My aunt took a picture of the four of us last week. It is the only picture of the four of us we have, so far. It is a lovely photo: R has M on his lap and his arm around E, who is snuggled in next to him, her head leaning over her brother’s. I am leaning in on the other side of R. We are all smiling, nobody’s eyes are closed, no double chins (except for M’s). Someone is missing, though. Every time I look at the picture it is the missing that I see. The space in my own lap, my empty arms. I wonder if I will always see the missing in this photo and in every future family photograph. I suspect I will. And I suppose a part of me wants to always see it. Needs to always see it.
Two weeks after Anja died, the three of us went to Mexico to be with my parents, who live there in the winter. There is a picture of us taken on the beach there, an iPhone selfie, R and I in chairs beside each other, leaning in, and E standing behind us, her arms around each of us. R and I are both wearing sunglasses, at least partly to hide the sorrow in our eyes, but it is still so evident in our bearing: the tilt of our heads, a certain grimness in our attempts at smiles. And E. Sweet little E in the middle with her arms around her parents, trying to hold us together, to keep us up. The smile on her face belongs to an adult, a rueful, sad-happy smile that knows more than a three year old ought to, that is trying harder than a three year old should need to. I think of this photo as a photo of Anja. She is not there; she is all that is there.
Last weekend, we went to visit a friend in Victoria who is going through a separation with her husband. They have two little girls, aged nearly five and two. Sisters. I stood in their hallway by myself one evening while my friend read to all four kids on her bed. I studied the family photos on the wall and wondered at how their family was being torn apart, at how a father could choose to leave without making any effort to fix things, at how different their family, and their family photos, will look in the years ahead. And I studied the pictures of the two girls together with a different eye, an eye to my own loss, the sisters I thought I’d raise but never will. I cried in the hallway by myself, sad for my friend, sad for her girls, sad for myself, sad for my girls.