When I was growing up, I always knew my family looked a little different.
My sister was seven and a half when I was born, which meant that we barely grew up together. We now joke (funny/not funny) that we had two separate childhoods: she was doing math homework when I was being breastfed; she left home when I was nine. During those early years, the tiny slivers that I remember at least, she was already a teenager. I genuinely believed that all she did was sleep, shower or study. It wasn’t until we were adults that we started to really feel like sisters.
Our parents never let it be a secret why we were so far apart: they’d had two stillbirths between us: a boy at 24 weeks, and a girl a year later at 23 weeks, when my sister was four and then five. She, of course, lived through it all – watched her mother in bed, trying to stave off contractions; then off to the hospital; then coming home empty-handed, twice.
When she was pregnant with me, her fourth attempt, our mother took to her bed at 12 weeks and didn’t leave. For five months my father bathed her from a shallow basin with a washcloth. They set up a small table in the bedroom for homework and family meals. An au pair moved in, friends came for extended visits to cook and help care for my sister. Every day that our mother stayed pregnant was a small victory.
At 35 weeks, the doctor said he couldn’t wait anymore and took me out.
The babies: this is what we called them. The babies. We — our eventual family of four — knew them as one, though they hadn’t come as one. They were never going to grow up to be anything other than the babies, the big brother and sister I never had, the little siblings my sister was waiting for and learning, one at a time, to live without.
When I started trying for my own baby, I harbored little knowledge of ease, either in conception or in carrying. My family seemed to be a minefield of horror stories. My dad and his sister were over six years apart, and he suspected, though he’d never asked, that something had happened between those pregnancies. I had no trust that a person could just get pregnant, stay pregnant. Whenever I heard ecstatic reports from friends who’d just peed on a stick, I always thought to myself, just you wait, like I knew something they didn’t, though I’d never been pregnant myself. This is what growing up this way will do to you.
But nothing happened to us: I got pregnant, stayed pregnant. Our baby wasn’t four or five months early, or even five weeks ahead of schedule. She was 12 days late. I desperately wanted her out.
When our daughter was a toddler, our dearest friends went through the same thing as my parents. Their first kid was, like ours, almost two at the time — the girls had learned to eat and crawl and walk and speak together. We learned about the loss of their much-wished-for 20-week-along pregnancy on a cold February day when my parents were visiting from across the world.
I read the email aloud to my parents in tears, and my father — always the quickest to emotion — immediately started to cry the way he does, with a sharp, burbling intake of breath and then tears escaping out of his eyes. My mother, zipping up her emotions like she was preparing for battle, instead gave me quick instructions.
“Call them right now,” she said, “before you can think.”
“But what do I say?” I was still staring at the phone in my hand, tears blurring the screen.
“Say anything,” she said. “Just show up. Tell them you love them and are here. The most important thing is that you not disappear on them.”
As if in a trance, I walked into my daughter’s room at the far end of the apartment and closed the door. I stood at her window and looked out onto the dark courtyard. Before I could think too hard — say anything — I dialed my friend’s number. Her voicemail came on, I spoke.
When I returned to the living room, my father’s arms were crossed and pressed firmly against his chest, as if holding his heart together. He still had tears streaming down his face. More than 40 years later, this made him cry in an instant. My mother had a pained expression on her face. But they knew, all too well, what to do.
“You wait,” my mother said when I asked her what to do next. “And you call back tomorrow, and the next day. People will disappear on them. People disappeared on us, and it was awful. No one knows what to say, but you just show up. You keep showing up.”
My sister and I had lived, but our parents still knew all too much about this quiet, quiet underworld.
There was never a time when I didn’t know about the babies, even as a child. This was clearly a choice my parents made, to not keep the secret from me, to hide nothing. It would have been ludicrous to have tried, given all my sister had been through, given all the grief that was probably etched into my mother’s blood and bones and organs, inside her uterus even, as she grew me, but families hide all sorts of things. Ours never did.
It might have seemed odd to hear a little girl tell strangers, my mother had babies who died, but it didn’t seem strange to me. It seemed like life, like our family, our story. This was why I was there, after all. If those babies had lived, would I have been conceived at all?
Later, the knowledge served a practical purpose. All too often I heard, Your sister is so much older! (Or, I’d imagine from my sister’s point of view: Your sister is such a baby!)
Oh, I’d say, my parents had two stillbirths between us. That’s why we are so far apart.
It must have shocked people, my bluntness, but I never meant it that way. What I meant was: This happens, too. That space means something.
Now, decades on, I am astonished by how openly my parents spoke of this in the 1970s and ’80s, when there was no language for pregnancy loss. No burials, no way to honor what had occurred, barely words spoken, no rainbow babies or Pregnancy Loss Day. There was, for them – and therefore, for us – never a hint of shame or avoidance around it. There was the grief, the difficult years, the trying and trying again. We knew those stories. We all knew that my sister and I had been the bright lights at either end of a very dark tunnel, astonishing and perfect in our own ways.
But we were never the whole story and we knew that, too. We weren’t meant to replace anyone, make up for anyone, even as the babies faded while we grew. The gulf between us sisters narrowed over the years, as it does in adulthood, but it will always, in some ways, be vast: the space of what was witnessed, and of what emerged from that space.
Abigail Rasminsky is a writer, editor and teacher based in Los Angeles. She teaches creative writing at the Keck School of Medicine of USC and writes the weekly newsletter, People + Bodies. She has also written for Cup of Jo about marriage, only children and befriending neighbors.
P.S. A mother’s love letter to her stillborn baby, and three women on having miscarriages.
(Photo by Yana Bulgakova/Stocksy.)