For those of you who know me, you know I’m generally outspoken and forward. This is not a new phenomenon, my parents raised me to ask questions, speak my mind, and they taught me how to defend my opinions. As a rule my parents wanted me to be inquisitive and curious by nature — a trait I honestly think has propelled me forward my whole life. There was always one topic that I had to avoid around the house, however. And it was a topic of great interest to me. 34 years ago today, my sister Victoria passed away from a heart condition. One year and nearly 5 months before I was born.
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”.
So I moved on to new questions. “What happened to Victoria?” “What made her heart not work?” “When did she die?” I learned to frame questions about Victoria in ways that my parents could answer positively. Where the pain of the reality was at least dulled by the happiness of the memory. “What did she like?” “Who did she remind you of?” “What was her laugh like?”. What was hard, however, is the truth of so many premature deaths, there simply weren’t many answers to offer. I was hungry to know anything and everything about my sibling I would never get to meet. My parents and my brother were hungry for the exact same answers.
When someone passes away young, you can’t talk about their legacy, their storied past. You can only talk about what could have been. Who they might be. And over time, that gets hard. Because while we get older, the memory of someone gets stuck at the age they pass. When they’re less than a year old, there’s not much to be learned beyond that sometimes life’s not fair. And to a precocious little shit of a child like me, that was not an acceptable answer to my questions. Especially since I shared a middle name, Hilliard, with this person I would never meet.
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.
However, to the rest of my family she wasn’t imaginary, and no one quite seemed to know how to support their own grief while a small child was actively putting it in everyone’s faces. It created a lot of friction with my brother who was going through something I couldn’t imagine, and I desperately wanted to talk to him about it. For my parents it meant a lot of patience. Something that sometimes they couldn’t offer on a specific day. For me, over time I started to realize the effect my interests were having on those I cared about. So I stopped asking about Victoria. She slowly faded into a fact, not a person.
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.
Even though I attended the school where she worked, we had gone nearly two weeks without seeing each other for any length of time. She would leave for school before I would get up, I specifically avoided her classroom, and then I would go first to varsity practice, followed by rehearsal for a musical I was in. By the time I got home mom would have gone to bed. That morning, March 10, as I got ready for school, my father called. He lived in Pennsylvania and we connected every week or two to catch up. He never called in the morning, though.
We made light conversation before I finally asked him, “so…what’s up?”
“Oh nothing. Today’s Victoria’s birthday and I’m sad. I like to chat with you and Will to start my day today because if I can’t talk to my daughter then I can talk to my sons.”
And then he broke down crying.
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.
He told me about the day that they took her to the hospital. The day she was rushed to Boston for surgery. When they had to come home without her. How that moment clouded all the next. When they found out they were pregnant with me and the fears that followed. As my mother lost her eyesight and my parents drifted apart. How, quite frankly, the act of trying to have another child was part of the hope of filling a void by losing their second. Despite it not serving to save their marriage, how he felt having two children had saved their sanity as individuals. It was maybe the most important conversation I’d had with either parent up until that point in my life.
There are no photos from the day Victoria died. The last image I have of her living is from this article written by my mother in response to an article called “Are Women Better Doctors?” by Perri Klass on April 10, 1988.
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.
I came in the door to the classroom and saw my mom for the first time in weeks. She looked tired, stressed, but grateful for routine and for conversation with these students who meant the whole world to her. Her Seeing Eye dog, Alice, was in the corner playing with another student. My mother was not completely blind, if you and I have 185 degrees of vision she had about 3, and only through a single eye. However she could sense every change in this room she knew intimately. Her head turns to see who had entered, moving her neck to find the eye-line and make contact. Her face reflexively breaking into a smile to greet whatever student needed her energy today. That smile faltered a little when she saw that a student didn’t need her energy.
It was her son.
“Hey, Mom. Guys, could I have a few minutes, please?”
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.
“Hey, Mom, it’s Victoria’s birthday. How are you doing?” It was the first time I could remember that I’d turned Victoria’s birthday into something for someone else. That I’d made space to use it to honor both Victoria and the living. It felt strange, like a completely different reframing of a moment that had fundamentally affected my family for years. And for the next 10 minutes, Mom and I sobbed.
We talked about Victoria, we talked about the problems we were having, we talked about everything that came to mind. 10 minutes went by quickly and we cancelled Mom’s first period class, and talked for another hour. It was one of the most cathartic moments in our relationship. The world wasn’t easy on my Mom. She was a blind single mother raising a teenaged son where both of us had our own destructive demons. But we finally had a moment of understanding that had eluded us for 15 years. Victoria gave that to us.
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.
I got to know my sister through memories experienced in the third person. Words, stories, pictures, are all I have of a life beautiful lived if impossibly short. At the bottom of this post find a collection of memories found in the scrapbook. An impossibly hard piece of this, is that Victoria’s life spans over only 9 pages of scrapbook. An indelible mark made in tragically few minutes.
When I was growing up, my parents had many ways to honor Victoria. The one that stuck with me is a framed Winnie the Pooh picture bearing the words “Promise you’ll never forget me, ever. Not even when I’m a hundred.” It remains still in my home, a testament to the promise our family made Victoria on this day 34 years ago today. Today that picture bears so much more meaning as it remains a testament to passing on the stories of my parents as they’re no longer here to do so.
I learned that from Victoria. You see? My big sister was able to teach me something real after all.
Rest in peace, Victoria. I love you.
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:
The article is editorial responses to a prompt titled “Are Women Better Doctors?”. It reads as follows:
Since our daughter Victoria was born in March 1987, with major heart defects, we have had ample opportunity to observe both male and female doctors (“Are Women Better Doctors?” by Perri Klass, April 10). We were overwhelmingly impressed by the quality of her medical care — by women and men doctors. However, we were struck by the differences in attitudes of male and female doctors at her hospital of primary care.
After having undergone numerous tests last summer, she arrived for open-heart surgery in January. But because of a respiratory infection, she was not admitted then. The admitting anesthesiologist, the woman responsible for rejecting the admission, took at least a half hour to speak with us, to review her reasons for not admitting Victoria and to give suggestions for rescheduling her admission.
Victoria was admitted for surgery one month later, in February, and again had a female anesthesiologist. The morning of her operation, that doctor took the time to play with Victoria for several minutes, to insure that our baby was happy being borne off by someone who was, therefore, not entirely a stranger. That was our last memory of her, being carried, happy, down a hall, as she did not survive the surgery.
In the midst of our subsequent sorrow, we have no quarrel with the quality of care Victoria received from medical personnel, male and female. All of her care-givers were superb. However, it was the women who made her, and us, feel a human part of the entire process.
Deborah Curtis Donovan, Portland, Me.