death

Sophie Olivia

 
The tattoo I got for Sophie on her fifteenth birthday.

The tattoo I got for Sophie on her fifteenth birthday.

 

"Who is Sophie?" is a question I get a lot. It's natural for people to be curious about the name I have tattooed on my arm, to wonder who was so important that I had a reminder of them permanently inked on my skin. The following conversation is always a little bit awkward, as I quickly say something along the lines of, "She's my baby sister. She died. But don't worry, it doesn't upset me, it's just part of my life." I rush to get that last sentence out before embarrassment sets in, just as anxious to let them know that they haven't overstepped as they are at the thought of bringing up potentially painful memories. I don't mind these questions; if I did, I wouldn't have my tattoo placed in such an obvious place, a visible reminder of her presence in my life to me and the world at large. And although her loss has left an aching hole in my heart that will never be filled again, what I tell the askers is true. I don't want them to worry. She is a part of my life. And their bringing her up doesn't upset me. I welcome it. Not a day goes by that I don't think about my sister, with or without the reminder from curious parties. It's as natural to me as breathing.

 
Sophie, characteristically missing one of her socks.

Sophie, characteristically missing one of her socks.

 

Sophie Olivia was born on March 21, 1994, just two days after my fifth birthday. I was so excited to be a big sister that I was hoping she would be born on my birthday, the perfect birthday present (had that come to pass, I may have regretted it later regardless of whether she lived or died. Sibling rivalry can be hard enough without sharing birthday celebrations). She was born at home, which my mom says was a blessing. It meant we had more than a week to enjoy her presence in a more natural setting, without the doctors and the needles and all the commotion of a hospital. We got to experience the new baby excitement before the anxiety about her condition set in. 

I remember pieces of Sophie's first week in great detail. My grandma showed up at my preschool in the middle of the day to pick me up and take me home. I knew as soon as I saw her that my mom must be in labor, and I was uncontrollably excited. We sat downstairs at the dining room table and drew pictures for my parents and my new sibling while my mom was in labor upstairs. I remember bringing the pictures upstairs and hanging them on the wall above my parents' bed (you can see them in the photos of our family from Sophie's birth). Shortly after she was born, I changed into my favorite outfit to celebrate the occasion - a blue velour dress, white tights studded with pink hearts, frilly white socks, and my "ruby slippers" (a pair of red, glittery Mary Janes, the height of fashion to a five year old) - and there are numerous photos of me dressed to the nines, beaming down at my new baby sister. I remember reading pictures books to Sophie, sometimes making up stories for the ones that had no words, and drawing more pictures for her while she sat in her blue baby chair. I remember going to the doctor's office (probably when we first discovered her heart murmur, though I didn't realize it at the time) and how Sophie managed to lose one of her socks along the way, a recurring habit of hers.

Family portrait. Note the drawings on the wall. I'm sure you can tell which one was mine. 

Family portrait. Note the drawings on the wall. I'm sure you can tell which one was mine. 

Now for some (oversimplified) medical jargon. Sophie was born with a heart defect called aortic stenosis, meaning the valve that carried the blood from her heart into her aorta wasn't fully opened. Once it was diagnosed, she was scheduled for a balloon valvuloplasty, a procedure in which a balloon is inserted into her heart and inflated to open the valve. It's the recommended procedure for infants, as it's less invasive than surgery and has a high survival rate. However, during Sophie's operation the pin that was holding the balloon slipped and punctured her heart, and, despite the doctors' best efforts and an emergency open heart surgery, she died on the operating table on March 31, 1994. 

I don't remember most of that. All my knowledge of the medical details was picked up in bits and pieces as I got older. What little I remember of the last few days of Sophie's life is fragmented. I have vague recollections of visiting her and my mom in the hospital the day before her surgery. I wasn't really sure what to think, as I'd never been to a hospital before. It seemed scary but everyone assured me that things would be okay, so I kissed them both goodbye and accompanied my dad home. The next day, I was taken to my grandparents' house so my dad could join my mom at the hospital. This part I remember vividly. We sat around watching movies, and the tension in the room was palpable. Even if I wasn't nervous, I could tell that the adults were. I was watching Fantasia when my parents returned from the hospital. It was the scene with the dinosaurs, which always terrified me, but I was determined to watch it because on some level I thought it would prove my bravery and that would somehow make the surgery go alright. My parents asked me to come into the other room to talk to them, and I threw a tantrum because I wanted to keep watching the movie. They took me aside anyway, and I suddenly noticed that someone was missing. Everything went into slow motion as, in my grandparents' family room, they told me my sister had died, and my tears transformed from angry-bratty-child tears into heartbroken sobs. 

Images from the program for Sophie's memorial service. The bunny I drew also graced her birth announcement, her square on a memorial quilt, and is now permanently tattooed onto my dad's arm.

Images from the program for Sophie's memorial service. The bunny I drew also graced her birth announcement, her square on a memorial quilt, and is now permanently tattooed onto my dad's arm.

This wasn't my first encounter with death, so I understood what was happening right away, at least as much as a five year old can understand something like that. A few years earlier, we had put our old dog to sleep, so I knew that when my parents told me Sophie had died that it meant she wasn't coming back. What I didn't know was how profoundly the experience would shape my life. Emotionally, I felt like I moved on fairly quickly. After all, just because I understood what death meant doesn't mean I understood how it affected me. I remember crying at her memorial service and again when we got her ashes back and placed them in the beautiful urn decorated with crocuses that my parents had gotten made for her, but apart from that I moved on to whatever issues typically occupy a five year old's mind. Still, I missed my sister, and she was always present in the back of my mind. I imagined playing with her, and when I woke up in the middle of the night after a bad nightmare, I told myself she was there, watching over me. 

Whether these were the figments of a grieving child's imagination or something more mysterious is a matter of personal opinion and something each person must decide for themselves based on their own beliefs about these sorts of things. What I can tell you is that this was far from the first or last time that people felt Sophie's presence around them or sensed something a bit otherworldly about her. My mom details the strange occurrences that happened during Sophie's ten days of life in a piece she wrote and performed for a production called Listen to Your Mother in 2011 - errant thoughts about Sophie's impending death that seemed to come out of nowhere, Sophie's lack of a "new baby smell", a time when she did the physically impossible and lifted her head to kiss my dad on the lips while he and my mom watched in shock. I, too, remember Sophie having distinctly non-infant-like qualities, such as an intense focus on the world around her, to the point where she would stare transfixed while I read to her and drew pictures for her and would begin to scream if I stopped. I also recall a story about my cousin having a dream that she died and rushing to the hospital so he could meet her before her operation, and my mom has spoken about dreaming of "old souls" welcoming Sophie back into their circle while waiting outside the operating room during her surgery. It has long been the opinion of my family that these were messages from Sophie that she was not long for this world and that her time with us was meant to be short.

Left: a purple heart I found at Fort Tryon Park with my mom. Right: a silver heart I found in Jerusalem.

Left: a purple heart I found at Fort Tryon Park with my mom. Right: a silver heart I found in Jerusalem.

We continued to receive messages like these following her death. Soon after she had died, a close friend of my mom's was writing a piece about Sophie, and when she ran it through spell check the only suggestion for Sophie's name that came up was "safe", a phenomena that has never happened again to our knowledge. Our family also began finding small hearts in odd places, starting with metallic heart-shaped confetti that somehow found its way into our house now and again despite the fact that none of us had come into contact with it or had a stash of it in our art supplies or anything of that nature. It was not uncommon to find a small pink or red heart glinting up at you from the floor with no indication as to where it had come from. Soon it expanded beyond confetti, as we began noticing puddles, stones, and knots in tree trunks shaped like hearts wherever we went. Just last year, my mom was visiting me and as we were walking through Fort Tryon Park I found a purple plastic heart-shaped jewel, the kind you'd find in a child's princess kit, sitting directly in our path, and this January I found a large silver heart on the ground in front of me as I exited the Western Wall in Jerusalem. It wasn't just hearts, either. Throughout my childhood I would often feel a light touch on my shoulder while I was alone, and recent conversations with my younger sister have revealed that she, too, has often felt like someone is watching over her as well. Some days the presence is stronger than others. On Sophie's birthday a few years back the shower curtain kept billowing in and wrapping itself around me while I was trying to take a shower despite the fact that both the window and door were closed. It wasn't until I murmured, "Hi, Sophie," that it fell still and I was able to finish bathing. That same day, my mom posted a photo of a rainbow from a suncatcher in our living room positioned directly above the shelf where we keep Sophie's ashes, photos, and other mementos of her. 

 
My sister Grace and I at Sophie's memorial in Olbrich Botanical Gardens, Madison, WI. 

My sister Grace and I at Sophie's memorial in Olbrich Botanical Gardens, Madison, WI. 

 



Many people may call these coincidences or wishful thinking. That's fine, we are all entitled to our beliefs and interpretations of the world. But to me, these have always been signs that Sophie is still with us, checking in with us and letting us know that she is alright and she loves us. At this point, her spiritual presence has been with me far, far longer than her physical form, and most days I am content with the knowledge that my middle sister is, for lack of a better word, my guardian angel. But some days - her birthday, the anniversary of her death, the rare occasions I get to visit her memorial, or random moments when her loss hits me out of nowhere - it doesn't feel like enough, and my chest aches with the fierceness of how much I miss my baby sister. And always, always I spend the ten days from March 21 to March 31 observing her presence in the world, her life and death, and the mark she left on me. 

In the words of one of my favorite musicians, Johnny Clegg, "It's funny how those once so close and now gone still so affect our lives." Sophie gave me the gift of becoming a big sister, a role I am grateful to have been able to continue fulfilling for our younger sister Grace, and there will never be a time when she is not a part of me. Gaining and losing a sister left me irreparably changed in ways that are still beyond my understanding, but as strange as it sounds I wouldn't have it any other way. And when strangers ask who Sophie is, I smile, because each time they speak her name it's proof that she is still a part of this world and still a part of me.

Love, love, love.

Love, love, love.

Birthday Presence

This is one of my favorite weeks of the year. The weather is starting to get warmer, spring is just around the corner, and most importantly (to me, of course), my birthday is mere days away. I have always loved celebrating my birthday. When I was younger, it was all about the parties and the presents and the cake. I was fortunate enough to have a nice celebration every year, sometimes more than one. Birthdays always meant dinner with the extended family at a restaurant of my choosing followed by mom's homemade birthday cake at home, and there was often a more kid-friendly party with my friends and classmates in the days following. I enjoyed having a day when all the attention was focused on me, and to my young mind there was nothing more magical than the excitement of being handed a wrapped present and unwrapping it to discover what goodies were waiting inside, just for me. 

 
Spot, one of my most anticipated childhood presents.

Spot, one of my most anticipated childhood presents.

 

I am acutely aware of how lucky I am to have been able to have parties and gifts and other celebrations on my birthday, however. March has also been a month of my life that has seen more than its fair share of heartbreak and tragedy, and each year I am reminded again of just how fortunate I am. It started when I was five, and what I wanted more than presents, more than anything else in the world, was a sister. I got my wish just two days after my birthday, but ten days later I got a crash course on the concept of death when my baby sister went into the hospital for a heart surgery and never came back (the story of her life and death deserves a post of its own, something I will most likely be writing more about next week). My life was forever changed, although my parents doubled down on making sure my day was extra special in an attempt to make up for the weeks of heartache each year that inevitably followed. Tragedy struck again when my great-grandmother and namesake became gravely ill just days before I turned 18. She lived just long enough to see me, her oldest great-grandchild, reach adulthood before passing away the next day. This was followed by my grandfather's death several weeks before my twenty-fifth birthday, causing me to fly home for his memorial service immediately after my celebrations had finished, and last year the week and a half preceding my birthday saw both the unexpected death of one of my childhood friends and the less unexpected (but still heartwrenching) death of my favorite author. And these were just my personal losses. My fourteenth and twenty-second birthdays, respectively, saw the beginning of the Iraq War and the bombing of Libya, and last year my hometown was rocked by the March 6th police killing of Tony Robinson. As my mom posted on Facebook at the beginning of this month, "March. It's complicated."

 
Holding my newborn sister, Sophie, two days after my 5th birthday. 

Holding my newborn sister, Sophie, two days after my 5th birthday. 

 

I don't mention all of this to start a pity party or to wallow in sadness, nor do I intend to claim any of the pain and sorrow of events not directly related to me as my own. But all of these events affected me deeply on a variety of levels, and they remind me of why it's important to take a day (or several) to celebrate being alive, and what better day than the day on which you were born? Besides, birthdays are a threshold, a crossing over from one year to the next, and dates like that seem to hold a special kind of magic. They're a day when anything seems possible. 

Now that I'm all grown up and have passed every milestone deemed exciting by society, my celebrations are less about parties and presents and more about experiences and making my presence known. For one thing, I don't really like getting stuff for stuff's sake (my apartment is cluttered enough already, thank you very much), and for another, I believe that adulthood means getting the opportunity to decide what exactly you want your birthday to look like without anyone else's opinions getting in the way. Over the past few years, my celebrations have taken the form of trips to the zoo, hopping between my favorite NYC bars, New Moon rituals with my witchier friends, concerts and, yes, parties. What can I say? Sometimes it's fun to get a bunch of people together to drink and eat and play games, and I have incredible friends who have been kind enough to offer up their apartment as a venue. I flew to DC to visit my best friend one year (and proudly donned a pair of plush panda ears after our trip to the National Smithsonian Zoo) and, after discovering his birthday was only five days before mine, talked my boyfriend into a vacation in California to celebrate our special days the first year we were dating. But whether I have the energy (and money) to spend a whole week traveling or simply spend the day doing things around town, I always make an attempt to do something that fulfills me and makes me happy.

Me and my boyfriend on our birthday trip to California.

Me and my boyfriend on our birthday trip to California.

This year, I just want to take it easy and get out into nature. I've picked a state park, doublechecked the driving distance with my boyfriend (it's doable), and intend to spend the day hiking and enjoying the (probably chilly) fresh air, giving my energy a much needed recharging. It's a lower-key celebration than I've had in a few years, but it's exactly what I need right now. And as far as I'm concerned, that's what a birthday should be about. Not parties or presents or fretting over getting one year older, but taking a day for yourself, a day to focus on what YOU need and want, a day for you to feel special, whatever that may mean for you. It could be a gigantic party with all your friends or a visit to your favorite museum or even a day to work on your passion projects uninterrupted. But whatever it is, I think it should be something special to you. 

So happy birthday to me! As in years past I will continue to hold all the losses this month contains in my heart and celebrate one more year of this incredible, complicated, heartbreaking, exhilarating adventure we call life. And whether you have something to celebrate this week or not, give yourself permission to put your needs and desires first once in a while. Believe me, you've earned it. 

 
Make your presence known. Birthday Anna and Kyle the Birthday Panda command you!

Make your presence known. Birthday Anna and Kyle the Birthday Panda command you!