Monday, December 17, 2012

For the Sisters and Brothers

My first reaction to the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Friday was as a mother. Outrage and fear and pure agonizing sorrow have settled somewhere in the depths of my marrow over the last few days. But my next reaction comes as someone who at a very young age lost two siblings. This is for the surviving brothers and sisters.

When I was ten years old, my mother gave birth to twin girls: Jillian and Miranda. They were unplanned and unexpected as well. (In 1979, doctors did not routinely conduct ultrasounds, and so when my mother went into labor a month early and Jillian was born, the doctor was baffled at her small size until he realized she had a twin still waiting to be born.) And so, ready or not, our family of four grew quickly into a family of six.

The twins were premature, and they were born in a rural hospital that did not have the sophisticated NICU wards of today's facilities. They were in the hospital for an entire month before they were allowed to come home. However, despite the lack of access to neonatal specialists, they seemed to have made it past the initial hurdles of being born too small (just about 3 and 4 pounds each respectively). And their lives felt like gifts.

Soon, however, it became evident that they had health issues that transcended their being born prematurely. The phrase I remember being used again and again by the doctors was "failure to thrive." This meant they did not eat, and they did not grow, and they did not develop as they should. By the following summer, they were both very ill. They had respiratory issues, cardiac issues, and something called "lactic acidosis" which rendered them in a constant state of pain.

We spent the entire summer commuting between our home and a larger hospital an hour away. The doctors were mystified, and could offer us little hope. And when Jillian passed away that June, we all feared for her identical twin's fate.

But I was eleven then, and I believed in the power of magical thinking. I believed that if I prayed hard enough, if I bargained with God, if I promised any number of little girl promises, that Miranda would survive. And so when she died that August, I was devastated. I was angry with the universe. I was angry with God. And I felt utterly powerless. (I can only imagine what my mother and father felt. And as a mother now, I wonder at the grace with which they handled this theft. I know now, this was their gift to me and my younger sister and I am so, so grateful.)

When school started again, I channeled this frustration and sorrow into writing. I wrote the story of this loss again and again and again. (I believe sometimes that I am still writing that story with every novel I write.)

Writing gave me control. It put me in charge in a situation where no one was in charge. It empowered me. And it conjured them; it brought them back, at least in my imagination.

On Saturday, I wrote 9,000 words. I turned off the television and (when I wasn't hugging my own daughters) I wrote. And wrote. I was manic. Mad even, pounding out a story that had nothing to do with the reality of what happened in Connecticut on Friday. I was eleven years old again, trying desperately to create a world in which children do not die. In which little girls will not grow up without their sisters.

All I have, all I have ever had, are my words, but now they seem to fail me. Because I don't know how to make sense of this, how to get control over this. In my family's case, our loss was tragic but explainable. Illness, sickness, is a fact of life. It is not evil, it just is.

But what happened on Friday did not have to happen. It did not have to happen. And I cannot fathom the sense of injustice these families must feel.

I know the grief of losing a sibling. I know the sorrow of a life cut short. The anguish of stolen promises. And I write this for the brothers and sisters, for the children who will always wonder what their lives would be like if the world were a kinder place.

I wish I had words that could undo their pain. But I could write a million words and none of them could lessen this overwhelming sadness. These are futile incantations, evidence only of our ultimate powerlessness in this sorrowful aftermath.

And so it is with humility that I offer this to the sisters and brothers of the twenty children lost on Friday. I know this, because I am evidence of this:

You will grow up. You will become important, intelligent, and sensitive people. You will fall in love, you will feel joy and happiness again. And you will carry the memory of your siblings in the deepest parts of your huge hearts and in your beautiful smiles.


Anonymous said...

I remember sitting in Mr. Elms class the first time I heard one of your stories about your sisters. I even remember one specific line that you wrote about seeing the nurses' starchy white dresses floating by. You made an impact then with your writing as you continue to do. I know this piece will touch hearts, and please know that every memorial day I leave pink geraniums for your sisters. Love you. Janet

T. Greenwood said...

XOXO, Janet...I didn't know that. That makes me so happy. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Well said Tammy. I too have always marveled at the grace and dignity your parents showed during what had to have been the darkest days of their lives. Bless you for remembering and reaching out to the siblings.They are often forgotten even though (as you know)their pain is as deep. Kim Wood

T. Greenwood said...

Thank you, Kim. So very many broken hearts.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Kim, for your kind words. So often the siblings are overlooked. I think that Tammy addresses this beautifully.

Anonymous said...

And it was during that dark time that I got to spend time with the 2 awesome Greenwood girls- and I still cherish the photos of you at Santa's Village. My heartbreak came when either you or your sister wanted to buy something for the twins and asked to have it personalized. To this day I am not sure where I found the words to convince you that was not a good idea- you were not one to be swayed.... xxxxoooo Marge