love

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.

It's Only Love...

I wasn't going to start this blog with an intense, passionate rant. I was going to ease into things, post a casual introduction first and see where it took me. But last week I read Jordana Narin's essay "No Labels, No Drama, Right?" in the New York Times, and it's been on my mind ever since. Anyway, I'm an intense and passionate person, so I suppose this is more reflective of who I actually am.

One of the things that I am the most interested in and frustrated by is the way in which romance and love is portrayed in our society. Media, both fiction and nonfiction, has a tendency to take traits that are incredibly unhealthy, and sometimes downright creepy, and romanticize them, telling us that they are not just "normal" but desirable qualities in a relationship and that these are the things we should be looking for when choosing a partner. Romantic comedies often rely on this formula, having their dashing hero show up unasked or, worse, after he's been told to stay away or wooing his desired partner until she (it's usually a she) gives in and agrees to a date. And let's not forget the classic "couple breaks up over a misunderstanding and/or legitimate problem but everything is forgiven in the end because they love each other", which comprises the second and third act of most romantic books, plays, and films. These are the kind of things that we logically know are not acceptable ways to act, and yet these stories seep into our brain and stay there, whispering subconscious messages to us and shaping the way we view and approach love. 

"But, Anna," people say. "These are just stories. It's not a big deal. They're fiction." True, these are fiction. But, as a storyteller myself, I do not believe there is such a thing as "just stories", and I am constantly in awe of the effect stories have on our lives. When you think about it, everything is a story. Our perception of the world is a story we tell ourselves to make sense of the events in our lives, which can be very empowering once you realize that you have the power to change that narrative. We needn't look too far to see the effects of common stories on our lives. How many people do you know who have said they are, "looking for their Prince Charming?" What makes these tales even more powerful is that we often absorb them during childhood and/or adolescence, times when we are still developing our sense of self and are particularly susceptible to external influences.

There seem to be two storylines that we are fed most often. When we are younger, we get the fairy tales, the happily-ever-afters, the "one-true-loves". We are taught to believe in soulmates, that romantic love is the most important thing in the world, and that once we find it everything will fall into place. We dream of handsome princes sweeping us off our feet and giving us everything. This often leads to unrealistic expectations and disappointment, so as we get older we see the rise of the opposite narrative: the anti-romance. Nobody is perfect, you must love someone for who they are instead of trying to change them, relationships take work, life never works out as planned and is often disappointing. None of these are inherently false statements, but when taken as fact with no alternative perspectives or context they are as dangerously oversimplified as the fairy tale ending. And while the idealized fairy tales lead people to hold out for a perfection which doesn't exist and to believe that love is a matter of fate rather than effort, the anti-romance leads people to stay in unhealthy relationships, to accept their partner's flaws even when it means compromising on their own very valid needs and desires, to rationalize "better the devil you know..." and to explain that no relationship is perfect without questioning whether that means that all imperfection should be accepted.

Narin's essay is a variation on this mentality. In it, she muses that the aversion our generation has to labels has created a new kind of relationship, one which is ambiguous, undefined, and ultimately unsatisfying, yet impossible to escape. And by doing so, she reinforces the idea that such relationships are "normal", the new way in which young people approach love. I am not sure how many teenagers and young adults read the New York Times on a regular basis, but seeing as this popped up on my radar because a friend's mother sent it to her thinking that she would relate to the struggle it describes (she didn't), it's safe to say that there's a chance it could get around to the younger crowd, if only through well-meaning adults. The problem is that what our young author describes is nothing new nor is it caused by an aversion to labels. It is, quite simply, an unhealthy relationship that lacks boundaries and communication, compounded by garden variety fear of rejection and failure. I think many of us have gone through something of that nature during the course of our romantic explorations, whether we labeled our relationships or not. I dated a young man for a year and a half, lived with him even, who made me feel exactly the way "Jeremy" makes Narin feel. He was my boyfriend in every sense of the word, and yet because I feared to speak up for my own needs and maintain the boundaries of our relationship, feared that doing so would mean the end of our relationship, I spent that time in a sort of relationship purgatory, never certain of his commitment yet sure that life without him would be worse than whatever I endured with him. The point that Narin nears, but never quite seems to reach, is that it is not labels that define a relationship but healthy and regular communication and the setting and keeping of boundaries. And she is absolutely right, it takes bravery to stand up and speak up for your own needs and desires, even to admit them to yourself, but that bravery is absolutely necessary because without it we cannot set hard lines of what we will not tolerate, cannot know whether the person we're with is willing to respect those lines, cannot free ourselves to find something better. We relinquish all our power to the whim of another or to fate or God or the universe or whatever we choose to believe in: the power to define what the relationship means to us, the power to ask for more, the power to walk away, the power to move on. 

So I worry when a publisher at the New York Times decides to post this essay in a column titled "modern love", just as I worry when I see yet another movie featuring a young man stalking his love interest under the guise of romance or another female character waiting around to be rescued by a man. I worry when an independent film's answer to Hollywood idealism is, "stay together and be miserable." I worry for all the young girls and women who are watching this and soaking it up like a sponge, just as I did when I was younger. I think of all the tiny little misconceptions and false lessons we file away in our brain as "normal", and it makes me grind my teeth with frustration. Because it is no one person spreading these stories, so no one person is at fault. We are all the products of what we've been taught growing up, a vicious cycle of troublesome behavior presented as true love that we each internalize and then spread to someone else, like a contagion. Questioning these preconceptions holds the key to the cure, but first we have to realize that something is wrong.

Now I'll still admit to enjoying much of the media that spreads these messages. What can I say? I'm human, and I understand why drama is entertaining. But I am always hugely pleased when I read or watch something that subverts these tropes and presents their characters' relationships in more tender and healthy ways. I am positively gleeful when a character communicates with their partner rather than lying "to protect [them]" or asks for consent before laying a passionate kiss on someone. (You should've seen me in the theater at the end of Frozen. The poor man next to me shot me a very confused look as I bounced in my chair whispering, "He asked for consent!") And I believe firmly that we can write stories that present a healthier model to the young (or sometimes not-so-young) and impressionable while still remaining wildly romantic and entertaining. It's been done before, and it can be done again. Portraying the spectrum of the human experience includes all of our stories, even those that are less than ideal, but if there's a "happily ever after" in the mix, I hope it is one of trust, communication, and support rather than drama and insecurity. That is the narrative that I choose, somewhere in the area between "fairy tale romance" and "nobody's perfect". The narrative of, "people are flawed but I have the right to choose to reject the ones whose flaws hurt me." The narrative of, "my needs and desires are important, too". The narrative of partnership. Of love that gives back as much as you put into it. It is the one that, to me, is most rewarding and rings the most true, and the one that we see least often in print and onscreen. I can only work to ensure that it appears more frequently in the future.