From birth to age seven, I was an only child. I didn’t want to be. Our family home had two floors and more rooms than we needed. My parents had a room, and I had a room, and still there were two more bedrooms, each one filled with furniture, piles of books, and jigsaw puzzles—things we only saved because we had the room to store them.
My own bedroom was pale blue with a small crack that ran through the wall beside my bed. Sometimes, if I couldn’t sleep, I traced it with my finger. I often played alone with dolls and stuffed animals, memorizing my favorite books. Every day, I daydreamed about how the house might change if I had a younger sibling crawling from room to room, filling the house with living sounds.
Up the street, my best friend Mandy Filcher lived with two older brothers. Her house was in many ways the opposite of mine, exploding with toys, bean bag chairs, Atari, and sibling rivalry. Mandy was a year older than me with brown pigtails and buck teeth. When we weren’t eating ramen noodles in the kitchen or watching The Price is Right in the den, we were mostly playing Barbies in her bedroom, which was so small it could barely hold all of her stuffed animals. The Barbies and the Kens belonged to Mandy, which meant that she was the boss of them. Always she assigned me Pink ‘n’ Pretty, who was the designated outcast. She was a genuine Barbie, but something must have gone wrong in the factory on the day she was made. Her skin tone had some extra orange so she looked like she was wearing a fake tan. None of the other Barbies liked Pink ‘n’ Pretty, and the Ken dolls didn’t want to date her.
Still, we had fun undressing them and having them skinny dip in the sweetheart pool or lie in the same bed. Because Barbies outnumbered Kens, they often danced with each other. One day, as two of our Barbies were slow dancing at the prom, Mandy interrupted to ask me if I knew what “gay” meant. Gay was the word we’d been tossing around when something was stupid or uncool, like admitting that you liked Mr. Rogers, or wearing sports socks with your Mary Janes: That’s so gay. Gay was the opposite of Awesome, the other word that Mandy had recently taught me.
“Gay is like when a boy marries a boy, or a girl marries a girl,” she explained.
I instantly felt relieved. I did not decide that I was gay in that moment, but I was happy, like she’d answered a question I’d long held somewhere inside of me. It mattered that we were using the word as an insult, but it mattered much more that such things were possible, that men could love men and women love women. I was happy for that option.
Back at my own house, I lobbied for a baby. By the time I was six it had become a routine topic of discussion. At night, when I visited my mom in her bed, I told her I wouldn’t care if it were a sister or brother. I’d love it no matter what. At the dinner table, I hounded both of my parents for an answer, saying, “So is it yes or is it no or is it maybe?”
I didn’t realize that behind closed doors, my mother had been lobbying for the same thing. For years, she and my father had considered a second child. My father might have been happy to put it off forever, but as my mother approached forty her idea of a new baby, once distant, had evolved into a pressing desire.
One day in early autumn, my mother sought me out in our backyard. I was lying on the grass in the afternoon sun, when a shadow passed over me and I opened my eyes to find her standing there. “I have something to tell you,” she said.
I didn’t shout or clap my hands or jump up in the air. I just stayed there in the grass and felt a tingle in my belly—the joy of expectation—it settled there and grew. We were going to have a baby.
I was seven when my brother was born. On the night when my mother went into labor, I slept on the loveseat in Mandy Filcher’s living room. Her mother slept on the sofa across from me so I wouldn’t have to be alone. By morning, he still hadn’t arrived, and so I went to school as usual, wondering throughout the day if he had safely entered the world.
My father picked me up that afternoon at Mandy’s. I had expected the drive to the hospital to take a few minutes, but it was two towns away, and we kept driving through neighborhoods of trees and houses, comfortably silent. The hospital room was white, the sheets were white, my mother wore a pale blue gown, and there was my brother, wrapped in white with a tiny pink face and closed eyes. If I sat in the chair I could hold him. For such a tiny thing he had heft; he felt more like a sack of flour than a doll. He breathed and made tiny little half-cries as he slept.
Some children beg for a sibling and when he arrives, they beg to send him back. I didn’t. I bottle-fed him, spoon-fed him, cradled him, read to him, and sang him lullabies. On Saturday mornings, when he woke before my parents, I tiptoed into his room and brought him downstairs. He sat on my lap while I watched cartoons. Together, we ate dry Cheerios from a plastic bowl.
Note: This is the fourth installment of my #memoirmondays series, where I post a scene from my memoir-in-progress. You can click on the Memoir Mondays tag below to read earlier installments.