When I was three or four years old, we moved from a little ranch on a crowded street to a house that had three stories and a two-car garage. Not surprisingly, I don’t remember much about the move. Sometimes I have a fragment of a memory – a quick image of the view from the top of the stairs, the feeling of the carpet underneath my feet – but before they can come together into something whole, I lose the picture. My first two houses are buried somewhere in my memory, overshadowed by my vivid recollections of the past thirteen or so years.
One day when I was walking with my mother, I had one of those flashes. I remembered a girl, a little younger than me, with curly hair and a big smile. I remembered her name for just a second, not long enough to speak it aloud.
“Hey, Mom, do you remember that girl I used to play with when we lived on Churchhill?” I asked as we moseyed along the sidewalk. “Curly hair…I think she had a baby sister, maybe?”
“Hillary,” she responded. “She came to your birthday tea party.”
“Yeah, I remember,” I said, searching my memory for more information about her. Maybe my mom had given me some retrieval cues. I had a vague, blurry picture of that birthday party in my mind, a bunch of four-year-old girls in poofy dresses drinking water out of tiny little teacups. Sure enough, more information surfaced. “Her sister was sick?” I added tentatively. “Right?”
“Yep,” Mom answered.
“Whatever happened to her?”
She didn’t look at me. “Oh. She died.”
The words jarred me. I combed through every memory I had in my head, trying to find some remnant of the tiny human to associate with this tragedy, but I came up empty. Maybe I’d never seen her. Maybe I’d forgotten her. All I could find to represent her was this blurry, probably inaccurate picture of her four-year-old sister. My heart ached at the thought of little Hillary, who met and lost her baby sister in less than the length of her own short lifetime.
I thought of my brother, who had been almost a baby himself when we lived in that house. The monster who used to drive me crazy, who once drew blood because he bit me in the back. The boy that grew up to become my best friend.
Life is brief. No one stays around forever. But I thank God for giving me the gift of watching my little brother grow up. Through his awkward phase, through his annoying phase, through his morose stage – even at the worst, he was there. I never had to face anything alone. And every time I think of him, I remember them. Claire, the one who never got to steal her sister’s toys or become her best friend. And Hillary, the one who never got to experience the joy and laughter and madness of being a big sister. At least not to her.
I bet not a lot of people remember her. I do.