Yesterday was hard. My brother, Jacob, at exactly 12 weeks old, died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome on January 8th, 1979. I can’t imagine the devastation that this caused my parents and my older siblings. To have your new baby taken away from you forever is something no parent should ever have to go through.
I can’t remember ever NOT knowing that I had a brother who died. I was born three years after his death, with my mom having to have her tubes untied in order to conceive me. I grew up hearing “If Jacob hadn’t died, you’d never have been born.” My parents, and in particular my mother, suffered a tremendous amount of Catholic guilt. She convinced herself that he was taken from her because she’d had her tubes tied. She believed that it was a punishment from God.
When I was born, I was never out of her sight. She held me at all times. I was breastfed exclusively, I co-slept, and in the rare times that I was out of her arms, I was hooked up to heart monitors to ensure that I was always okay.
My mother says that I never cried. I never had a reason to. If anything bothered me – hunger, discomfort, pain – she was always there to soothe me. It became what I was known for – the good natured-baby who turned into a good-natured young girl.
The story goes that my father was angry when my mom became pregnant again. He was convinced that he couldn’t love me. After the death of his baby son, he didn’t believe he was capable of loving a new child. But as he tells it, he fell in love with me the second I entered the world.
I got a lot of that growing up. So much love and praise and adoration – the first child born after the death of another. It is only in the last year that I did the math and truly understood how old my parents were when they suffered this incredible loss – my mother was not yet 24, and my father was only just.
The term “rainbow baby” wasn’t one I’d heard until a few years ago. It is described as the baby born after the loss of a child. It is so named because if losing a child is like the worst storm of your life, the new child is the rainbow that appears to remind you that everything will be okay.
When I was seven, I remember standing in line at my school lunch, talking to my friends. I guess I must have recently started to process the life and loss of my brother because I remember talking to my group about our brothers and sisters. I proudly spoke up, “I have three brothers and a sister. But one of my brothers died when he was a baby.” Immediately a hush fell over the group, and it was the first time I understood that this was a subject likely to make people uncomfortable. My hasty continuation did nothing to help the situation, as I blurted out, “But it’s okay. I’m glad he died. If he didn’t die, I wouldn’t be here.” You can believe the guilt of what I’d just said ate at me, but since it immediately shut down the pitying looks, it became my go-to response whenever the subject came up.
As I got older, I’d try and ask questions of my mother about Jacob. His memory had never left us, and the whole family spoke of him often. I imagine any parent who has experienced that loss just wants to make sure no one ever forgets their child. But for some reason, the guilt started to eat at me.
My mother would always say, “God has a plan. There is a reason for everything.” For a while when I was very young, I swore that I wanted to grow up and become a nun. Even at 3 or 4 years old, I felt like I needed to pay a debt to God, though I don’t know if that was because of Jake or just because that’s the kind of person I was.
We lived in the same house my brother had died in until I was five. I have some strange memories of that place, and to this day you can’t convince me they aren’t real. I swear that I used to float down the stairs. It happened again and again. I’d be standing at the top of our stairway, looking down, and I’d suddenly just… float. I’d land safely at the bottom and go on my way. It didn’t seem weird at the time, but eventually I realized that that was a bit odd, so I told my mom. She brushed me off. “You were dreaming.” I swore I wasn’t. It was real. Years later, I brought it up again, and she again brushed it off. “You used to jump down the stairs into a pile of laundry. It wasn’t from the top. It was from a few steps up.” But that wasn’t it, either. I remembered jumping in the laundry. It was a totally separate memory from the floating. I eventually brought it up with my dad, who is generally more of a skeptic. He just stared off for a minute and said, “I believe you. I think it was your brother, Jake, carrying you down the stairs.”
Jacob’s memory was not mine. He died before I was born, and I didn’t know him. But my whole life was spent in his shadow. I pushed myself in everything I did because I thought that he might be looking down on me, resentful. What kind of life would he have led if he’d been given the chance? He’d assuredly have done more and been better than I. I lost hours of sleep each night thinking about it, comparing my life to the one he didn’t get to live. I prayed to God again and again to let us trade places. Bring him back and take me instead.
My teen years were spent in severe depression with episodes of self harm that I hid from my family. I became obsessed with the occult, thinking I could find a way to commune with my brother.
We used to visit his grave once or twice a year, but eventually I couldn’t make myself get out of the car anymore. I would just sit in there and cry.
One year, when I was in my mid-20s, I went out on the town on what would have been his birthday. I sat in a bar, tipping back drinks and talking to my older brother about what he remembered from the time when Jacob died. His main memories were of my mother screaming and of everyone being sad. He was three at the time.
I went home and drunkenly confronted my folks. I raged against God and demanded to know if it was my fault. Did they blame me? I could see their shock and upset, but I railed at them. They calmed me down eventually. “Of course we don’t blame you. You weren’t even born yet.” My dad took me to my room, leaving me with some crackers and a bucket to be sick in, as I was clearly well past my limit. The next day, in my hungover state, he simply asked if I was feeling better. I nodded, ashamed of how I’d acted. Dredging up the past for no reason.
I was a rainbow baby. I was supposed to bring sunshine back into their lives. But when I look back on the last almost 34 years that I’ve been here, I wonder. Was it a fair trade?