Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The little girl next door

Another blogger (and I can't for the life of me remember who -- my apologies!) recently wrote a post not too long ago about "shadow children" -- the babies born close in age to the children we should have had, the measuring sticks & constant reminders of how big our kids would be & what they would be doing right now.

My shadow child or measuring stick lives next door. Her parents moved beside us in the spring of 1998, right around the same time that I got pregnant. (They replaced -- much to my infinite relief -- an incredibly fertile family with four kids, who plied us with not-so-subtle hints, comments & outright questions about when we were going to follow suit & pop out a few -- didn't we think kids were great? Didn't we want a few of our own? We should really get on that, you know. Ugh!!).

We didn't know the new neighbours very well (we still don't -- we're friendly but not overly so), but dh & the husband often chatted while tending to yard work. Dh mentioned we were expecting, and that we had been trying to have a family for awhile, & the husband said they had too. When I lost Katie in August, I was incredibly touched when they sent over a bouquet. I saw the wife in the yard one day & thanked her. She seemed a little nervous but said they were thinking of us and hoped we'd have another baby soon.

I chalked up her nervousness to the subject matter & the general awkwardness most people generally feel around the bereaved (especially bereaved parents of dead babies), but several months later, I began to suspect she might have had another reason. We both leave the house around the same time every morning, & I often see them coming & going from the vantage point of my kitchen window, which faces onto both of our front yards & driveways.

"Does she look like she's gaining weight?" I asked my dh one day. "Or do you think she might be pregnant?" Underneath the heavy winter clothes, it was kind of hard to tell. One night in March, coming home, we could see them through the front bedroom window, painting the walls a lavender colour. Shortly afterward, we saw people carrying gift-wrapped boxes into the house, and soon after that, the box for a crib was set out for collection on garbage day. Shovelling snow one day at the same time as the husband, dh asked him if they were expecting. "Yes, next week!" the husband said nervously. (!!!)

Their little girl was born in April 1999. Had our own little girl been born in November, as scheduled, they would have been six months apart in age. I envisioned them, two little girls living side by side, natural playmates.

I knew I would have to face this baby some day. I had not held another baby since my stillborn daughter. It was important to me that I be able to choose the time, the place, the baby. I did NOT want my first experience holding a baby, post-loss, to be at a family gathering, with all eyes upon me, watching my reaction. I didn't want an audience to my pain.

So one spring day, I steeled myself & took a small gift & card to their door. The wife answered, holding the baby. We sat on a bench on their front porch as she opened the gift, and she said, "Would you like to hold her?" I said yes and she plopped the baby in my arms. I looked at the wee bundle & took a deep breath. It was hard -- but not as hard as I had thought it might be. She was a little girl, a little younger and smaller than my daughter would have been -- but she was not my baby. And it had been my choice to visit. I knew I had made a good decision.

She is nine years old now. Dh & I have watched her grow up, always thinking of the little girl who would have been growing up alongside of her. She looks nothing like our daughter would have (which helps), and is a grade behind where Katie would have been. Still, she is a yardstick, giving us an idea of where our daughter might have been, more or less -- how tall she would be, what kinds of clothes she would be wearing, what sorts of toys she would be playing with and activities she'd be involved in.

When she was a toddler, we'd often see her playing or riding her tricycle outside, by herself. "She looks so lonely," dh said once. "She should have a friend." We both knew who he was thinking of.

Once she started school, though, friends began coming out of the woodwork. We arrived home one day to find her outside with another little girl, about the same age. When we got out of the car, she called dh's name & announced importantly, "I have a best friend! Her name is Jessica!"

"Her name was supposed to be Katie," I muttered to dh.

Today, she has half a dozen friends in the neighbourhood (would they have been our daughter's playmates too?), running up & down the street to and from each others' houses, piling onto the trampoline in the back yard next door, giggling & shrieking. (Two years ago, one humourless older neighbour actually called the police to register a noise complaint!!) She waves to dh & I whenever she sees us (she especially adores dh -- children always do), tells us about her trip to Disney World, sells us Girl Guide cookies and asks us to sponsor her in the school's Jump Rope for Heart event.

"You & Lori are so good to me," she told dh once, out of the blue.

One time, when she was a pre-schooler, I was in the kitchen & saw the car pull into their driveway. I saw her getting out & stomping up the sidewalk. "You're a MEAN mommy!" I heard her grumble. "Yes, I know, I'm horrible," the mother replied wearily. I tried not to laugh. At least that was one thing I'd never have to hear my daughter say to me (as I'm sure she would have)!

I had been dreading what would have been Katie's first day of Grade 1. Another milestone in my daughter's life, in all parents' lives, that we were not going to experience. Somehow, I got through that day, & I was standing at the kitchen sink, thinking it hadn't been such a bad day after all. Then I saw her. It had been her first day of senior kindergarten, & she came happily skipping down the driveway, her blond hair freshly cut in a shoulder-length bob, wearing a smart little plaid skirt and sweater. Sweet and carefree, yet looking oddly grownup at the same time.

I crumpled into sobs.

Another time, I saw her getting into the car on a Saturday morning, dressed in a fluffy pink tutu, obviously attending a ballet class or recital. That was a hard day, too. Someday, if we stay in this house & they stay in theirs, we will no doubt watch her heading off to her high school prom, graduation, and maybe even her wedding.

I wonder if her parents remember the little girl who was supposed to have lived next door and been her playmate. I wonder if someday they will tell their daughter about her.


  1. Wow, I don't know how you get through that each time. You are stronger than me. I would have had to move. Your posts are so share what it's like 10 years later. I really don't know how to eloquently and adequately share how meaningful it is to read about this journey in your life.

  2. Loribeth,
    This post brings tears to my eyes as my own shadow child is about to stroll into town with her parents this weekend. I am dreading it to say the least. I can't imagine the constant reminder. The torture of knowing exactly where your daughter would be had she lived. It breaks my heart that Katie is not here, growing up and experiencing life with you as it should happen. Sorry that you've had to watch the shadow baby for nine years and counting. It breaks my heart into tiny little pieces. I can't even begin to imagine the shape yours is in.

  3. Oh, wow...I can't imagine seeing the shadow child grow up and go through all the milestones for almost 10're much braver than I am - I'm sure I would have moved away.

    It's really touching to read your experience 10 years write with poignancy. I know the pain won't disappear, but I hope it eases over time.

  4. Maybe they already did tell her.

    This really made me cry.

    I know there was a girl born at the end of our block while I was pregnant. I don't know exactly when and I hope to never find out. I have been doing my darnest to not keep track of dates and ages and developmental stages.

    There are two older girls on our block. When they became "tweens", they drifted apart. They go to different schools, have different interests, different friends. I never see them together anymore.

  5. I find they do. People do tell their children of the wee ones who were supposed to be here.

  6. Hi, here from NCLM. This was a really beautiful and touching post. My mom lost two children (both boys) before my brother and I made our appearances. I always remember her saying things like "your oldest brother would have been (fill in blank with age or event)." I always thought it was weird to keep track of that stuff. Now as I approach my EDD for my loss I realize that you never want to forget those things. I have to say you are an amazing person, it must be hard for you to see. I have a shadow baby, a friend from work (thank god she works in another state)is due 3 weeks after I would have been. I know I will hear about her growning up but it isn't so close to home.

  7. I'm sitting at my desk trying to hold back tears. This is a beautiful post, thank you for writting it.

  8. This is a beautiful post.

    Until recently, miscarriage and pregnancy loss has seemed an adults-only topic in my family and in D.'s -- but I do know that D.'s young nephews knew why we didn't have children yet ("a baby for Uncle D. and Aunt Ellen" was on one nephew's prayer list -- right beneath prayers for Steve Irwin's family, my SIL said! LOL).

    I am almost sure, given your shadow girl's sweet disposition, she has asked her mom or dad why her favorite neighbors don't have kids.

  9. What a beautiful post - it breaks my heart to know how much pain you have suffered over the years, through it all and particularly with this child next door. I have to admit that I would probably have to move. I don't think I could bear it.


  10. wow, wow... I have tears in my eyes. I am so touched by your post. I too have a Shadow child that reminds of my little one that never came to be. She is my niece, they should have been 8 months apart. I actually lost my baby the day she was born. 2 years ago I had to attend her birthday party the day of the one year anniversary of my loss. It was so hard. I already have another baby but every time I see my niece she reminds of what could have been. I also had a friend that had the same due date that I had, her child died at the age of 6 months due to heart complication. I often think of them two playing in heaven together. They should have been 2 on June 13th (tomorrow) Thanks for sharing

  11. Tash & CLC, I accidentally hit "delete" instead of "publish" on your lovely comments. :( Sorry! Just wanted to let you know I appreciated them! (I wish they'd ask you if you really really want to delete before it happens!!)

  12. You really touched my heart. You want to remember the love you had for your little one and then again, that memory can also be bittersweet. Have you ever pictured what your life would look like if you moved to a new place? Or is it more comforting to stay where you are?

  13. That is one of the most touching posts I have ever read. It takes a lot to place your feelings out there so openly.

  14. a lovely post. it can be so hard to watch these shadow children grow up. I see them in the gaps between my nieces and nephews and baby cousins. right where my baby boy should be. and then there are those who were pregnant at the same time -- friends, family, celebrities. those can be even harder to watch...

  15. I have a friend with a shadow child. He was born the same month as my due date and his older brother is great friends with my 4 yr old. I try not to stare at him too long because then it is too hard to hold back the tears. Your story just breaks my heart! NCLM

  16. Thank you so much for stopping by my blog and for your kind words about Tim Russert.

    This is a beautiful post. I love your writing style and am so glad I found your blog! I hope you don't mind if I add you to my blogroll. :)

  17. It is a gorgeous post. Was it Tash and her shadow child? What a painful reminder, a living barometer. I am so sorry that Katie isn't here to be her friend.

  18. I have two nieces -- two of my stepbrothers' children -- one born within a week or so of the twins' due date, the other six months later. Though, in general, other babies don't really bother me, I'm not sure that I'll ever be able to bear to see or hear anything about either one of those little girls.

    It's almost as if I have this irrational belief that my stepbrothers stole my twins from me, that their children are alive because mine are not.