was living in an institution, with mental and physical handicaps. But if she was there, maybe I could figure out how to find her.
Full medical records had been stored for 25 years before being destroyed. I was nine years too late. The remaining records were microfiche copies of 3 x 5 inch file cards, one for me and one for Susan. They would be destroyed the following year. I received four copied pages, the front and back of each record, and a form with a handwritten note in purple ink: “I’m sorry we couldn’t be of more help.”
I am Reich Baby Girl #2, chart # K6156. I was discharged eight days after birth. Discharge Diagnosis: “Twin term birth, living child.” Susan is Reich Baby Girl #1. She was born 14 minutes before me at 2:53 a.m. The words “Discharge Date” are typed over with capital Xs and “Expired 5-3-57” is entered in the blank. On the back is the same Admitting Diagnosis: New Born. The Final Diagnosis: “Premature birth, neonatal death. Twin.” Under Complications are the words “Probable cerebral atresia.”
It was the information I was looking for, but it didn’t provide the peace I sought. There still should have been a death certificate.
Repeated hours of Internet research yielded only a definition of atresia, and never linked it with cerebral. Atresia is defined as a condition in which a body orifice or passage in the body is abnormally closed or absent. I can’t put that together with “cerebral” in any meaningful way, given that the brain is neither an orifice nor a passage. And I don’t think a baby with an “absent brain” could live three days.
There is one more entry on the hospital record cards: Religion – Hebrew. As much as my father ignored his Judaism, he felt the call of his people enough to offer us his religion, at least on paper. I believe my sense of childhood longing was connected to my lost sister, but I also yearned for a faith community. For a long time, as a committed agnostic, I wasn’t sure what community I belonged in, but when I entered the world of Judaism I felt I had come home.
[i] Obstetrics & Gynecology: April 1957 - Volume 9 - Issue 4 - ppg 435-438, http://journals.lww.com/greenjournal/Citation/1957/04000 /Report_of_a_case_with_thirty_five_days_between.9.aspx.
The man was in a hurry, stopping for a fresh sandwich on his way to a physical therapy appointment. After that he would scoot to his regular therapist. Both outer and inner pain needed attending.
The store he chose for lunch hires those who are often unemployable elsewhere. The philosophy was admirable; the sandwiches were delicious; and the location was convenient. As a man who often ran late, his timing was, again, down to the wire.
He noticed the woman behind the counter seemed overwhelmingly OCD. Her movements and actions were precise and often repeated, aiming for some invisible adjustment or perfection. He gave an internal nod to the store for hiring her and waited for her to complete the order ahead of him.
When he stepped up to the counter he looked at his watch and felt his irritation.
“Turkey, Swiss, spinach, tomato and mustard on rye, please.”
She began, smoothing each piece of bread with Dijon. The knife stroked the slices over and over.
The man closed his eyes and breathed in slowly and deeply. He was careful to control his exhale so it didn’t make an audible sigh. He now had less than 10 minutes until his first appointment and the walk, at an average pace, would take 12 minutes.
She selected turkey slices, one at a time, slowly folding them into accordion thirds as she lined the bread. Four slices, then gentle nudging with her latex-clad fingers to add a fifth slice. She considered it, then carefully moved each piece a hair to the left and added a sixth slice.
The man gave her a tight smile then looked at his watch again.
The woman looked over his shoulder. Her hands hovered motionless over the cheese slices as she took in the four people standing behind the man.
“Swiss would be great,” the man suggested, hoping he sounded friendly rather than out of patience.
She methodically and precisely overlapped three slices of cheese on top of the six slices of turkey. Moving on to the bin of tomatoes she studied the sizes, picking through the options. She found one that perfectly covered the left half of the sandwich. She picked and searched for a second slice and was coming up short. She placed two smaller circles on the right half, then took them off and placed them in the trash, returning to the remaining tomatoes.
The man rolled his eyes and sighed audibly. He hoped it at least sounded sympathetic, but he was beginning to seethe.
“Any size is fine.”
She kept looking until she found a near match and placed it on the empty half.
The line had grown to six people and the woman’s hands began shaking slightly.
She added spinach to the sandwich. Not a handful, but leaf by leaf. Then she began rearranging the leaves, searching for some pattern or coverage that would be satisfactory. It seemed to those in line that the woman was like a stuck record, repeating the same actions over and over. A leaf moved to the right, then back to the left. A new leaf added, leaves adjusted to make room, and again repositioned.
Someone farther back in line called out, “Lady, we haven’t got all day!” The customer next in line groaned, cursed, and left. The woman kept her eyes riveted to the sandwich in front of her while her hands continued making adjustments.
The man knew his appointment would be truncated as his lateness was now unavoidable. He couldn’t walk fast enough, much less eat as he walked.
He gazed at the sandwich maker, pulling out his credit card to make payment at the register quicker. A feeling washed through him, stilling his hands and diverting his irritation.
“You know,” he said gently, “that’s the most beautiful sandwich anyone’s ever made for me.”
The woman’s eyes filled as she gazed back at him. Her smile almost broke the man’s heart as she placed the second slice of mustard-covered-rye on top, sliced, and wrapped his lunch.
What is she doing? Bending down, twisting her head, oh Lord! She’s trying to get a closer look. Well I’m certainly not helping her. I still every muscle, disappearing behind my eyes in the imperious way I am inclined to do. I admit it, I hide. I’ll hide physically first, and if that’s not an option I simply act like I haven’t a care in the world, calmly perfecting my icy stare.
This is a little more difficult at the moment. She is about three inches away and is, I believe, trying to look at the bottom of my chin. I silently stare her down. Nothing to see, anyway.
The occasional rudeness of this woman never ceases to amaze me. I know she’s fond of me; she shows me almost daily with her gentle touch, doing the things I cannot do for myself.
It is distinctly odd, making one’s home in a beautiful place stuffed with rules. The worst is the locked access. I can never leave. At least, not by myself. And she only takes me out once or twice a year – more if I’m sick. Of course I never get sick, because I’m prevented from coming into contact with anyone or anything in the outside world.
She seems to think filling the place with windows is good enough. Doesn’t she understand? That seeing without touching is torture?
I do not understand this fascination with my chin. She must have stared at it a full 30 seconds, not a word, bringing her face so close I thought she would bump her nose into me. Or maybe leave to get a flashlight. I felt so dissected! So objectified! Since I cannot speak to her she seems to forget my heart beats, my eyes see, that I sleep and dream and long for things I cannot have.
She seems to know I love the outdoors, I’ll give her that. She always opens the shades, all the way to the top, so I can see out. And she lets me sit right in front of almost any window I want. You can see, can’t you, how childlike this existence makes me. Sit in front of any window I want! Lord. But what can I do? This is my life.
I spend my days creating an inner peace that matches my outer calm. I look completely contented, I’m sure. Focusing on nature, mostly birds filling the feeders, staying a tantalizing time then fleeing, I meditate. My breath is still; deep, but rhythmic and gentle. I am aware of every muscle in my body. They are still, but taut, ready to spring at the slightest danger. But she catches me any time she wants to. My spring and speed are an illusion in her world. Sometimes I can hide. It’s a big enough house. I move around when she’s distracted. Then, when she remembers me, I still have a pillow of time until she finds me. But she’s good. If she wants to know where I am, I can’t move. I’ve never been able to sneak past her.
She seems satisfied with her inspection of my chin, righting herself to a normal position. She picks up the mug, filled with warm milk but ruined with something brown and smelly. She’s inspecting the surface. Is she looking for bugs? I wouldn’t have let a bug stay in there. I mean I was sitting right next to it.
She finds nothing, but shoots me another suspicious glance. She walks across the kitchen with the mug, picks up the paper with her other hand, and settles herself on the sofa by the best window in the house. That’s OK. She leaves the arm - velvety green, like moss – for me. I can watch the finches while she reads.
She never appreciates anything I do for her. I was willing to swallow some of that tainted milk, just to remove the silverfish swimming on the surface.
If I lived
as if today really mattered
I would kiss the morning sunshine
I would stretch and breathe
and feel every muscle;
I would love with a whole heart,
arms gently touching your heart;
I would stroke my dog’s head,
run my hand down her soft back,
and place sweet kisses
on her nose;
I would be brave
and welcome all that came my way;
I would feel the terror
from abject fear;
And I would breathe,
in and out
again and again;
Honoring the life
in my bones
Thanking God for another shot,
to help another feel loved.
If I lived
today really mattered.
They both spun the earth
He on a wheel
She with a pen.
At the many forms
Their spinning could make
It rose into shape.
Flawed to the eye of the creator
It was gathered
And remolded again.
They gazed with wonder
At the mysterious talents
Of the other
Giving beauty to the sand.
Surround the wicked
with vowel and rhythm.
Break their knees
Melt their blades
with nature and God.
Sear their hearts
with liquid words.
Illuminate the evil
with nuance and symbol.
Shine the light
with stanza and song.
Surround the wicked
Be not deterred.
I come from
A land of plenty
A house, a yard
Lush and large.
I come from
A mother and a father and two older brothers
Plus a dog, and a dog, and a dog, and a dog.
I come from
With a sister
I grieve her loss
My sense of truth, of reality, of right
Negated and blanketed and denied
They loved me
They couldn't bear
So they swallowed their own
For my sake.
And who suffered for it?
I come from a love so deep
The pain of loss
Terrified us all.