One of the treasures from this past school year that T. brought home was her school journal. Almost each day of the week this past year, T. drew a picture detailing what was on her mind, or something she had done that past weekend or, simply, what she liked to do in general. At the beginning of the year, the teacher wrote the captions under the drawings. Sometimes T. tried to write her own captions, in indecipherable large, loopy letters. Halfway through the year, though, the teacher stopped writing and T. took over. Suddenly the indecipherable lettering takes form in T.’s journal, like jumbled puzzle pieces clicking into shape. By the end of the year she was writing longer sentences and her drawings had become more detailed and elaborate.
One of the last drawings in the journal is of L. He’s standing way to the right of the page and underneath his picture T. wrote:
What my family looked like before I was alive
That sentence moved me to tears, which I drowned out by sipping more coffee, and staring into the 7:00 am quiet of our kitchen. Maybe it was the feeling of loneliness the blank half of the paper gave me, and the way L. stood tall, alone, at the edge of T.’s journal book. What had she been thinking, when she drew it? Was she imagining what our lives would look like without her? Was she wondering about where she had been, in that world that existed before she was alive? Was her drawing some commentary on how she feels about her own position in the family, or how bothered she is about her brother’s often controlling presence? Or, maybe she’d been thinking nothing deep at all, merely exploring her own concept of being.
L. has a phenomenal, detail-specific memory, and he often pulls out memories from long ago, from even the time before T. was born, or from times when T. was too small to have her own memories.
“Was I born then?” She’ll ask after her brother recounts some absorbing detail from when he was two, and often, the answer is “no”, or sometimes it’s “yes”, but T. can’t remember, and for her, not remembering is much like not having been there.
One day last week, when T. was still in school and L. and I were in my office, we got to talking about genes. We talked about all the cultures that are woven into our family, and the ancestry of both our family name, and my maiden one.
“I’m glad you and Papa met and got married,” L. said. “If you hadn’t, I wouldn’t be the person I am now.”
Did he imagine he’d still be L., but with different colored hair? Or L. without Asperger’s? Or L. with brown eyes instead of blue ones?
“Well, you wouldn’t be here,” I said carelessly, without thinking about how complicated—and frightening-- a concept this could be.
“I’d be different,” he said again.
“Yes, you probably would be,” I said, more sensibly.
The lottery that is one’s coming into existence is one of those mind-boggling things that we adults can hardly get our minds around. Like black holes, and the parameters of the universe, what comes after life and other headache-inducing imponderable things, we just can’t lock our minds around where we were before our existence, and what could have happened if we’d never even existed at all. I can’t imagine how to begin talking with my own kids about things I have difficulty understanding myself.
“Did you know what I’d be like before I was born?” My kids often ask me. “Did you know you’d have ME?”
They want to fill in those yawning gaps. They want to understand how life could have gone on without them, before them. They want the assurance that somewhere, out there in the vast unknown, the blackness of non-existence, they did exist, and that it was pre-written somehow, somewhere, that L. would be L. and T. would be T.
I think back to those first seconds after each of my children was born. I ached and ached with each pregnancy to reach that end, to finally get to see what their faces looked like, to peer into that piercing darkness of a newborn's eyes, into their very souls. And both times I can say without a shred of doubt that my children were exactly as I knew they should be. It really was as if I had known them all along: that L. would be L., and T. herself, just exactly as she is.