A Story I Couldn’t Tell Before: The Sister I Never Knew

Shortly before my mother’s death, my father and I reviewed the draft obituaries my parents had written for themselves several years earlier, long before my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. At the time my father showed me the obituaries, my mother was about to go into hospice. We knew we would probably need her obituary soon.

“She wrote this,” he told me, “but I don’t like it. Can you take a crack at it?” So I did.

1960-1 Claudson family December 1959 or maybe 60

I think this picture is from December 1960. You cannot see the tragedy that occurred earlier in the year.

Both their obituaries listed them as the parents of five children—the four who survived, and an infant daughter, Susan Elizabeth, who was born on February 18, 1960, in Corvallis, Oregon, and lived two days.

“We always felt we had five children,” my father said. “We both thought she should be included in our obituaries.” I had never known they felt that way. Susan Elizabeth’s existence was only rarely mentioned in our family.

Although my infant sister lived only two days, I’ve always thought of her by her full name of “Susan Elizabeth.” We had no chance to develop a name or nickname for her. Would she have been Susan? Elizabeth (most of the kids in our family went by middle names)? Susie? Beth? Or something else? She might have had a short life, but I made up for it by using only her long name in my thoughts.

I remember Susan Elizabeth’s brief time on earth. I may be the only person alive now who still remembers. But I never met her.

I was not quite four years old when she was born. This is what I remember:

Mommy went to the hospital to have a baby. I knew I would soon have a new brother or sister, but the baby came sooner than expected. The morning after the baby came, I got to go to work with Daddy. We took my coloring book and crayons so I could stay busy while he worked. My little brother didn’t get to go, because he wouldn’t be able to keep quiet, but I was big enough to be good. I sat at his great big drafting table and colored. Then Daddy and I went to the bus station to get Nanny Winnie, who was coming to take care of us while Mommy was in the hospital. After Nanny got there, we all went to the hospital in the car. Daddy and Nanny Winnie took turns going to see Mommy, while the other one stayed in the car with my brother and me. We were too little to go into the hospital. We waved at Mommy through the window. The baby died.

Mommy came home and Nanny Winnie went back to her house. Mommy was sick for a long time—even past her birthday a few weeks later. I didn’t think it was fair that she was sick on her birthday. She had a kidney infection, and the doctor made a house call. He got mad at her for not resting. He told her she had to take care of herself so she could get well and take care of her family.

And that’s all I remember from those weeks in 1960.

Over the years, I learned that my mother had had an emergency C-section, because bleeding was endangering the baby. She had been eight months pregnant at the time.

I put two and two together when I was an adult and deduced my mother had probably developed placenta previa. Over the next twelve years, my mother had two more miscarriages, then two more healthy children, then another miscarriage. As a child, I sensed that the loss of half of her pregnancies was one of the greatest sorrows of my mother’s life.

But we never talked about it. The only conversation I ever had with my mother on the topic was after I’d had my own children. I said something about being worried when I was pregnant that I would miscarry like she had.

“Oh, Theresa,” she said. “The reason I never talked about it was because I thought you would worry if I told you!”

But we didn’t talk any further. So she never told me how she felt, how these losses impacted her life.

I’ve put together in my own mind how she must have felt. By the time I really thought about it, I was over 30 myself. My mother was a few weeks shy of her 27th birthday when Susan Elizabeth was born. I tried to put myself in her place—two preschool children to raise, a husband in graduate school and working a couple of part-time jobs as well, and grieving the loss of her third child while recuperating from an emergency C-section. It was unimaginable to me.

As I thought about Susan Elizabeth and about how my parents must have felt, this sister became real to me, and my parents became more human. Many of the difficulties of my childhood years became much more understandable. My mother was often angry with me, it seemed. But how could she not get angry when she was constantly grieving another failed pregnancy—Susan Elizabeth in 1960, a miscarriage in 1962, and another in 1963?

I learned more from my dad after my mother died. He confirmed that she had had a placenta previa, and he told me about the night Susan Elizabeth was born. “Your mother woke up in the middle of the night bleeding. I’ve never seen so much blood,” he said. “I rushed her to the hospital. I don’t even know what I did with you kids. I think I threw you in the back seat and took you with me.” (I don’t remember that night at all.)

He continued, “A nurse came out—frantic—during the surgery and said, ‘We need oxygen!’ They didn’t even have oxygen in the delivery room.” My father was still upset about this more than fifty years later, and he railed about the incompetence of the small town hospital and general practitioner doctor.

Even before I spoke with my father, I had suspected that if Susan Elizabeth had been born a few years later, she might well have lived. Perhaps she would have lived even in 1960 had there been oxygen in the delivery room to give her immediately. Of course, we’ll never know.

It always felt to me like there was a hole in our family. Susan Elizabeth would have been about halfway between my sister and me in age—would she have bridged the age difference between us?

And yet, I know my life would have been different had I grown up the oldest of eight children instead of four. I would probably have had to share a bedroom for many more years than I did—most likely with Susan Elizabeth. My parents probably would not have been able to afford a private college education for me. And if my education had been different, I probably would not have met and married the man I did.

Speculation about all these things is pointless. Whether the differences would have been good for me or not is indeterminable.

We all have tragedies and sorrows in our lives. My parents had Susan Elizabeth’s death, and the loss of later pregnancies as well. In some ways those losses have followed me through life. For me perhaps, the sorrow of these losses was my mother’s distancing from the children she already had. I’ve grown to understand and forgive that distancing, but it’s why I couldn’t write this story until both my parents were gone.

What do you remember of the tragedies in your family? Write them down. What have they taught you?

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  1. I remember when I was 13 years-old, my 17 year-old cousin, who had everything going for him, took his life. It was devastating to our family. It taught me that we never know what’s struggles someone might be facing, and how important it is to take our focus off ourselves and place it on others.

  2. Very poignant story, Theresa. I’m so thankful that I had two healthy children exactly when I wanted them. Early loss of grandparents has probably had the biggest impact on my family. I often wonder how different the family dynamics would have been if my mother, when she was nine years old, had not lost her own mother.

  3. Theresa, we have yet again another similar life story. My mother’s ninth baby, Marie Ellen, was born full-term and only lived 2 days. She weighed almost 13 pounds because my mother had developed diabetes and Marie Ellen’s heart was extremely enlarged. During her natural birth, the doctor had to use forceps and she came out terribly bruised and swollen, especially around the face. The doctor said that if she had lived, she would have been paralyzed. We held a full funeral for her and Mom was too sick to attend. I still have black and white photos of all us kids standing around Marie Ellen in her sweet white casket. We considered her a part of the family from that day. She was mentioned in my Dad’s obituary last year and I am excited to meet her one day. She did leave a big gap in our family life and Mom had lots of depression after her birth. Even when she gave birth to our little sister, Elaine, she was unable to take full emotional care of the new baby. Since I was the oldest, I basically took over the nurturance for Elaine. She slept with me at night and when I look at family photos she is cuddled up to me in every one. When I left for the convent, Elaine thought her mother was abandoning her and she had to have counseling because of depression. Elaine has grown up to be distant from our family and is now the manager of the Scientology Mission in Wichita. She has 4 beautiful children of her own, but we don’t see them often. This has been a big hole in our family, without a doubt. Until the day our father died, he worried about her more than any of the rest of us, probably because he never heard from her very much and never knew much about what was going on her life. We had to beg her to come and see him right before his death, and thank goodness she did come. My mother also had at least 3 miscarriages, one before me, which means I’m not really the oldest at all. She also miscarried twins, which seems to be a constant in our larger family. Yes, my life would have been very different if all those miscarriage babies and Marie Ellen had lived.

    • Rosie,
      One thing that strikes me as I write stories about my family is how universal the experiences were. In both our joys and our sorrows, we are more alike than we are different (to paraphrase Maya Angelou).

  4. Wow–that was a lot that your mom and the family had to go through. I was blessed to have two healthy pregnancies and deliveries. Just like Jill–I still remember my cousin dying of a drug overdose when he was in his twenties. I still do not know if it was intentional or not. His family would always come and visit us every year. He was always such a happy child and would make us all laugh. His parents were devastated and the sorrow this brought to our family felt overwhelming. Sometimes things in our lives happen that we don’t understand but thankfully God helps give us peace at these times.

  5. Well written and very introspective story that reinforces that I am not alone when it comes to families talking about the tragedies they experienced years ago. Parents kept tight lipped for various reasons. My parents rarely spoke about my twin brother’s death (age 15). We were all so numb with it and suffering, but didn’t know quite how to handle it. I am glad that today we have more resources and more courage to talk about these painful topics.

    • Beth, there are so many sorrows we all hide. I knew you’d lost a twin, but I didn’t remember that it was when you were still a teenager. I’m sorry for your family’s loss–I’m sure there are times when it still hurts.

  6. Yes, Theresa, so many thoughts and feelings are universal but we so often feel alone because we don’t discuss them. Love your writing.

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