Memories in Third Person

Photos from a scrapbook of the day Victoria was born, including hospital tags, a picture of Victoria taken shortly after her birth, and an announcement card. Across the top of the page are the words “Victoria Hilliard Donovan. March 10, 1987”
The scrapbook my mother kept are my windows to knowing Victoria.

Asking Hard Questions

Children are known for asking “why”. As a child, when I wanted to know more about my big sister, “why” was the hardest question to ask, and simultaneously the one everyone in my family seemed to ask silently. Why was she taken so young? Why did this happen to our family? Why wasn’t it getting easier with time? I was never given a clear answer to any of those questions, and looking back now I realize that perhaps nobody had an answer. If I were to ask “why”, all my mother ever said about it was that Victoria went “too soon” and then she would get the look of pain you hope to never see in someone’s eyes. I stopped asking “why”.

Getting to Know Victoria in my Own Way

At first it meant that I would talk to Victoria and make up conversations. I imprinted on my sister the personality I imagined she would have, and she became a close constant imaginary companion. We played games, sang songs, talked about the weather, and came on most of our trips as a family. I desperately wanted a big sister to teach me things about the world. So I would learn a fact and then pretend to have Victoria tell it to me. I would proudly tell my parents that Victoria had taught me about worms, or flowers, or any other little thing I’d learned that day.

A picture of Victoria in a yellow sweater and stockings next to a giant teddy bear sitting on a couch with flowered green upholstery. Victoria smiles and looks right into camera.
I still have this bear. Another stuffed animal connection I maintain to Victoria.

Managing Others’ Grief in Ignorance

When you’re young, death is treated as much an absence as a reality when you aren’t confronted with its consequences. For me that meant that Victoria’s birthday had the same weight as any other person I didn’t know. It wasn’t an event. I never quite understood when people would bring flowers or cards on a day that no person inside my household was celebrating. What I didn’t yet understand was the duality of grief and the ways we mark time. “Celebration” was what I expected on a birthday. My family, however, was “honoring”, ensuring that this being they had poured so much love and care into would stay remembered and their love flame kept alight. It took me a very long time to understand that.

The Moment of Comprehension

I remember the day it really clicked in. I was a sophomore in high school and I was facing one of the darkest times in both my and my family’s relationships that I had experienced. Due to some pretty nasty circumstances, my mother and I weren’t really speaking at the time. We had created a calendar that allowed us to commit to that obstinance.

A quad photo from a scrapbook. The bottom two are of my father holding Victoria for the first time. The top left is my mother in a hospital bed holding Victoria. The top right are my grandparents and Aunt Carol meeting Victoria and holding her.
Photos from the day Victoria was born.

The Tears of our Parents

Over the years I’d rarely seen or heard my parents cry in sadness. There was anger, frustration, or tears related to something else that leaked through into conversation on an unrelated topic. But sadness was kept behind closed doors. Locked away lest it affect those around us. I was raised to suffer in silence, something my parents learned from their own parents and had diligently passed down through the generations. This was quite possibly the only time I’d heard my Dad cry for himself. I’d never heard it before — not when my parents got divorced, not when my grandfather died, never. But he wept on that phone call.

An image of an article in two panels. The article is editorial responses to a prompt titled “Are Women Better Doctors?”. A transcript is provided at the bottom of this article.
I’d never read this article before today.

Turning Comprehension to Action

As we hung up the phone, there were 15 minutes until the first period of school. I lived a 5 minute walk from school. Much faster if I ran, which I often did so I could sleep 3 minutes longer. I threw on my backpack and sprinted out the door to the Emery building of Waynflete School. I ran in the side door we were not supposed to use, took a left, and ran down the hall past the head of Upper School’s office to enter my Mom’s sacred space. She treated her classroom as a temple, an open door for any of her kids (meaning her students) to come in and safely express themselves. She had a pumpkin on her desk full of candy that anyone could come partake in so long as they offered a heartfelt good morning to Debba and made some kind of conversation. Debba’s kids loved her so very dearly.

Reconnecting the Dots

As my friends dutifully and graciously gave me space with Mom. I shut the door to her classroom, closed the shade to the hallway, and then sat down on the floor and invited her to join me. Alice, sensing a new game curled up in between us, begging for tummy scratches, preferably from both of us at the same time.

A framed photo of Victoria in high chair wearing a plaid dress and smiling into camera while holding a toy. It is inside an ornate pewter frame with Herons on either side. At the top is her name, “Victoria” and at the bottom is “Arrived 3–10–87, weight 6lbs 8oz”
This photo was prominently placed my whole life, and remains so in my home to this day.

Honoring Victoria

While my parents chose to honor Victoria on March 10, the day of her birth, I’ve always marked today, February 12th, as the day to remember. It was this day something irreparably fractured in both of my parents. It affected every minute of my family and childhood in a way I could never understand. To this day it feels amorphous and hard to quantify. As my parents have passed away. I have tried to keep the torch of Victoria kindled. Her Pink Bunny remains the symbol for my family, emblazoned in a tattoo on my arm. I have her picture with others of my family, and the ceramic bowl bearing her initials that my Mom kept special coins in remains in a prominent placement in my house. After my Mom passed my wife and I went through old scrapbooks she made involving moments of pure love and growth for Victoria. How blessed I am that my parents chose to save those memories for me to find someday.

A photo of two pictures in a scrapbook. The left photo features Victoria in a high chair being fed. She smiles and looks right into the camera. The right photo is her on the floor next to that same high chair on a blanket, holding a toy and a ball between her legs. She smiles and looks off and up to the side.
These scrapbooks are a window into the answers I always wanted.
A framed photo of a drawing of Christopher Robin and Winnie the Pooh. The text reads “Promise you’ll never forget me, ever. Not even when I’m a hundred.”
I have written at length about the power of Pink Bunny in my life. She remains tattooed on my arm.

Transcript of my Pictures Above

Earlier in the article I included a photo of an article written by my mother about the last memory I get to have of Victoria. That article is longer than Alt Text allows so I’m including the transcript here:

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Ned Donovan

Ned Donovan

He/Him • Actor • Content Creator • Podcast Producer • Co-Founder Audition Cat, Charging Moose Media, Play+1 • Board Member New Jersey Web Festival • @neddonovan