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From “My Three Girls” (Mother Superior):
There is a photograph of me and Kathleen in the rec room with Maggie, our dead baby sister. She is slumped in a car seat, swaddled in a pink flannel blanket, eyes and mouth sutured shut, every crease turned down with the heaviness of death. Kathleen and I are posed to either side, legs outstretched, hips pressed into the orange carpet. We have our chins in our hands, and Kathleen has one bare foot kicked up in the air. A couple of half-dressed Barbie dolls are visible off in the corner. A picnic-pose photo, like the one of us in Stanley Park, the checkered print of our two matching sundresses vivid against the striped grey blanket, our island in the sea of green grass.
In the Stanley Park photo, our faces are bright, our smiles wide and eager. Kathleen is grinning, her eyes flirting with the camera as though she could bewitch it with a direct gaze. The same sly but alluring look I can trace through all the family photos, from her class pictures to her wedding scrapbook. Behind us is a patch of blue, Lost Lagoon winking in the sun. When I look at myself half-squinting, I can remember the breeze coming off the water and our father’s indulgence in buying us swirled candy sticks on the way to the bus stop. Jockeying with Kathleen for the window seat until the end of my tutti-frutti stick got tangled up in her blonde hair. A lingering, luminous day.
In the photo with Maggie, we are smiling, too, but the effect is disturbing. Our charms are displayed to better advantage by the closer angle, and beautiful Kathleen, at seven, is radiant against the drab wood panelling of our finished basement. Her smile, so beguiling and intense, barely eclipses my own here, for in this photo I actually seem to be giggling, betraying my crooked teeth as my brown ponytail flails forward in a messy signal of movement. I can barely pick out the rims of the glasses I used to hate, and I seem at home in my eleven-year-old body, unselfconscious about the exposed roll of stomach bulging in a pale band from under my purple T-shirt. The girth of my hips already large enough, as I lie lengthwise, to dwarf the car seat set before us.
I cannot imagine what we could have been thinking, though it is likely that it was our mother who told us to smile. In her album, this photo is captioned “My Three Girls.”
When my husband tells me he doesn’t want us to get a midwife, he invokes Maggie as a reason for going to the hospital. He thinks he is at his most persuasive after dinner, when I am full and tired and tend to agree with anything.
“But your baby sister, though. I thought your motherwell, am I right in thinking that your mother had her at home?”
The hesitation in his question irks me, although I know it is only his attempt at tact, at not venturing to express more than I would presume him to feel. He knows the circumstances of Maggie’s death as well as anyone in the family. As well as anyone might, having met my mother even once.
“Maggie didn’t die because she was born at home,” I say. “She died because she had a birth defect that would have killed her no matter where she was born.”
I remember my father, dry-eyed and harried, explaining how what had happened to Maggie was not quite as sad as if she could have lived but had died anyway. “It is a tragedy, yes,” he’d said, the side of his mouth sagging open as Kathleen and I gawked. “A tragedy has befallen this family. But it is something closer to a disappointment than a devastation.” This, though our mother’s noisy weeping kept on unabated from behind their bedroom door.
“Oh.” Eric turns away for a moment, stooping under the sink for dish soap, before attempting, “But what does your mother think?”
Which is his way of saying that my mother won’t like it and that, even by considering a home birth, we’re signing ourselves up for weeks of her heartrending pleasspeeches that will make me mourn my sister, and the woman my mother used to be, and the way I was once able to feel grief and pity and know that they were in no way mixed with apathy or contempt.
Until Kathleen was born, I had never liked dolls. Their puckered lips and grappling fingers were nothing to me compared to the soft snout of a teddy bear or the fluffy tail of a stuffed cat. Kathleen was squishy like a plush animal and warm besides. I was captivated by her multitude of tiny expressions, sometimes even poking her in the side with my index finger to see a ripple of unhappiness clench her amazing, volatile face. I wondered how we had ever lived without her, without someone who could take us away from ourselves and the petty tedium of whatever had consumed us before.
When they brought Maggie home for the wake, she reminded me of those old dolls, as light as if she were filled only with air instead of with tiny muscles and bones and her still, imperfect heart. She was hard, too, like the dolls, except for her feet, which were soft and movable. My mother told us it was because the veins there were too tiny to be embalmed, and Kathleen stroked the soles of them with one finger, crooning “Cootchie-cootchie-coo” until my mother slapped her hand away and took Maggie upstairs to be passed around among the guests.
Eric is incredulous that my mother still hasn’t seen our baby in anything besides the dozens of snapshots taken by Kathleen.
“Your daughter has a baby, you go,” he says. I smile at him because I find his indignation, when it is on my behalf, charming. His bottom lip juts outward as his head begins a concise quiver of disapproval, his hands rubbing up and down against the small of his back in a flap-wing posture of concern. My hand on his cheek stops him, and he leans into my touch before shrugging his shoulders. He collapses into the chair beside Ava’s crib, the one with the best vantage point for parental doting and gloating. “My mother has been practically living here for the past four weeks,” he says.
“I know.” Laundered little outfits are folded neatly in piles near the changing table, and prepared meals are stacked deep into the freezer, their mottled surfaces speckled with frost like snow-capped peaks. “She’s been a big help.”
“Well, then. Doesn’t your mother care at all?”
And because there is no answer to this question that he will understand, I tell him I will call her and invite myself over.
My mother paces the kitchen, drying dishes, stirring the soup, following a nervous course around the perimeter of the table where I am sitting with the baby. Ava fusses in a way that is unusual for her, her mouth falling open in an impression of wild anguish. As I soothe her, I imagine she senses my mother’s nervous energy, her inability to comprehend good news.
Despite my father’s best rallying attempts, my parents’ circle narrowed with Maggie’s death, whittled down to relatives and those with a taste or tolerance for grief. Even now, with the evidence of a healthy baby right before her, my mother’s interest is on Ava’s narrow escape.
“So are you in a lot of pain?” she asks. She nods with sympathy toward my belly, which beneath my shirt is now scarred in a red and glistening line from the surgery.
“A little.” My mother’s predictions of calamity have stifled certain aspects of our conversations. When, during my third trimester, I confided that I hadn’t felt the baby move in a day and a half, she surmised aloud that the baby was probably dead. She looked huffy and bewildered when Eric, arriving to pick me up, gave her only a curt hello before helping me out to the car.
My mother begins scrubbing new potatoes in the colander. She looks over at me from the sink. “You ought to have tried to lose some of that weight before having a baby,” she says. “It isn’t healthy.”
“That’s true.” I raise my eyebrows at her before looking down to stroke the side of Ava’s cheek, watching her cries quiet down as her exhaustion takes over. “Remind me to give you your clothes back as soon as I start to drop some of these pounds.”
“Oh, you.” My mother shakes her head and brings the washed potatoes and a peeler to the counter nearest to the table. “It’s true, you know. You shouldn’t be like me.”
My mother is drawing closer to Ava bit by bit. She grabs a handful of potato peels and steps toward the garbage can to the right of the table. On her way, I see her shoot a glance at the baby, her pupils dilating until her brown eyes are suffused in black.
“Why don’t you sit down?” I kick with my foot at the chair opposite me until it budges out from the table. Its clatter against the linoleum makes Ava open her eyes and give a small, plaintive cry.
My mother throws the peels in the garbage and settles on the chair, clucking her disapproval.
“Honestly, you should know better,” she says. “Give her here. I’ll quiet her.”
And so I hand her the baby, and she takes her from me with strong, sure hands, her lips moving with the start of a lullaby.
In bed at night, we pretended Maggie was a ghost who was watching us. Not an angel, because it didn’t seem possible that she could wish us well. Not after we had seen her in her grim final repose.
“If you don’t get up and close that closet door,” I said, “Maggie will try and choke you to death in your sleep.”
“Why would she try and do that?” Kathleen’s voice was piteous with a rehearsed tremulousness of fear. The conversation was a kind of game we liked to play.
“Because she’s jealous of us. Because we’re alive and she isn’t. Because she knows we’re happy that she’s gone.”
“I’m not,” said Kathleen.
“Yes, you are. You’re happy because if she was alive you wouldn’t be able to take ballet lessons because we wouldn’t have enough money.” I didn’t know if this was true, but it struck me as a brilliant inspiration.
“Really?” There was a rustling in the darkness as Kathleen half-sat up in her bed.
“Really. And she knows you think she’s ugly. She knows you told me that you thought she looked weird.” Another inspiration on my roll of cruelty. In the confused weeks after the funeral, Kathleen had confided to me that she thought that Maggie didn’t look like a normal baby. “She was a funny colour,” she’d whispered to me, as our mother arranged a tiny framed photo of Maggie on the centre of the mantelpiece behind a white tea light. Maggie’s mottled face was patchy purple and red from the poor breathing that never really got started.
“How does Maggie know that?” asked Kathleen, who by then was fully sitting up. I could see the shadow her rumpled hair cast against the wall by the glow of our snowflake night-light. “Will she tell Mummy?”
“No,” I said, and my shoulders shook in a sudden quake as I pictured a bundled Maggie hovering near my mother’s sleeping face. Sometimes I scared even myself in these late-night chats. “No, I don’t think so.”
Copyright © Saleema Nawaz, 2008