A few weeks ago, your older brother was "Special Person of the Week" in his Kindergarten class. Together we made a poster of all the relevant people and activities in his life, to be proudly displayed in his classroom that week. Honestly, I did most of the work but he selected the pictures.
There is one of our family at your tree. I am pregnant with your little brother in this picture, and as I secured the tape he asked me where he was. Why isn't Dominic there?
"In this picture," I responded, "Dominic is in my tummy."
"Oh," he added. "When we were hoping he wouldn't die?"
It's crazy how intuitive children can be. I remember explaining your death to him the night we arrived home from the hospital. I remember attempting to absorb some of the shock, some of the blow, although I hadn't yet felt the entirety of either myself. I remember wanting to protect him, to maintain the innocence peering up at me from those knowing, three year old eyes. I didn't want him to know that babies could die. I still don't want him to know that.
We sat him down on the bed, the brand new bed in the brand new room we had moved him into just the day before, and we told him you were gone. At the advice of our pediatrician, "Baby Josie was sick. She is not in Mommy's tummy anymore. She is in our hearts."
He sat for a moment, digesting this confirmation I suppose. He looked at me, at my hand placed on his chest. "Why can't I see her?"
Your father and I made eye contact. Afraid. I didn't want him to realize the finality of death. Not yet.
I think I said something, rambled about how we can't see her but we can always feel her, which probably only confused him more. She is always with you but she'll never really be here.
He walked away from us then. I can still see him approach the corner, back turned, head down, and it breaks my heart. "Okay, Mommy."
And I think there, in that moment he understood, everything I never wanted him to.
It is one of my biggest regrets, the abstract way we kept you for a time. I was afraid this knowledge would harm him, stunt his emotional growth somehow or instill a hesitation to connect. I was afraid to scare him and I was afraid to show him I was scared. During the next pregnancy I did my best to hide the fear, but I am quite certain now that he felt it too.
It's silly, looking back. All of the things I feared, how you might change me, how you might change all of us for the worse. The fragile, broken version of myself I feared most, the one who might never smile again, cowering behind every obstacle in her path has never emerged. Instead, there is someone else.
And your brother, all of the fear and the sadness I tried to prevent him from enduring, are the precise experiences responsible for the qualities I love most. His compassion. His unrelenting ability to live in the moment. His confidence and his curiosity. My brave little boy, always asking questions, always seeking to understand what many avoid. I wish I'd have known how big you would grow his heart. All the love and appreciation and pride he holds for his little brother. This understanding, at five years old, how important and un-guaranteed he is. All because of you.
Sometimes when I watch them together it steals my breath. There is such a reciprocal happiness, a genuine appreciation in their faces that I honestly cannot breathe. In this life of loss I am forced to ponder much. I will always wonder what your footsteps might have sounded like through our living room floor, or what your favorite song might have been. I will always sense an emptiness while dress shopping and I will never, ever, hold a baby girl without also knowing how old you would be in that moment.
But I will never question one thing.
You have made us better.
Better able to love, to endure and to recognize. An appreciation that is not possible before such a loss. A better mother, a better father, a better brother. Because of you, a better wife, a better teacher, a better person.
Every day is a testament to what you have taught us. Every moment, an addition to your compilation. Your display, forever growing in our hearts.
Our much bigger picture.
Our very special person.