IT HAPPENED TO ME: I Grew Up in the Shadow of My Dead Sister

No matter what I achieved, there was always a photo album on the shelf dedicated to a daughter that could have been anything.
Publish date:
March 6, 2015
death, grieving, family, sister, mourning

Growing up, my mother liked to tell me how much she’d wanted a daughter. How happy she was when I was born. However, there was more to this seemingly cheery statement than I first realized: I was my parents’ second daughter. Their first one had died.

I found out about her from a photo album kept on a dusty shelf. At first I thought the little blanket-swaddled bundle was me, but the cheeks were too small. As a baby, I’d earned the nickname “Ziggy” for my balloon-like facial features. This kid had to be someone else.

My mother explained the facts of Heather’s existence. Two years before my birth, my parents had another daughter who lived for six hours. There were complications with her brain. Everyone knew what was going to happen — not that it made things easier.

In the picture of my parents holding Heather, their faces are grave. A tuft of hair much darker than mine is stuck to the first page of Heather’s photo album, beside her pressed pink baby hat. There are ink prints of two tiny feet on her birth certificate.

Most of the album is taken up by cards commemorating her death and birth at once, full of of purple flowers and sympathy wishes. A family friend wrote a beautiful poem for her memorial service, calling her a “laughing clog-dancer.” No one had ever called me a laughing clog-dancer. It seemed like a pretty fabulous title.

My family moved from New England to Canada when I was one, and Heather came along with them. A box in the cupboard held ashes from her cremation. My mother planned to bury them in the yard someday and plant a tree over them, but she never got around to doing it. The ashes stayed put.

I missed the older sibling I’d never had a chance to know. In the first grade family albums we had to draw, I filled the sister page with a drawing of a tree over ashes and wrote “My sister is dead.”

Every Christmas, I’d look through the Sears Wish Book for gift inspiration. My parents no doubt hoped for a list of toys and games. Instead, I pointed at every female catalog model in my age range. “I want a sister!”

My two younger brothers were great people to grow up with. I loved bossing them around in complex fantasy games, being the queen or the teacher. But I couldn’t trade clothes with my brothers, and they didn’t share my attention span. I imagined that somehow, a sister would understand me.

“When I grow up, I’m going to build a ladder to Heaven and go get Heather and bring her down,” I vowed one day. Heather’s absence made her all the more appealing. She filled the void of my sister fantasies. My life would be full of flowers and magic and crime-solving motifs from my favorite books, if only I could get her back.

I’m sure she filled a similar void for my mother. She wrote children’s stories, ostensibly to publish someday, but partially to keep me entertained. The character based on me was a kid who read all the time. The character based on Heather was an angel who made a heavenly newcomer feel at home.

My mother said again and again that she was lucky to have a daughter. What type of daughter did I have to be to live up to that statement? I was uncoordinated and tantrum-prone and kept my room messy. How could I compare to a sibling who’d never made mistakes?

Death creates an ideal that’s impossible to live up to. I saw this in high school when two students were killed in car crashes. Suddenly everyone was talking about them, and students who didn’t know them well acted like they’d been best buddies. Deeds that would have been frowned upon in life were either glossed over or discussed with rapture.

Dead children take on a mythical quality. Their short lives become larger than life, their futures outrageously promising because they never had a chance to happen.

Dead children are uniformly wonderful. This can be hard on surviving siblings, whose grief is mixed with all the other feelings of a close relationship, such as anger or envy.

With someone like Heather, dead without having had much chance to live, the myth is different. Not only did Heather get the best name in the family (Heather Meadow), but she also got immunity from the blunders of living. No matter what I achieved, there was always a photo album on the shelf dedicated to a daughter who could have been anything.

I looked for people whose lives were shaped by similar loss and found many. My best friend at school had a dead sister, and like me, dreamed of finding her again. My aunt had a stillborn daughter.

People came out of the woodwork and revealed themselves as members of this secret club. Some grieved grandparents. Adoptees missed birth parents and rumored siblings. I kept a list diligently in my head and drew dark comfort from being one of many. It wasn’t so strange, after all, to grieve a family member you’ve never met.

I wanted to show Heather respect by grieving her properly. At around age 10, I kept a diary where I wrote about her a lot, scribbling poems and pictures. I even composed a mournful lullaby (which, in retrospect, I shouldn’t have shared with my mom).

Whenever I achieved something picture-in-the-paper worthy or did something interesting, I thought of Heather. “She should have been the one doing this. She could have done it better.” At the same time, I tried my best to live up to her blank-slate perfection, to fashion myself into a good prospective dead person.

As time went on, I got caught up in other things, but thoughts about Heather asserted themselves whenever I met some sort of goal. In high school, I took up the alto saxophone and loved it. The sound was resonant. It took up space. In the shower one morning, a Heather thought interrupted me. “She never got the chance to play the saxophone.”

Some part of me wondered if she would have made it to Carnegie Hall, while another part of me felt sad that she’d missed out.

The truth is that Heather couldn’t have done many of the things I took pride in, even if she’d lived. I still have Heather thoughts sometimes, but they’re tempered by gratitude at being the living daughter, the one with the good fortune to try a wide array of experiences.