I need to get up and have a shower. It’s 7:30 am and I’ve been lying here awake since 5 but it’s cold, bitterly cold, too cold to survive the 4 metre dash to the bathroom let alone strip naked and wait for the water to warm up. So instead, I lie in bed awake and shivering hoping someone else will re light the fire. I pull the bed covers up around me. Two winter doonas and a blanket and it’s not even taking the edge off.
I put my head under the doona to try and warm up, my breath clouds around me and I fight the sense of suffocation that’s rapidly enveloping my chest. This feeling is part of why I can’t stand to wear a face mask, hot breath in my face, even my own sends me into a panic. I peek my nose and mouth out and take gulps of the freezing air then dive back into the warm blanket cave that is equal parts comforting and terrifying.
I feel suddenly oddly small and a random image of ‘Super Ted’ flashes in my mind. Weird… I haven’t thought about that show in decades.
The image of the bear wearing a super hero outfit flashes in my head again somewhat indignantly. Usually this kind of flash image is an attempt at communicating by one of the others. Often bizarre in nature but meaningful to the messenger, unfortunately working out what that meaning is can be really difficult. I stick my head out from the covers and gasp in more of the ice cold fresh air before ducking down again.
I was a sensitive child. My mother tells a story of when I was four or five and I watched an episode of the kids cartoon for the first time. There’s a line in the opening theme that states “and they threw him away like a piece of rubbish” referring to the Teddy bear that starred in the show. Apparently I had cried for hours, I hadn’t even seen the actual program yet and I was already inconsolable. The thought of someone tossing that bear away simply broke me no matter how much my mother explained that he was okay now, that he was a super hero now.
Who on earth was trying to communicate Super Ted to me, and why? I chuckled softly to myself thinking about my mothers story and how oddly sensitive I had been about that bear.
Then I heard her. Her voice was desperate yet soft and meek as though coming from far away. “Don’t throw him away, I’m sorry! Don’t throw away Michael”.
It’s a little girl, she’s sobbing. I see her only for a second, cross legged, hiding under a blanket with red tear stained cheeks and a teddy squished under her arm.
Michael? Who’s…? And it comes rushing back like a freight train.
Suddenly I’m there with her, hiding under the blankets. Downstairs in the kitchen our father is raging again, I don’t know what happened this time but venomous expletives are flying. “Stop!” My mother’s exasperation comes out as a staggered whine. She hates him swearing, the explosive anger she seems to take without question but for some reason when he starts a swearing tangent she will object.
This is nothing we haven’t heard before, nothing new. But I look at the little girl clutching her teddy and holding her breath, eyes squished shut; she’s three years old tops. I suddenly feel her fear viscerally, this little girl under the blanket with hot wet cheeks. It envelopes me, clutches in my chest, my neck. Its hard to breath, but I don’t want to stick my head out. Nobody can see me here. I have to be quiet, I have to be good.
But I remember I’m not a good girl. I remember that I killed Michael.
I had forgotten. How could I forget? My little brother never got to be alive, never got pat my cat and it was all my fault.
I was three, nearly four. I guess they had to explain why mummy suddenly didn’t have a baby in her tummy anymore. They told me that they’d done a test and the doctor said he would have been disabled. They said they didn’t want me to feel like I had to look after him when I was an adult, he would have held me back, ruined my life. They told me it would have been too hard so they got rid of Michael for me.
But they didn’t understand that I would never have thrown Michael away like Super Ted got thrown away. I would have loved him forever, I wouldn’t have cared if he was different looking and didn’t understand things. I just wanted to have a little brother to love and play with. I just wanted to show him my cat.
But they thought I would hate them for it later, that it would be too hard on me, that I couldn’t handle it. Michael’s life had been snuffed out before it began, but all I knew was they chose me over him and I didn’t deserve life any more than he did. The guilt broke me in two. What if I became too hard too? What if I was bad or upset my daddy? Would they throw me away like Super Ted, like Michael?
I fight to separate, to look at the little girl again. For 33 years she’s been crying, cloaked by a blanket of guilt, hiding under the weight of responsibility for the death of an unborn baby boy. I desperately want to hug her, tell her it’s okay.
Seeing it from adult eyes, seeing her quiver and sob for the brother she believed she had killed because her parents thought she wasn’t going to be a good enough sister for them to keep him. I try to tell her it wasn’t her fault. That they didn’t do it for her, or because she wasn’t good enough. They did it for themselves, because they couldn’t be parents to a child with Down syndrome.
Our moment is broken by footsteps up the hall in present time and I hold my breath instinctively. I can feel my heart beat echo through my body like a subwoofer, my face is burning with snot and tears. I carefully emerge from my cocoon, the cold hits me like a bucket of ice water and I frantically try to wipe my eyes to pretend I’m okay. The footsteps pass by and I can breathe again.
I shiver and pull back under the covers. The little girl is still under her blanket but she’s not sobbing anymore. I ask her name and I get the word “Sarah”. I focus on her, try and embrace her, try and tell her over and over “It’s not your fault, Sarah. I found you, you are safe now, we are okay now.” I feel a shift inside.
Like releasing a spirit to the light, a weight lifts and I see her again, just for a second. Her face is still sad, still haunted, blonde hair plastered against tear soaked cheeks, but one corner of her mouth is slightly turned up in a shy half smile and the blanket is wrapped around her shoulders now, her head is free, she can breathe.