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.