My daughter likes depressing books. “Someone dies in the first chapter,” Grace says gleefully of a novel she can’t put down. Maybe this inclination comes naturally, growing up with the ghost of a sister she never knew.
I started reading book jackets, to make sure the content was appropriate for an 11-year-old. That’s how I got pulled into some great kids’ novels with dark content: Kira-Kira, by Cynthia Kadohata, about a Japanese American family in the 1950s, who leave their home in Iowa for factory work in the deep South; So B. It, by Sara Weeks, about a girl with no father and a mother who’s mentally disabled, being raised by an agoraphobic next-door neighbor.
Grace is drawn to literary themes of disconnection and dislocation. She and her brother, Sam, who’s a year and a half older, were preschoolers when their dad and I got divorced. I’d heard that kids tend to blame themselves when parents break up, so I got a book called It’s Not Your Fault, Koko Bear, in which a cub named Koko Bear comes to understand that his parents’ divorce is not at all his fault.
I read the book over and over to Sam and Grace, until 4-year-old Sam said, “Can we please read something else? We get it. It’s not our fault.”
Sam and Grace’s dad disappeared from their lives shortly after the divorce. A couple years later, I decided we should leave our house in the woods for a place closer to the city. Again, books would light the children’s path. I bought a half-dozen picture books featuring moving vans, tearful departures, and new friendships. I explained the concept of neighbors, touted the joys of a room of one’s own.
We started over, a total revision of our previous life. I bought a house in the town where I grew up. I got married again, to my friend Keith, whom I’d known for a long time. The years went by and Grace’s idea of a good read evolved from Koko Bear to Kira-Kira. As a sophisticated sixth grader, she rolled her eyes at the sight of an old copy of Ira Says Good-bye. “What was up with all those moving books?” she asked.
“I was just trying to help. We were coping with a lot of big changes and you were so little.”
“But they’re so boring!” she said. “The kid would be sad about moving and then it would turn out ok.”
Grace knows that the most compelling plots are not so easily resolved. There is always a back-story, the events that set the plot in motion long before the main character is born. Revisions, and subsequent revisions, are accountable to the past.
Before Grace and Sam arrived on the planet, their dad and I had a daughter named Madeline. She died in a car accident when she was not quite 16 months old. On a November night in northern Minnesota, a man lost control of his vehicle and hit our car head-on. Strapped in her car seat, Madeline experienced the equivalent of shaken-baby syndrome and never recovered. I suffered multiple broken bones, requiring various surgeries and therapies. And I was pregnant. Sam was born eight months later; Grace was born a year and a half after that.
I should explain, as I always do when I reveal I had a daughter who died, that it’s been many years and I’m ok. My grieving is done. I see the face of the person I’m telling, an acquaintance who is becoming a friend, and I feel bad for burdening them with this sad fact about me. I usually stumble into it. I start telling a story and then realize Madeline figures into the plot and I have to explain why I’ve never mentioned her before. “I had this daughter,” I say, “my first born.” I dread their sadness, the instant change in expression, the pain they feel for me, for themselves. I tell myself that I don’t like to burden people, but the truth is I don’t like to glimpse the grief again, even from someone who never knew her. It’s been a long time, I explain. It’s really ok.
And I almost never explain that I had a feeling Madeline wouldn’t be with us long. When she was about eight months old, I went to a conference with a women’s group in a neighboring town. A bunch of us rode together in someone’s van. It was the first really warm day of spring, a Saturday. Most of the women were a few years older than I, with children who were grown or about to graduate. On the way home, they started talking about their shared past. One of them had run a daycare, and she took care of the other women’s children.
“Do you remember little Laura?” the former daycare lady said.
“Oh, yes,” the women nodded. Their sadness was palpable, immediate.
“She died,” the woman in the seat next to me said quietly.
“There was something about her,” the daycare lady was saying. “She had a certain wisdom, the calmest eyes.”
“She was what they call an old soul,” someone said.
“Yes, that’s right. An old soul. I always felt like she knew she wasn’t going to live that long. Afterward, it kind of made sense.”
“What do you mean about the eyes?” I asked, trying to keep the panic out of my voice, to sound merely curious. “And when did you notice it?”
“Oh, I don’t know. She started coming to my daycare when she was just a baby. What was she, four when she died? She had a certain presence, even when she was a tiny thing. And when she got a little older, the things she’d say. She was wise beyond her years. I can’t explain it exactly.”
Their conversation moved on. I rode the rest of the way in silence. When I got home, my husband and daughter were on the front deck, enjoying the first warmth of spring. He stood on the top rung of the ladder, cleaning the windows of their winter grime. She sat on the deck, her arms reaching for me as I came up the walk. I looked into Madeline’s wise, laughing eyes and saw it was true. I lifted her into my arms and held her close, desperately close. And yet—I was so grateful to hold her little body, warmed by the April sun. Winter’s chill was gone. We wouldn’t feel it again for months. I couldn’t help but laugh with her.
Later, after she was gone, I had to admit that if she knew, she was at peace with it. Not that I could acknowledge any of it right away. After the accident, I spent months inside the house, recovering from my injuries, grieving. Inconsolable is not the word. I did not want to be consoled. I screamed a lot. We lived in the woods. My husband was either working or out in the barn, attempting to drink his grief into submission. Because I was pregnant, I had to be sober. Because I was alone, I could give full vent to my keening. Her death was so completely unfair and tragic and awful. Why couldn’t she have a life? How could this have happened? Wasn’t this just a huge mistake, a slip on the ice? How about this, God, how about if her soul were to occupy the baby I’m carrying now? That’s fair, isn’t it?
I gave no thought to the soul she would displace, and whatever God thought of the idea, I didn’t hear. I was preoccupied with voicing my list of demands, having been dealt the world’s worst injustice. Months into it, there came a moment when I was quiet. I heard a voice, neither male nor female, and definitely not my own. It wasn’t my voice because it was calm, with only the slightest edge of impatience, as if it had been trying to get a word in for quite some time. “It’s ok,” the voice said. “She’s with me. She’s fine. Pull yourself together so you can love the children who are coming.”
I know it sounds crazy (which is why I don’t tell people), but that’s how I found out everything’s going to be ok. I can grieve for my loss, but Madeline doesn’t need my grieving. Whatever it was she came here to do—save three or four lives through organ donation, show me a love so powerful it transcends death—she did it. Maybe she didn’t come here to do anything. Either way, she’s fine. God said so. She is with God. God is with me. She is with me.
It is one thing to know this when your child is six months dead. A dozen years later, it is something else. At different points during what would have been her life, I find myself grieving—for what I’ve lost, for what we’ve missed as a family, and for what I’ve forgotten about her brief life.
For instance, the summer when Madeline would have turned 15, I became haunted by the intangible vision of my first-born daughter as a teenager. I feared I’d forgotten who she was, and couldn’t imagine who she would have become. I took out the old photo album with its shiny silver cover, her name and birth date engraved on the surface. Inside, the plastic sleeves were wrinkled and the binding was falling apart. After she died, Madeline’s dad took the photo album out on the deck and left it there in the rain. Amazingly, the photos inside the sleeves were not damaged.
I bought a new album, with a pink gingham cover. Unlike the one it replaced, this album held two photos on a page, four on a spread, which would allow me to incorporate other pictures of her that I’d stashed in a photo box. I spread out dozens of photos on the floor, sorting them by season, and then by month, even week. Her life was short, and I could easily figure out the chronology. With each image, I remembered who she was. Her laughing eyes said so much. I could almost but not quite remember her smell. I was reminded of how glad she was to be here, how happy I was to be her mother.
There was a tap-tap on the door. “Do you want some help?” Grace asked.
“That would be great.”
If Madeline is an old soul, it makes sense that Grace is a younger one. Even as a toddler, Grace was an observer, quietly watching us before deciding how she fit in, how to ask for what she wanted. She’s also organized and good at crafty things, but more than her expertise, I welcomed her curiosity about her sister. Often, when I think of Madeline at whatever age she would be now, I stumble over where she’d fit in our family. If Madeline hadn’t died, would her dad and I have divorced sooner or later than we did? How would Grace be different if she had an older sister? How would Sam be as the monkey in the middle?
I organized the photos in chronological sets of four, and Grace inserted them into the sleeves. “Notice how she’s smiling in every photo?” I said. “Except this one. It was the Fourth of July, right before she turned one.” In the photo, I’m sitting in a rocking chair on the porch at Mom’s lake house, with Madeline lying on her belly across my legs. I’m patting her back, trying to soothe her, but she’s screaming, her enraged face aimed at whoever took the photo.
“We had friends visiting that day.” I pick up the photo next to it, with Madeline and my friend’s daughter Hannah, both smiling in the dirt, wearing red, white and blue. “This one with Hannah was taken about ten minutes before the one where she’s screaming. With all the excitement of the day, she hadn’t had a nap.”
“That’s how babies are,” Grace says. “Happy one minute, screaming the next.”
“Well, even really little kids have their moods. One of my favorite photos of you is the one in the garden when you were about two. Remember that?”
Grace nods, a grinchy smile.
“Your arms are folded across your chest and you’re looking at the camera real mad, wearing your hot-pink shorts. Like Grandma says, even as a baby, you were a force with which to contend.”
As she places another photo in its sleeve, she gushes, “Aw, how cute.” But she’s silent as she handles the photo of Madeline with her dad and me. Grace had her father’s attention for a few more months than Madeline did, but Madeline had him for her whole life, undistracted by grief. I will always weigh my daughters’ losses like this, individually and relative to each other.
We work our way through the album, careful not to skip pages, since we’re leaving nothing to fill the gaps. When we reach the end, it feels like a book, the story of Madeline’s life. In the last photo, she’s standing with my friend Ann. They’re waving at me through the window. She died a couple of weeks later. I close the back cover, flip it over, and start looking through the pages.
“Wait,” Grace says, “I just thought of something.”
Something in her tone tells me what’s coming. I’ve been expecting this question for years.
“If Madeline hadn’t died, you might not have wanted another daughter so much, and you might not have had me.”
I feel unprepared to answer, despite the premonition. I have to get this right. “Grace, you would have been born to me no matter what. You are a force with which to contend, God’s relentless grace.”
She smiles, false modesty. “You really think I’m a force with which to contend?”
“In a good way, almost always in a good way.”
It’s been a few years since I last saw Madeline. The spring before she would have turned twelve, I was sitting on the front stoop, enjoying the full bloom of the crabapple tree. And there she was, next to me on the steps, a skinny-legged blonde, although that was as much as I could conjure.
“Do you ever wish you were here, with us, in this family?” I asked.
It seemed she might linger, if I didn’t look too hard. Like playing a Ouiju board, maybe pushing to spell the words I wanted to hear, or maybe it really was Madeline. I couldn’t stop, couldn’t miss this chance.
“How am I doing? What do you see?” I asked.
You’re really growing up.
I laughed. “You’re not.”
I don’t need to, she said, in a way that struck me as impertinent.
I let her go or she disappeared, back to wherever she goes. I inhaled the crabapple that is so gorgeous, so briefly in bloom, and went back inside the house, back to the living.