I do not remember my sister Susie, who died when I was two. I do remember a crisp sheet pulled tight against my chin, my lashes whisking against my big stuffed dog Old Gold’s neck, straining to hear a whisper in the dark. Once, as an adult, I saw the faint silhouette of long fingers glide across my ceiling. It was comforting to imagine that the grains of dark and light that sometimes materialize in shapes before tired eyes might be a evidence that Susie did, in fact, still exist. Somewhere.
I figured out early on that flying under the radar, remaining unseen and unheard, was easiest for both me and my mother. I worried about her. Would she be tired and sad, or mad for no good reason? I spent hours in my room, having graham-cracker-and-milk tea parties with Barbie dolls or teaching simple arithmetic to the army of stuffed animals who camped out on my bed. I quietly slipped notes with shiny red heart stickers under my mom’s bedroom door, assuring her that I loved her. I was sorry, even if it was my older sister Ellen or my younger brother Rob who had been “bad.” I longed for her forgiveness.
As a young girl, I imagined that my mother had a sacred space—a corner of the attic or a shoe box stashed high in a closet—where I might find my missing sister. All fingerprints of her brief life had been wiped clean or hidden away. Susie was a hushed mystery. For years, I had no idea that she had died of pneumonia at age four, only that she suddenly disappeared. Any of us could suddenly disappear. And yet, there was no erasing the icy sigh of her breath in my mother’s kiss.
The night that my oldest son, Justin, was born, the love I felt for him was miraculous. It was also terrifying. He’s so tiny—am I holding him the right way? Why isn’t he latching onto my breast? Is he ever going to stop crying? These are the questions that many new moms ask the maternity-ward nurses, their husband, and other mothers. But I also had silent concerns: Does my baby sense the heaviness I’m constantly fighting to lift? Please, dear God, don’t let him think it’s his fault. Why can’t I simply enjoy my perfect, healthy baby?
I tried—not always successfully—to keep the secret of my worsening depression safely locked away from my new family. I battened it down tighter, stuffed it deeper. I kept a medicine chest full of small brown bottles: anti-depressants, anti-anxiety, anti…
This was how, for many years, I loved my children. I protected them from the things that I most feared in myself.
To this day, my mother will not talk about Susie, insists that she doesn’t remember her. This could be true. Maybe her grief is all that she has left of her middle daughter. Maybe, as a young mother left to raise three children—mostly alone while her physician husband worked long days healing others—she simply couldn’t afford to reveal the depth of her sorrow. Maybe she was afraid that grief was somehow toxic, like a communicable disease. She won’t say, and I cannot pretend to fully understand.
One time, when I was a young mother, afraid that my love was not enough for my two sons, my mother did share a secret with me. This was, by far, the bravest thing that I have ever witnessed her doing.
My memory places us in the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, a short drive from where my parents live in Wisconsin. Justin and Drew were old enough to be off exploring the human-body exhibit on their own, still young enough to be interested in big plastic models of organs. Mom and I were walking through a much-larger-than-life—floor-to-ceiling is how I remember it—human heart.
According to my mother, this conversation took place in my car, in the driveway of my house in Seattle, during one of her visits. She could be right.
I’m not sure how the topic came up, but I can still feel my mother touching my arm and hear her saying, “After Susie died, it took me many years to trust being close to you, Ellen, and Rob again.” The words I kept in my mind, in my cells, even though my mother is adamant that they were never spoken are: I couldn’t love you anymore. Again, she could be right.
I do clearly recall seeing in my mother’s face what that confession, what comforting me with her secret, cost her. I recognized, in her liquid brown eyes, the glint of my own sadness, my isolation, my anger—both now and in the little girl who slid notes scattered with foil hearts under my mother’s bedroom door.
The distance between my mother and her remaining children was where Susie still lived. The distance I had always felt between me and my two sons was where my mother’s grief was still very much alive.
During the next years, as my own boys grew into healthy and happy young men, I began to untangle the threads of grief and love. A softening occurred within me, both toward my mother and myself. The depression was still there, but I made a kind of peace with it as I let go of my anger toward my mother. I let her have her privacy, and reclaimed my own grief. Ellen and I started a ritual of lighting candles on Susie’s birthday. “I don’t need to do that to remember,” Mom said. But I did.
My mother will turn 80 in March and we are, in many ways, much closer than we have ever been as I negotiate being an empty nester and she faces moving to an assisted living facility with my father. I know that her journey, during the past 50-some years since her daughter died, has been to learn to trust love again. My own quest has been to grow my faith in my capacity to love. In some ways, our paths have been parallel, only recently meeting in a place where we can both finally be present for each other. And, perhaps, we are also both still trying to learn how to have the courage to show up for ourselves, as well as the people we love.