We stop at a red light in Old Town, not two miles from home. Across the intersection, an old cemetery spreads languidly under the oaks, gravestones pushing up through the green earth like crooked gray teeth. I take a breath and steel myself for what I know is coming. And three . . . two . . .
“Hi, Luke,” chirps Eve from the back seat.
“Hi, Luke,” I echo, struggling to keep my voice upbeat. This exercise always rattles the fault lines etched into my heart.
“Hi, Luke.” That’s Josh from the driver’s seat.
“Hannah!” Eve growls.
“I already said it,” my eldest whines and then mumbles, “Hi, Luke.”
Luke isn’t buried here. He’s 40 miles away at the edge of a quiet cemetery just outside Annapolis. Eve has visited his grave. She has watched me kneel in the soft earth beneath the sycamore tree and run my hands across the river rock carved with her brother’s name. She has grasped my fingers in her tiny pink fist as we walked through a soft summer rain toward the car. She has patted my heaving shoulder as I have cried for what we all have lost.
As the traffic light above us flashes from red to green and we move beyond this suspended moment, I think about this “Hi, Luke” ritual and Eve’s role in it. She knows that her brother isn’t buried at this cemetery we pass nearly every day. She knows he’s not at any of the hundreds of others we have passed—walking, driving, snaking on a silver train above clogged city streets—during her half-decade of life. Yet each time we encounter a graveyard, any graveyard, Eve insists on acknowledging the brother who preceded her in both life and death. Short or long, every Golden family road trip is punctuated by a chorus of “Hi, Luke.” The number of refrains may vary, but the certainty of them never does.
I often wonder how it feels for her, to have a sibling she will never know. To skirt the edge of an experience the rest of her family lived firsthand. To see pictures of her mother and father and sister clutching a baby who looks so much like herself: same blue eyes, same button nose, the same blood running through her veins, but a stranger she can know only through photos and family lore.
Years ago, before I had children, I read an essay by Sanford J. Ungar titled The Replacement. In it, Ungar described what it was like to grow up as a child born after, and specifically because of, the death of his older brother. “How could I possibly be sad he had died?” Ungar wrote. “If he had not, I never would have lived.”
I was so captivated by the story and all it offered—a meditation on identity, love, family, grief—that I clipped it from the magazine and tucked it in a bedside drawer, thinking it would make an ideal premise for the great American novel I would one day write. Indeed, in the long and quiet hours of my first child’s infancy, searching for a distraction from the toil and boredom of new motherhood, I unearthed that crumpled clipping and gave voice to a character whose life, like Ungar’s, arose in the shadow of his brother’s death. In some prophetic irony, long before I had a sick child, and long before yet another child would come on the heels of his death, I had already considered the life of a so-called “replacement” child, excavating his thoughts and giving him words within the pages of my erstwhile novel. The result was that Ungar’s story, as well as my own literary dabbling in the mind of such a child, served as a cautionary tale: I never want Eve to believe that she exists only because her brother does not.
It is with great relief, then, when I see that Eve’s experience has thus far been different than what I had imagined for my novel’s protagonist. Likewise, she seems not to share young Ungar’s antipathy toward an unknown and unknowable older brother. On the contrary, Eve, of all of us, carries Luke’s torch most devotedly. Although she and her brother never set their beautiful blue eyes upon each other, she carefully tends the garden of his memory, listening raptly to his stories and studying his photo with generous scrutiny. Nonetheless, just as any small child can’t conceive of her parents’ lives before her own existence, Eve struggles to comprehend the forces that conspired to land her in the same bedroom once occupied by another Golden child, a phantom sibling with whom she shares space, but never time.
There are times when it’s just Eve and me, happily sharing each other’s company, chatting about school or sandwiches or why mosquitos exist, the smorgasbord of topics that children discuss with their mothers. Suddenly she will turn inward. The air in which our carefree laughter floated moments before will grow heavy and expectant, and I will understand that we are about to enter territory that is at once deeply painful and extremely important. An urge to protect my own fragile heart will tempt me to head off the coming conversation with idle chatter. But I recognize that the grief of losing Luke and the lifelong work of processing his death are not borne by me alone, so I gird myself and wait for my daughter to lead me down this treacherous path to wherever she needs to go.
“How come I never got to meet Luke? It’s not fair that the rest of you did.”
“I know, baby. I’m sorry.” In the gravid silence that follows these meager condolences, I resist the impulse to imbue the circumstances of Eve’s birth, so soon after Luke’s death, with meaning: You are Luke’s gift to us, I want to say, because it is not altogether untrue. But, heeding the lesson of the replacement child, I stifle the words, for I am wary of too closely linking Eve’s life to Luke’s. Because Eve, like every one of us, has a right to be here on her own terms.
Seven years ago, as my husband and I sat shell-shocked under a buzzing fluorescent light, a geneticist, having just given us the worst news of our lives, thrust some papers into our shaking hands. Luke, five months old at the time, slept in his car seat at my feet.
“You both need to get tested,” she told us breathlessly, flushed with excitement by such a rare medical find. “Usually, Miller-Dieker syndrome is de novo—it is not inherited. But just to make sure, we need to rule out any genetic anomalies you may carry, in case you decide to have more children.”
I sniffed furiously at her presumption. No, no, you’re crazy, I thought and then said as much aloud. I had been too greedy. One healthy child should have been enough. I had demanded too much from the cosmos, from God, fate, whatever, and everything had gone horribly wrong. Why would I ever do that again?
She raised an eyebrow and pulled her lips into a bold half-smile. “You never know. You might change your mind.”
Less than a year later, we would prove her right. The fear that had paralyzed me at the time of Luke’s diagnosis eventually gave way to a reluctant acceptance that our time together would be brief. But that acceptance was accompanied by something far greater: an intimate, intense confidence in my own capacity to mother, to love, even in the knowledge that every additional iota of love would result in an equal or greater amount of anguish in the end. I had thought the prospect of losing a child would make me guard my love, to mete it out sparingly in an effort to mitigate the pain. But the opposite was true. It unleashed it.
So, is Eve here in part because of Luke? Yes, but not as a replacement. She is here because Luke revealed to me the bottomless ocean of love that churns in a brave mother’s heart.
As I was putting her to bed one night, Eve reached up to cup my face in her little starfish hands. “Who do you love most in the world, Mommy?” she whispered.
“I love you, and Hannah, and Daddy most in the world,” I whispered back.
“And Luke,” she said. “You can’t forget Luke, Mommy.”
“No, Honey. You’re right,” I breathed. “I can’t forget Luke.”