I have seen Mary's death certificate many times, my older sister who lived and died, all in two days. She was not talked about when I was younger, but I remember a white wicker bassinet in the corner of my parents' bedroom, in Levittown, Long Island. Empty except for a small mattress covered with a pale yellow sheet, a baby blanket folded into a perfect square, a fluffy toy lamb with a key for the music box inside that played, "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star".
To this day, my mother blames herself for vacuuming and tripping on the electrical cord, falling a few days before going to the hospital. I've told her countless times the official cause of death, "lacerations of the fontanel", would have occurred at or during birth.
There were other times the bassinet stayed empty. Once my older brother and I found a dresser drawer in my parents' bedroom full of newborn baby clothes, mostly white, a few hand embroidered bibs, blue crocheted booties and a sweater to match. I could tell my grandmother had made them. He and I were probably looking for Christmas presents or the nickels and pennies my father seemed to lose in odd places.
By then, both of us could read, or so we thought; together we learned from hidden pieces of paper about Mary, about Phillip, about Thomas. But this short story is about Mary, not the doctor who probably delivered her, then signed the birth and death certificates, long dead himself. What I know now is my mother never saw her or held her. My father's father paid for a small white coffin and Mary was buried next to his wife, who had died at 40 of pneumonia. A cemetery somewhere in Long Island.
My own father never spoke of Mary until he was dying. Alone with me, one night in the hospital, he said he couldn't wait to see her, to hold her, tiny and perfect, in his cancer-thin arms. All those years, she had never said bad words, never lied, might have been good at his beloved mathematics or chess, never ran away, never rebelled. She never looked into his angry blue eyes and said, "I love you, Dad," hearing nothing in return. I was born less than a year later, in the early fifties when women were routinely anesthetized for childbirth. My mother didn't wake for three days, was afraid to ask if I had lived. My birth photo is in black and white; I look jaundiced and Japanese. That photo was found in my grandfather's wallet when he died ten years later.
I cannot help but wonder how different my life might have been if I'd had an older sister, instead of being one. It was always as if everything I did was held to an impossibly high standard of perfection, unknowingly competing with a baby whose short life gave my parents such heartache, there was little room in their hearts for me for a very long time. All the mistakes and unintentional worry I caused, just being a kid climbing trees or riding a bike, a somewhat typical teenager, an adventurous young adult, and their first daughter who lived.