I was the youngest for exactly twelve months and fourteen days. I was still showing off my first wobbly steps when Holly came squalling into the family on Christmas Eve and turned me into a middle child. Maybe I should have minded, but I didn't. After all, now I had a baby sister. And she was irresistible.
My new roommate and I formed an alliance from the start. She kept my secrets— at first because she hadn't learned to talk and later because that's how it is with best friends— and I kept hers.
Although closely matched in age and size, our personalities couldn't have been more different. I was fairy-light and sensitive; Holly all swagger and nerve. Where I hesitated, she dared. When I obeyed, she sassed. She clowned, I laughed. We were perfect for each other.
By the time I was in the first grade our family had moved six times, living in Pennsylvania, Florida (twice), Virginia and finally New York. My accent always lingered a few states behind, and I was grateful for my playmate who understood that 'y'all' meant 'you', a crick was a creek and hushpuppies were something you ate.
The day we got our navy blue scooter skirts and white go-go boots we pranced up and down the front porch all afternoon singing Peter, Paul and Mary tunes, hoping that a Talent Agent would happen by and discover us. We had no idea what a Talent Agent was but we were quite sure we needed one.
Mom, on the other hand, was quite sure that we needed a bath, so the race was on to be the first one submerged beneath the hot suds. Sitting back-to-back we'd scoop the bubbles into a beard or a crown or a necklace, turning together to reveal our foamy creations. When the last of the suds had dissolved we dragged towels into the bathtub and wrapped our legs like mermaids, slipping and giggling long after the water had turned cold.
We ignored every one of Mom's calls to "finish up in there" but the first firm "we're not going to tell you girls again!" from Dad shot me straight into my pajamas and under the covers. From the safety of my bed I watched Holly make faces in the hallway. Holly, come on! He's almost here!
She would linger— savoring the moment— as Dad's shadow grew larger on the side wall. Like all great performers Holly had impeccable timing. Vaulting across the room at the very last second she'd smooth her hair on the pillow and feign sleep until he had completed his bed check.
Whispering our plans for tomorrow we would eventually drift off, content with the knowledge that we were two halves of a whole, never further than a bunk bed apart...
When Holly called to say that she and her husband John were expecting their third child I assumed that she would breeze through another comfortable pregnancy and easy delivery, as she had with both Samantha and Nick. Her early December due date was a perfect excuse for me to escape winter in New York, and as soon as we hung up the phone I started looking for flights to Florida.
Just a few weeks later Mom called About The Baby. It was clear from her voice that something was wrong. I soon found out that there was a lot wrong.
Holly's week-sixteen ultrasound revealed that her second son had a neural tube defect. He would suffer progressive brain damage as his developing brain forced itself through an opening created in his skull by a neural cyst. There was a high likelihood that Holly and John would lose their unborn son within the next few weeks.
Mom explained that if he managed to live to term Jack would require intricate surgery immediately after birth to separate the protruding portion of his tiny brain from the surrounding tissue. The neurosurgeon made it clear that due to the delicate nature of the procedure Jack may not survive the operation. Holly and John were advised that the goal of surgery would be merely to sustain life, not to achieve any higher level of functioning.
I didn't hear anything my mother said after that.
I have often wondered how Holly found the words to tell Samantha and Nick that their brother's brain wasn't growing the way it should and that he might die before they had a chance to meet him. Knowing her, she said it as plainly as that.
Only recently Holly told me that she sometimes overheard seven-year old Samantha patiently explaining to her younger brother that "if God lets Jack be born he won't be the same as us. He won't ever be able to talk, he will always stay lying down, and he will never want to play with any toys." I cry every time I think of her tender maturity.
Each week of the pregnancy brought Holly and John far more questions than answers. Should we risk an amniocentesis? Can we afford not to? Are Jack's chromosomes compatible with life? How stretched are his cerebral ventricles? Will he be blind?
Although we grew up arm-in-arm I didn't hug my sister once throughout the most difficult challenge of her life. In fact, I didn't speak to her for several months. She sent just one email message requesting that the family not call, not write, and not try to contact her at all. I understood that the burden of Holly's grief was overwhelming, and that she had no strength left over to help us with ours.
Still, every day I ached to call her, but I knew that what I wanted was not what she needed, so I kept a journal instead. Someday I will give her the letters I wrote to her during that time. I want her to know that having a sister means you're never alone.
Holly was late in her third trimester before I heard from her again. She and John had finally gotten some good news! The doctors had closely monitored Jack's development in utero, and remarkably, although his head and brain had continued to grow normally the cranial gap hadn't gotten any bigger than when it was first diagnosed.
It was now clear that the neural cyst was confined to the protective sheath around the brain and did not involve any of Jack's brain tissue. It appeared that he would be a full term baby after all, and although it was impossible to predict his ultimate level of functioning, the neurologist was "feeling pretty good" about his prognosis.
On December 4, 2001 Jack came squalling into the family and turned Nick into a middle child. I heard his sweet voice in the background when I spoke with Holly this morning, and she said that since he learned to walk she can't take her eyes off of him for a minute. We both laughed, because she doesn't really mind. He's irresistible.
Copyright ©2004 by Sally Bacchetta. All rights reserved.
Sally Bacchetta is an award-winning freelance writer and sales trainer. She has published articles on a variety of topics, including sales training and motivation, pharmaceutical sales and emerging technologies. Read her latest articles on her freelance writer website.