Twenty-five years ago tonight - at ten minutes before midnight the day before my fifth birthday - my sister Elaina died.
I know. It probably seems a morbid way to begin a blog post; and this is not going to be about still grieving the loss of a baby sister who's been gone almost as long as I've been alive.
It's more about a pivotal point in my family's history and in my own philosophy.
It's amazing how much a five year old can absorb and how much some big event that happens when a person is five can really change their thinking. I was actually four when Elaina was born and in my world, babies were just a matter-of-fact event. Mom would be pregnant and eventually a new baby would come home to live with us. That's what had happened with Elizabeth and I could still remember that pretty clearly. I was much more excited for this new baby than I was for Elizabeth, though, and I was shocked and unable to grasp why my parents would've come home from the hospital without Elaina. It took a little while for it to dawn on me what was meant when they told me the new baby was very sick. Again, in my world babies didn't get sick, much less die. I still had no comprehension that Elaina might die, though I did pray very earnestly all summer for her to be healed so she could come home and live with us. I had every confidence that she would and I looked forward to it, partly because life was so topsy-turvy that summer that I couldn't wait for us all to be home and be a proper quiet family again instead of having me and Elizabeth staying with family and friends while our parents were at the hospital with Elaina.
It was during this time that I first became very suspicious of hospitals and doctors. Unfairly, to a great extent, though I did learn that when a person is in the hospital it's almost impossible to defy the rules, no matter what those rules are. In our case, children were never allowed in the NICU to visit babies. So at first, Elizabeth and I weren't even allowed in the family waiting room connected to the NICU, which meant we didn't get to see the new baby at all.
Eventually, when it became obvious Elaina's genetic condition was so severe that she was probably never going to make it out of the hospital, the administration bent the rules to allow me and Elizabeth to visit. It was a rare and massive concession and it must've made everyone nervous because little kids bring illnesses with them and there were a lot of other babies in that NICU not separated from Elaina by much. I didn't understand that at four years old, though, and as far as I was concerned, hospital rules and doctors inexplicably forbid us from seeing our baby sister and then made some weird rule that we could only see her for half an hour on Sunday afternoon after we'd asked permission.
Everyone's heard the phrase "falling in love" and I'm usually hesitant to use it. But when I finally saw Elaina, I did fall in love as much as a young child can. I wanted so fiercely for her to get better. I wanted to touch and hold her and kiss her fuzzy funny-shaped little head. Considering how fragile she was, I marvel that I was allowed to touch her and kiss her head; but I did and there are pictures to prove it. To this day, when some family members don't like to look at pictures of Elaina because it's clear how deformed she was, I still feel a surge of defensive protectiveness. I didn't care then and I don't care now that she was funny looking. I remember what she looked like and how she smelled and how I considered her my baby too. She was just Elaina, and funny-looking went with the territory. Same went for Jonathan about eighteen years later.
The strange thing is that as much as I loved her, when she died I was sad but not in any way inconsolable. It must've had something to do with how my parents responded. A good friend remembers my dad calling up the morning of my birthday - the day after Elaina died - to tell him what had happened. As they were talking, Dad heard the garbage truck turn onto the street and ended the conversation by saying, "Oh, I'd better go. Time to get the garbage out."
I learned from that. I learned that the baby can die and the garbage still has to go out. And that's a good thing. Life doesn't stop because someone dies. Life didn't stop here when Joshua died. I knew it wouldn't when we lost him. I knew because I remembered. That's quite a gift of preparation, when you think about it. It's one thing to have the philosophy that God is good and grief isn't something that should ever take away from the peace and joy that comes from his Spirit, and if I hadn't had that preparation the philosophy would've comforted me. But I also had memories. I had memories of how exactly a year later, Mom had a beautiful, healthy baby boy who's grown into my wonderful brother Aaron and where we had been sad one year on my birthday, the next year we were waiting for there to be a new baby born at any minute. Babies die; and new babies are born; and God is good.
I also learned to treasure life in a way I'm not sure I would've otherwise. Many people do treasure life deeply without losing someone - this is just how I learned. I never, ever took the birth of a healthy sibling (or even an unhealthy one, in Jonathan's case!) for granted. Looking back, the love I felt for each of them was the same love I first experienced when I saw Elaina that first time in the hospital. I don't think I experienced the same thing when Elizabeth was born, probably because I was quite a bit younger and because I didn't have the same understanding that not every baby comes home, and when they do it's something to be deeply glad of.
This year, carrying my own child and having lost one, remembering Elaina's death is a little different than it usually is. If anything, I have greater respect for my parents and how they handled the whole thing. There's a statistic with some fantastically high number indicating how many parents divorce after the death of a child, and my parents' marriage not only survived, but they had many more children afterward and continued to love each other deeply. They were not paralyzed by grief but went about having a funeral and actually comforting many people who attended with a calmness that I've taken for granted before when I think back on it. I remember they read the passage of the Bible that speaks of David when his son with Bathsheba was taken sick and died as a consequence of his terrible sin - David laid before the Lord for three days and nights and wouldn't eat or drink as he pleaded for God to heal the baby. But when he learned the baby had died, he got up and washed his face and put on clean clothes and ate a meal. His aides didn't understand him at all, but he explained to them that while the baby lived, he thought perhaps God might have mercy and heal him. When the baby died, David said, "I will go to him, but he can never return to me." And then he went to the tabernacle and worshiped the Lord.
Only someone who believes God is good can behave that way. And my parents did. To the point that I still remember how they behaved twenty-five years later and I remember that while today was a sad day, it was also a good day. It's a good day today, not one to look back on with any kind of unhappiness. If it's any indication of how our family regarded Elaina's death, we finally got a headstone for her this year just because it seemed like after twenty-five years we should probably stop remarking every year that we should mark her grave. It's odd because if you look at the baby section of the cemetery people really go all-out in decorating baby graves, even putting little Halloween decorations out and constantly putting flowers on the headstones and so on. We never did that. We just said, "What's there in the cemetery isn't really Elaina and we'll see her again someday." I look forward to seeing Elaina again someday.
In the meantime, I think I'm going to call Mom.
Wife of Benjamin and mother to two wonderful little girls who are getting bigger every day. Enjoys writing down thoughts and discussions we are having within the family and sharing them with whoever is interested in reading.
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