It took me longer than the rest of the world. They all uttered the same words: “she is beautiful,” “she is an angel,” and “she is perfect.” Were we looking at the same baby? Because peering down into her crib, my six-year-old eyes fell upon something that most closely resembled an alien from outer space.
Not to be outdone, the girl quickly insinuated herself into my heart. My baby sister was, in fact, the first great love of my life. To say that I adored her would be to put it too lightly. Brianna was strikingly beautiful, but she was also (and more importantly) cutely petulant, wildly charming, incredibly entertaining, and undeniably irresistible. My heart swelled with pride at being her big sister. Over the years our relationship grew and changed and then grew and changed again. Leaving her behind in order to attend college in another state was one of the hardest things I have ever done. I knew as I walked out the door that our lives were forever changed; from that moment forward, I would come home to visit, but not to live.
Decades later, my husband and I had made the mature, responsible decision not to have any more children. Our boys were healthy and happy and we figured we had realized the American dream: two kids, a two-car garage, a great house in a terrific suburb. Two was enough. Two was the going rate. We didn’t have to play zone defense with two. My brother and his wife, living halfway across the country in Chicago, had come to the same conclusion about their own two boys. Considering the expense of college, the logistics of running children to and fro, finding room in the house for their beds, their clothes, their toys…it was all too much. It was settled. We would all stop at two.
I was standing in the kitchen on a dark and freezing morning in February. My husband and I were getting breakfast ready for the kids when I looked down and realized I had left my cell phone on the cold granite countertop overnight. I wondered if the battery had died and, in checking, saw that I had missed several calls from my father in the middle of the night. My heart froze as I handed the baby over to his father. I knew, the way we all know. Something terrible had happened.
I dialed him back, but my call went straight to voicemail. I listened to the messages he had left, one after another, as I lost the feeling in my legs. His voice was desperate, panicked, heart-stricken. I felt sick and then I was sick. Ten minutes later my bag was packed and I was in the car, driving to a destination unknown.
We held out hope. We held vigil at her bedside. We scoured the internet for stories about miracles taking place in similar situations. We were unprepared to give up or to give in, yet we were each consumed by the dreadful feeling that the lucid moments just prior to the crash would be her last. Dreadfully, terribly, inexcusably, they were.
Not long after we held her tight, whispered our goodbyes in her ear, begged the nurse for just a little more morphine, and heard the beep of the machine slow and finally stop, two identical conversations took place. Unbeknownst to either of us, my brother and I both spoke to our respective spouses about the idea that in the end all that really, truly, actually matters is family. College funds, the number of seats in an SUV, the cost of daycare…these do not have weight. They do not have mass and they do not matter. And so, the very same decision was made between two different couples in two different households situated in two very different places in America.
My daughter was born one year and two months after we lost Brianna. Her cousin, my nephew, was born a short two weeks later than that. Both babies were conceived in my sister’s honor. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t hoping to see my sister again in my daughter, who bears Bree’s moniker as her middle name. What is it they say? Be careful what you wish for? While my girl is absolutely her own little woman, the similarities between her and her aunt are too striking to miss. Our girl, too, is tiny but mighty, undeniably strong-willed, fiercely intelligent, absolutely beautiful, and more than a little sassy. Like my sister before her, my daughter has enough personality in her pinky to last her a lifetime.
I still struggle to accept that I will never lay eyes on Brianna again. Death doesn’t make any sense to my feeble human brain. Can any of us truly make sense of the end of a life? Despite the empty pit in my heart that took up residence when my baby sister died, I feel as though I am “seeing” her every morning when the sun comes up when that little voice calls my name from her crib. And it feels a little bit like Christmas.