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I Was Born at Three Months Old

I was born one month after my mother watched the twin towers go down as she saw my heartbeat on an ultrasound. I was born to my parents who, months earlier, buried their first child.

My brother, Nathan, lived for three months in a hospital bed with a VACTERL Syndrome. His body was put together in all of the wrong ways. His trachea and esophagus were connected. His heart was misshapen and sending blood to the wrong places. His kidney and vertebrae were problematic, too, for reasons too complex for me to understand. Too complex for most to understand.

But my parents tried. My mom allowed me to read the array of letters that she wrote for Nathan with the intent of telling him about all that he endured as a child when he was old enough to understand. He never was old enough, but I am now, so I try. She wrote love letters to him and diagrams of his heart and questions for the doctor. Questions that you should never have to ask about your baby.

  1. 1. “Is there a risk with prolonged anesthesia?
  2. 2. How does the shunt work?
  3. 3. Can we be present during heart surgery?”

The nurses, full of love for Nathan, broke hospital protocol and allowed my parents to take him outside, just once. My dad smiled, anxiously rubbing the same spot on his chest with his pointer finger, as he recounted laying down in the grass with his son, rolling around and giving Nathan his first and only glimpse of a life without walls.

He died during an operation that was supposed to give him the opportunity to live. My dad said that he never felt more optimistic about bringing him home than when they took him into the operating room. My mom wrote a letter to him the day after his death. It begins:

“You are gone. I am so extremely sad that it takes all the energy I have to fill my own lungs with air. The loss of you is something greater than I have ever known. Honestly, Nathan, I am not sure how to go on.”

I was never shielded from the fact that I have a dead brother despite being raised as an only child. Nathan was always a part of the family—only he takes the form of an urn on the mantle, and the red berry tree in our backyard planted in his honor, and a chest full of medical memorabilia.

My own feelings about his death are complex, so much so that I think writing this marks the first time that I’ve cried about him, or for him. It is an indescribable type of pain to miss someone who you never met and never knew, and to miss a presence in your life that never existed. It’s a stagnant trauma, but it creeps up on me when I see a cardinal or when my mom hugs me extra tight. It instills me with a deep fear of dying before my parents do, as I can’t bear to think of them burying me too.

My parents were not overly protective, as you may expect from a family that just lost their first child so painfully. I was a rambunctious child, once breaking both of my arms at once whilst ‘spy training’ with a friend (stepping up and down on the ledge of a five-foot window well). I fell in headfirst, my wrists snapped, and my babysitter pulled me from the rocky ditch by the armpits. I flaunted two sharpie-stained casts for most of my third-grade year.

A few weeks before the casts were to come off, a family vacation. Headed to California. I was distraught at the idea of having arm braces on the beach. My dad lifted the tightly bound Velcro straps and tossed one cast into an airport trash can and shoved the other into a suitcase: a now long-lost souvenir.

Childhood was idyllic by all metrics. My parents adored me, and I adored them. I adored them so much that I couldn’t sleep in my own bed, preferring the dog bed in my parent’s bedroom if my tearful pleas for my mom to sleep in mine failed; so much that sleepovers always ended with my parents, exhausted, outside of a friend’s door in the early morning hours. Some of my earliest memories are of a desperate need to go home. 

The adoration was paired with a constant fear, a sense of dread. I spent my time thinking of scenarios in which a madman or a drunk driver or a freak accident would take my parents away from me. The worst part about the dread is the conviction that comes with it. Some part of you knows that something horrible has happened. I can’t count how many times I knew that my parents were dead, though they never were.