IT IS SUNSET ON CAPE COD. At the end of a long happy day with sand in our suits, sticky with ice cream, stunned by hours of sun and the long march up a sandy dune back to the hot car, we have just finished a windy dinner at a clam shack right on the harbor.
Our small son tears off his clothes and runs naked through the shallow water. His figure blackens into silhouette. His older sister strips her clothes, too, and soon the two of them are splashing and giggling. At this distance, where I stand with my wife, Cheryl, we can’t see the tangle of scars, one wrapped around his chest or the others across his belly, that trace his remarkable survival from his birth at 26 weeks and a pound and a quarter. After four years, he is a lovely, healthy child.
Later, dressed now in pajamas, Matthew is half leaning, half swinging on the banister of the cottage. “I miss James,” he says casually. “He was my brother,” he adds, as if we didn’t know. James, Matthew’s identical twin, did not survive his early birth. This is one of the first times that Matthew has talked about him. Cheryl and I gaze warily at each other. Even after four years, it is hard to find just the right way to talk about a child you held in your arms but could not have, a sibling your children know existed but will never know.
“I really want to meet him,” Matthew says. “But he had to go to heaven.” This is the simple explanation we have found for a big question.
Matthew rolls his head on the railing and taps his bare foot. “I don’t even know what he looks like,” he laments about James. This makes Cheryl and me smile a bit. James was Matthew’s identical twin, so it is easy to sketch in a look-alike boy with a towhead and blue eyes, an easy laugh, and dinosaur pajamas. It is easy to think we would know what our family would have been, or that there is some boundaried, tangible way to know what we have lost. Yet James would not have been Matthew, nor would he have looked like Matthew, given the fierce malady that attacked him in utero.
On Matthew’s birthday each year, as we carry the lighted cake with Mary Poppins or Thomas the Tank Engine, we are thinking and not saying that this, too, is the day that James died. That every one of Matthew’s birthdays will contain, for us, James’s death. Yet neither of us wants Matthew to ever think of his incredible, mighty birthday as a day of grief.
Matthew deepens his thinking: “I was the only one who knew him.” I want to argue with him about this, to lay claim to the hour I got to hold James as proof of my motherhood, because I still feel that I gave James only his death and not his life. Yet, really, Matthew is right. He maintains a profound position in James’s life. At some point, they were each other, one fertilized being, and then they came apart. And then one of them lived and the other died. We have all lost the same person, but the loss is different for each of us.
“Why did James have to die?” he asks.
“He had a sick heart. They couldn’t fix it,” I say.
“They could fix me.”
“We’re very glad about that.” I smile, brushing back his dreamy blond hair and laying my hand on his head, a habit left over from when he was in the NICU. For two months, he did not breathe on his own and was hooked up to lines, pumps, and wires. The nurses said that this one gesture calms a child born a trimester-plus early. I find comfort in it, too — a humbling moment when my love is in the palm of my hand and the other hand hangs empty beside me.
Elizabeth Crowell is a poet, essayist, and teacher. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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