My father explained. Mum had been dressing her to come home and was talking to my uncle, a resident at Vancouver General, when Heather went blue. Uncle Stan through quick thinking had saved her life. For now. But she was not expected to live.
One by one people took their leave. Aunt Grace said dinner was ready but Mum shook her head no and her plate was cleared away without comment. Dad lifted me into my high yellow chair and scooted me in. He did the same for Linda and Tresa. Seven, six, and just-about-five, me in the middle, I stared at our reflections in the large plate glass window on the other side of the table, wondering if the glass might fall in from the weight of sadness pressing against the house. Unable to eat, I pushed the food around on my plate. Dad finally cornered off some mashed potatoes, told me to eat this little bit, and I could be excused. “Leave her be,” said Mum and I burst into tears.
But it was the grief, like sunlight through stained glass, which made Heather’s fragile life so lovely. And how we loved her, my other sisters and I. The first eighteen months of her life Linda, Tresa and I only knew her only through hushed whispers and diagrams Mum drew of Heather’s heart with its all-but-missing wall between the two ventricles. The right ventricle, she explained to us is where the tired, used up blood, having run its course through our arms and legs, came in to receive more oxygen from our lungs. The left ventricle, she said, is where the refreshed blood got ready to sprint back out. But with a gaping hole between the two halves, Heather’s blood got all sloshed together. Her heart had to work twice as hard and still she’d never have enough oxygen to make her strong.
The doctors, Mum said, predicted she’d died within days. If not, then weeks. If by some miracle she defied all odds maybe, maybe, a few months. There was a good chance she'd never learn to speak, sit up. Or walk. Chances were good she’d slip into a vegetative state, her brain starving for oxygen. But when they brought her home eighteen months later, after her second open-heart surgery and not expected to survive the trip, one look at this frail little sister, so weak and so blue, and looking for all the world like me, my terrible grief eclipsed into magical wonder. God had hung a smile from the stars.
For a long time we were not allowed into our parents’ room where Dad set up Heather’s crib under an oxygen tent. Exceptions were made if we donned surgical masks and scrubbed our hands about raw with a huge yellow bar of Fels Naptha. We didn’t mind; we could kill her with germs we didn’t know we had. We could, however, peek through the door all we wanted. Sometimes I just sat on the cold tile floor and watched. Mum usually had her propped up in a corner of her crib, and Heather amused herself by watching butterflies Mum had made from candy wrappers. They hung from a coat hanger, I think. She also had Aunt Grace’s “Puppydids,” a mink shawl of heads and tails that she’d fallen in love with, and Auntie hadn’t thought twice about letting her keep them. At first, when I softly opened the door lest I startle her and inadvertently kill her, she’d stare at me without movement, but after a few days she smiled, recognizing me, a weak soft smile that came mostly from her eyes. “Hi, Heather,” I’d say. What I meant of course was “I love you.”
Even outside the room we had to be careful, and people criticized my parents for this. It wasn’t fair to burden us big girls with Heather’s uncertain existence. It wasn’t healthy, they admonished, that we had to be quiet once we reached the back corner of the house when coming home from school. It was wrong that our normal pursuits be secondary to death hovering at our door. Who were these people? They went to church. Didn’t Jesus say to think more of others than ourselves?
Heather blossomed in the warm rays of family sunlight. She learned to sit up, to talk, and, delightfully, to sing—a clear sweet voice that floated through the house like bird song at dawn. Mum began taking her outdoors on sunny days and let us push her gently in the baby swing.
When she gave Heather a bath in her bathinette out by the clothesline, sheets drying in the sunshine, we were allowed to pass the soap and help dribble water over her pale blue skin—as delicate and translucent as a poppy open to the sky. It hurt me, though, to see her scars, two zipper-like marks that ran horizontal around her rib cage, one under each arm. I’d distract myself by showing her how to wiggle her fingers in the water and make a splash; and I’d wonder at the courage she possessed.
By two-and-a-half she’d learned to pull herself up and could walk alongside the chesterfield; or, holding onto our fingers, in front of us. How she came by her black patent leather shoes I don’t recall, but the three of us didn’t begrudge her the shoes we had no dream of ever owning for ourselves. And as much as we loathed our Buster Browns—shoes so ugly and uncomfortable we had to stick our feet in an X-ray machine so the salesman could tell if a new pair was too big or too small—we took pleasure in Heather’s good luck. And I admired her for making liars of the doctors. At seven years old and seeing those shoes, I understood that prayer was not a waste of time.
When she turned three, a winter child, Mum pulled out my old blue snowsuit. And while it was Mum or Dad who dressed her, my sisters and I were allowed to mitten her hands. I treasured the sensation of tucking her little fingers into the warmth of mittens I once wore. “Three little kittens, have lost their mittens, and can’t tell where they are,” we’d sing. “Oh, Mama dear, we greatly fear, our mittens we have lost.
“What!” I’d cry, “Lost your mittens! You naughty kittens! You shall have no pie!” and Heather would smile. I lived to see her smile.
She had a bedtime routine. I might be busy doing cutouts, or playing a game with my other sisters, or coloring or reading to myself, but I found comfort in the schedule unfolding around me. Her jammies on, she first had to have her blue may-he-dun, then her pink. Never the reverse. Once Aunt Grace, when visiting, got it backwards; and she feared she might kill Heather for all the distress it caused. We of course sprang to the rescue and explained the error, and if Heather had two doses of Penicillin that night it was better than letting her heart gallop on.
After her mayhedun, she had to be carried about the house, shutting all the cupboards and drawers, everything tucked into its place and put properly to bed. Mum’s canary had to have his cage draped and the counter had to be wiped. Finally, sitting down on the yellow rocking chair before a fire, Mum had to sing “Holy, Holy, Holy” and two verses of “Silent Night.” Once she tried to shorten the routine but Heather cried, “No, no, shepherd’s cake!” It took awhile to figure out, but eventually Mum caught on and settled back in and sang the second verse of the Christmas carol. “…shepherds quake, at the sight.”
The routine was soothing as oil, a serenity that became as much my goodnight schedule as Heather’s. Her stints at the hospital left the house empty and I didn’t sleep well and I rattled around with a hole in my own heart. When she returned, the house filled back up and I shut my eyes at night to a world very much at peace.
In the March after Heather turned three in December, Mum decided to give our new baby a bath in Heather’s old bathinette, brought out from the back bedroom and set up in front of the plate glass window in the kitchen. Heather was feeding herself in the baby table by the fireplace. Mum had just gotten Tim undressed, and he was lying on the bathinette hammock strung over the water, waving his little arms and legs and chewing on his fists, trying to find his thumb, when something slammed with a whack into the window. A rattle and crack and glass flew like rain. A grouse hurtled past me, bounced off the table, glass skittering, and landed, wings slapping the slate, on the raised hearth across the room next to Heather. She nearly came out of her chair, screaming in terror.
Mum darted for Heather so fast she slammed her hip against a chair and nearly tripped over the bird, as big as an owl, now flopping all over the floor and spurting blood. She whisked Heather, screaming, down to the other end of the house, calling at me to do something with the baby while I stared at wee Tim covered in glass shards. Behind me the bird was dying. Would Heather would die? Would the baby blink on glass and go blind? Would he cry and swallow some of it? Don’t let Heather die, God, don’t let the baby move!
Quickly, carefully, I picked at the glass. From around his eyes first, then his mouth, under his chin, his neck. He stared up at me, as still as stone. I worked my way down his little body no bigger than a sugar sack. Don’t let Heather die, don’t let Timmy move. I glanced up at the clock. Five minutes? So many pieces, tiny and large, and still I picked away at the spill. At last Heather’s crying ebbed and the baby I saw, checking him over, had but one wee scratch, on his ear lobe. Just a thin red line of blood. I slowly grew aware that the bird had ceased to stir and I swung around. The poor thing was dead; a heap of feathers, glazed eyes, and blood I couldn’t look at.
A few days later, the feathers and blood mopped up, Mum had Tim sleeping in Heather’s old pram in front of the hearth and warm fire, for it was raining, the drops steadily splattering the large new windowpane. Heather pulled herself up alongside the pram to take a peek inside, then reached for Tim’s hand and tucked a nickel into his palm.
“Look, Mummy. Heather just gave Timmy a nickel!”
She was sewing at the far end of the table. “Where did she get that?”
“I don’t know, but she gave it to Timmy!”
“What a little monkey,” said Mum, mumbling around the pins in her mouth.
Life was so lovely.
One night some time later I awoke from a deep sleep sensing something was wrong. I threw back the covers and crept into the hall. At the far end a sliver of light slipped through the crack at the bottom of my parents’ door. An eerie glow washed over Mum’s well-polished tile floor.
I sprinted, bare feet cold against the tile, and inched open my parents’ door. He was sitting on the edge of the bed holding Heather, carefully keeping the oxygen mask a few inches from her mouth. She’d always been afraid of it. Put too close, she’d thrash in a panic. Years later, I understood. Rubber suffocates. No knew back then—though Dad didn’t need to. He always held the mask where she needed it, even though precious oxygen escaped. The lesser of two evils.
He looked up.
“May I come in?”
He motioned me to sit beside them. The bed sank a little under my weight. Heather startled. I reached over and took her blue fingers in my own and was happy it calmed her. At the end of the bed, Mum paced. In front of me stood the oxygen tank.
In the terrible tension and rushed tiny gasps of my sister, I became fascinated by the gauge needle slipping closer to the red empty mark. I gave Dad a running commentary. Finally, in uncharacteristic abruptness, he said, “Brenda, it would be better to pray than to chatter.”
I instantly let go of Heather’s hand, shoved both of mine down between my legs and bowed my head in agony. I’d been caught pretending she wasn’t dying. But she was. I did know this. And I knew that if she didn’t regain her breath within minutes, before the precious oxygen was gone, the sun would rise without my sister in its light.
Frantically I prayed. I begged. I watched the needle sink into the red zone, like the spinner in Shoots and Ladders settling on the line between six and one. And I reminded God of the grouse coming through the window and how he’d let her live. Do it again. Please. The hiss of the oxygen tank suddenly sputtered out. I slid my eyes sideways, afraid. But she was asleep, her lovely translucent skin the soft pink of sunlight at dawn.
He looked at me with bone-weary eyes.
“She didn’t die.”
“No, she didn’t,” and he reached with a smile to ruffle my bangs.
She died two months later while I slept.
Did it hurt to die?
“She just went to sleep, and woke up in heaven,” the preacher said that dull day mid-June, 1961, while I stared with stinging eyes at the little white box in front of the church. How did he know she just went to sleep and woke up in heaven? He wasn’t there; no one was there... Her third open-heart surgery and she’d been left alone….
In the tunnels of my mind I could see the slats of her crib slivered through with the low light of night at the hospital. Tucked in, needles sticking her, alone under the canopy of plastic and surrounded by her beads, her Ned the Lonely Donkey which was really mine, her string of red monkeys looped across the crib bars—and her Puppydids, of course, kissing her face while the oxygen pointlessly hissed. Had she cried out? Found no one there? While I slept? God’s smile hung from the stars came crashing down, and I stared at the white box in mounting panic, for I did not know where to find the scattered shards.
The story ends here. I'm 56 now. Heather died 47 years ago, and so I've spent 47 years looking for the scattered shards. A new book I'm reading, Sibling Loss, explains why. At nine years old I did not have the psychological development to create closure for death. And so the years have passed, her death never finalized in my mind. Writing about her is a way of bringing closure, of saying good-bye, of telling her I love her, miss her, and still weep for her.
And while I've spent my life searching for that lost connection I couldn't close, I am ever so grateful to my mum and dad for allowing my other sisters and I the eye-witness access to the fragility of life and it's exquisite beauty when reflected so clearly through the terrible prism of suffering. My little sister was a child of great courage, and even greater love, an offering she gave freely to all who knew her. Nearly half a century later she is an enduring blossom, and I still breathe the lingering fragrance of her life so well lived. I can catch the scent.