Today Natalie Evelyn would be three years old. Dark haired little girl with dimples still on her hands. I think of how perfect it would be, Natalie and Elliot so close in age, best friends, bridging the gap between Annie and her baby brother. Annie with the sister she longs for and us without broken hearts. Being able to parent in a far less complicated way, without the burdens which sometimes leave us feeling apart from other families. Wishing we could carry the feeling of building a family easily, to not carry this grief, to watch your children grow and not have the best moments in life come with the bittersweet. To live our lives not carrying the traumas of six months in an intensive care unit, not holding the burdens of the decisions we made and the wrongs we can not make right. Knowing what is it like to share a space with all your children and take it for granted.....But even more so, Natalie being able to reap the rewards for all that she endured. Giving our daughter everything we promised, watching her grow. Making the fight worthwhile, just as we promised. Natalie celebrating a birthday, Natalie being here, Natalie being 3 years old.
No matter how much time passes we always see where she is missing, and that loss is felt in ways you can only know if you have been in these shoes. The reality for our family is that it will always be a bit broken, incomplete, a bit different.
Yesterday I was making small talk with another mother at the Y. She asked how old Elliot was, and I asked her child's age. He will be 3 this week. The rest of the evening I glanced at him and felt that longing that has no end. These little landmines are everywhere...playing happily at the children's museum when another mom calls out "Come Natalie, it is time to go." Fighting tears and trying to put myself back together again. Shopping at Gymboree when another customer starts detailing the NICU journey of her grandchild. Setting down my purchases and trying to get out of the store before panic sets in. It is our normal now, being vulnerable.
A few days ago I took Annie and Elliot to the cemetery. This was the first time Elliot had been there and been free to walk. Just as Annie had when she was 3, he looked at all the headstones and thought he had stumbled upon a toy garden. Anneliese ran off to the clearing where she loves to play, and I tended to the headstone while trying to keep Elliot in check.
Annie comes back, bends down and talks to her sister. She misses her and wants her back. I tell Elliot this is where sister Natalie is buried and he looks confused. The only sister he knows is named Annie.
She kisses her hand and touches it to Natalie's name. I do the same, and Elliot watches. He bends at the waist, nearly losing his balance, and places both hands flat on her stone. He kisses it and stands up with a smile on his face.
This is our family, and I hold them close.