At night when I tuck E in, everything has to be the same for her as it is every other night. I have to sing the same songs, in the same order, and I also have to be sure to ask her first if she wants me to sing them at all. The answer is always ‘yes,’ but if I don’t ask, she gets upset and makes me start over. As I sing to her, she snakes her chubby little hand up the sleeve of my shirt and scratches and rubs at the inside of my arm. She has done this – or a version of this – since she was a nursing baby and, as with her songs, likes it to go a certain way: she wants the inside of my left arm when I am leaning over her in her bed and she needs to be able to get her hand a good way up my sleeve. I recite a long list of people who love her and if I forget someone, or change the order, I have to start again.
Tonight, I wondered what her sister would have liked before falling asleep. Would she have had a special spot on my body that she would claim for herself, for her own particular comfort? Would she like the same songs her big sister likes? Would they have snuggled together for stories or fought over which books to read? Would they have stayed up late in their shared room giggling and playing like my sister and I did?
While I was pregnant with Anja, I was always aware that when I sang to E at bedtime I was singing to her Baby Sister, too. In E’s darkened room, I sat quietly each night with both my girls, one stroking my arm, one curled inside me. I cherished those moments, believing Anja to be my last baby, my final pregnancy, and, as excited as I was to meet her, I was also nostalgic already for my time alone with E. Singing to my girls at bedtime I straddled the time between one girl and two. Anja was here but not here; she was a dream and a wish and our future. E was mine in a way that she never would be again (I thought); she was a Big Sister and also still my baby. Everything was about to change and as E fell asleep and her sister squirmed inside me, it seemed we were held together in time, the room another kind of womb where the three of us learned and grew the bonds that would hold us together forever: mother, daughter, sister.
I sang the bedtime songs to Anja in the hospital. I had a few moments completely alone with her and I held her close to me and sang each song, slowly, careful not to cry. I wanted to be able to do that for her: to sing to her once on the outside. I had imagined that when she was born she would be soothed by the songs so familiar to her, but she couldn’t hear them, and I knew it. This was one of the first moments where I fully realized that my baby was dead, that I was cradling and singing to a dead baby. My dead baby. My dead baby.
Now, 11 weeks later, I still sing to both my girls at bedtime, though I have no idea where the littlest one is or if she can hear me. I sing more slowly and softly than I used to, remembering the dim light of the hospital room, Anja’s still body on the warming table that was never turned on, and how it felt to hold her and sing to her knowing that I would never have another chance to do so. This bedtime song time is the time of day now that I feel closest to her, and it is the time of day that I miss her, her physical presence and the dream of her, the most acutely. In the earliest days after her death and birth, I hoped E would want to hear a different song, because it was just so hard to sing without sobbing, without feeling like I would break open from the weight of my hospital room memories and all my longing. Now, though, I worry that E will suddenly decide she wants new songs. These are silly songs. They could have been any songs; there is no particular meaning to them. But now they are also Anja’s songs and because she had so little, because I have so little of her, I can’t bear to give them up.