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Here Comes the Sun

Photo by who else but Britt

On the morning of my husband’s funeral, the first thought that clawed its way through my Ambien haze was not what I expected.

Is my sister pregnant?

In the pre-dawn stillness, my brain seemed to want a break from trying to process the reality that Chris was gone, so it started to put together clues. Anne didn’t have a drink at her birthday dinner last night, and she loves those fancy craft cocktails at The Pharmacy. Wait, I’ve been staying with her and Britt for a week and I’ve not once seen her open a bottle of wine.

Then again, nothing about the week after you come home from a business trip to find your 40-year-old husband dead is normal. So nothing anyone does can be considered abnormal. It would be a long time before that feeling faded.

Still, I frantically rewound the past few days, scanning for hints. The saltines and ginger ale! At the end of an exhausting day negotiating funeral arrangements (a story for another day), I’d felt nauseated and Anne had immediately produced the pregnancy staples. I ate the crackers in bed, and fell asleep among the crumbs. When I woke up, she was holding my hand. 

My sister is married to a wonderful guy and she’s always wanted a family.

Chris and I had wanted children, too—fiercely. In fact he, the classic Gen X product of a broken home, was far more sold on the idea of kids than marriage. His friends often called him the Baby Whisperer, because his low-key demeanor seemed to have an instantly calming effect. As a struggling freelance journalist, he had once taken a job traveling to Walmarts in various parts of Appalachia to set up camp for a few days at a time as a portrait photographer. This entailed hours of “shooting babies,” and an essay he wrote on the experience was so sweet and deftly drawn that it gave him his big break: it was published on Salon.com. That clip got him hired at Country Weekly magazine in Nashville, where I’d gone to work right after college. When I read that piece, he was just the shy new staff writer, but I had an instant crush.

The most notorious photo of me and Chris ever taken, at the Blarney Stone, 2009

This was all background noise in my brain as I made my way downstairs to confront my mom with what I still thought of as a crazy theory about Anne being pregnant. My tough Polish mother, who buried her own mom and two brothers far too soon, stared at me for a stunned second, then choked back tears. “Honey,” she said, finally, “This is how life is. It’s the cycle of life, birth and death.”

I knew Mom was trying to comfort me, and of all the reassuring words I’d hear in the coming days, I gave hers the most weight. But all I could think was, No this isn’t how life is—this is a bad chick-lit novel. Any decent editor would say this is way too on-the-nose. (I’ve since learned, again and again, that life is far more clichéd than fiction.)

When I told my only sibling later that afternoon that I’d guessed her secret, she crumpled into my arms. “I’m so happy for you,” I repeated over and over, as I clung to her and sobbed, too. And I meant it completely. Then I hyperventilated on the way to the funeral. Mom kept one hand on the steering wheel and reached out to me with the other.

Why do I get the death and she gets the birth?

From the moment my parents told me, when I was 4, that they were expecting another baby, I was desperate for a little sister. In the days before 3D sonograms and gender reveal parties, I could only wait and pray. On Father’s Day 1982, our neighbor poured my Frosted Mini Wheats and explained that Mommy and Daddy had gone to the hospital during the night and the baby was on its way. I remember vividly hearing the phone ring as I sat at the kitchen table, and then curling the phone cord around my hand as my dad delivered the news: “You have a little sister.”

Over the years, Anne and I went through the typical sisterly ups and downs. During one particularly bad row about who was allowed to crush on which member of New Kids on the Block, my mom regarded us with a mixture of exasperation and smugness. “You know, someday you two will be best friends,” she said. My sister and I exchanged horrified glances.

But around the time I left for college, something clicked into place. She transferred to a university in Nashville to study music, and we were instantly inseparable. When I got dumped, Anne blew off her first date with an art major she’d met at a frat party who listened to NPR and looked a little like Justin Timberlake, and instead helped me drown my sorrows in cucumber martinis. Luckily Britt never held that against me, and a few years later, he enlisted my help with a surprise proposal. That night he snapped my all-time favorite photo of Anne and me, teary-eyed with arms wrapped around each other.

In the summer after Chris’ death, my parents and I dealt methodically with logistics, from funeral costs to estate settling to relocating me and our dog from the house I refused to set foot in again. Meanwhile, Anne battled morning sickness and crippling fatigue that left her barely able to manage work and day-to-day demands, let alone the tangle of tasks involved with putting my life back together. And she, too, was grieving Chris, a notion that took me far too long to grasp.

She emailed me every morning, but I could feel things changing and I hated it. I resented the baby sapping all my sister’s energy when I needed her more than ever before, and fumed as my family treated her with the kid gloves I thought ought to be reserved for me—at least for a little while longer. In my darkest moments, I feared our relationship would never be the same, frayed by envy, guilt, anger and sadness.

And what about this new person she’ll love more than anything else—including me?

My childfree friends (some by choice, others by chance) told me how much I’d love being an aunt, how much happiness their nieces and nephews brought into their lives. I played along, but I didn’t really buy it. I’d adore him, I knew. But the idea of being a spinster aunt who doted on her nephew just sent me further down the self-pity spiral.

I could say that everything changed when G. was born, but that’s the bad chick-lit version. In reality, the needle moved more gradually. When Anne rounded the third trimester at the start of a new year, I realized I welcomed anything that marked the next chapter in my life. The worst thing, I’d realized, would be to carry on with everything exactly the same, except the Chris-shaped hole in my world.

And then, as a new mom, my sister reached for me far more than I expected. Instead of drifting apart as I’d feared, we grappled together with our changing identities, and our relationship deepened. One day, as I casually chatted about my weekend plans while G. whizzed around us with race cars, she blurted out, “I want to Uber to brunch!” in a tone so wistful that we both cracked up. Her perspective on motherhood—from banality to bliss—has helped unseat some of my most stubborn convictions about purpose and fulfillment. When I worry about a life without, her bold honesty reminds me that everyone’s has some missing pieces.

Little darling, I feel that ice is slowly melting.

And then there’s G. After years of absorbing the message that nothing compares to motherhood (thanks to the twin evils of baby showers and Facebook), I was knocked sideways by the emotion of being an aunt. When my nephew picks me dandelions from the yard and offers them with a toothy grin, or insists on sleeping in the Batman t-shirt I gave him for Christmas, I’m completely overcome. Is that love, or joy, measurably less than what his parents feel? Probably, but that seems incomprehensible.

And frankly, I don’t give a fuck.

From the minute he was born, I was stunned by how uncomplicated my feelings for him are—pure and untainted by envy or sadness. I may overanalyze every other relationship in my life, but with him I just let it be. I take what he gives, with gratitude, and without the feeling that something’s lacking.

It’s the greatest gift, this instinctive understanding: G. isn’t the child that my sister got, instead of me. He isn’t hers, not mine ... the thing that I once wanted most in the world, but now know I'll probably never have.

He isn’t what is not.

And in fact, he’s mine, too, in a way he’s no one else’s—my sweet sunshine boy who reaches for my hand and leads me out of the darkness.