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The Missing Sister

A long time ago, I considered getting a masters in Library Science but didn’t go ahead with the degree.  The reality was that I didn’t want to do the majority of the job — the research, the book purchasing, the archiving.  What I wanted to do was work in a local library — someplace small — and check-in and out book as well as reshelve.  And that was it.

The library in the twins’ school mentioned that they needed a volunteer, and I jumped at the position.  It is exactly what I wanted and nothing more.  I reshelve all the books that come in and lovingly move books back to their proper spot when I find them out of place.  I look up titles for students and help them navigate the Dewey Decimal System.  And I use this rockin’ scanner to read the barcodes and check out books.

When I have nothing to do, I slip a book off the shelf — usually something I read when I was a child — and read behind the desk.

It’s an idyllic life.

The youngest kids have a library card with a bar code I can scan, but the older students simply tell me their last name and I look it up in the computer.

Sometimes, when I type in the last name, more than one choice pops up.  Sometimes it is clear that the boy standing in front of me is not Mary, so I’ll go with the male name that shares that common last name.  Sometimes I ask if the other person is a sibling, and it almost always is even with the really common last names.  And then the kid rolls his eyes and says, “that’s my little brother” as if it’s really painful to admit that the other person is related to him.  And sometimes, if the child is younger, they’ll proudly say, “that’s my big sister!” and be thrilled to pass along this information.

This girl was standing in front of me, ready to check out a book, and she mumbled her last name.  Two names popped up — both girl names — and I asked which one she was.  She looked confused, so I said the two names aloud and she looked at the computer screen, pointing to the correct one.

As I checked out her book, she admitted that one of the choices was obviously her first name, but the second choice — which belonged to someone else — was also her middle name.  Which is why she had been confused for a moment.

And since this girl had an unusual last name, and I assumed that the girls must be related, I asked if her parents had given her sister her middle name as her sister’s first name.

Again, the girl was confused and she told me that the other girl in the machine wasn’t her sister.  It was just another girl in another grade; someone she only knew existed because other people had thought they might be related at school.

“My sister died a while ago,” she said.  And after the words left her mouth, she looked shocked at herself, like she couldn’t believe she had said that aloud.

I told her how sorry I was and she looked stricken by that as well, as if she couldn’t believe that I wasn’t going to change the subject.

And then she grabbed her book and ran from the desk.

And it stuck with me all day.


1 Mic @ IF Crossroads { 12.07.10 at 1:31 pm }

I have tears streaming down my face.

2 liljan98 { 12.07.10 at 1:33 pm }

That’s so sad. I somehow understand the girl’s reaction though. My dad died unexpectedly when I was 14 and for most of my teenage years I didn’t talk about that or him with anyone outside my family. Maybe because talking about it would have acknowledged the horrible fact, that he was gone? I might not have run off from your desk, but I wouldn’t have stayed to listen to any condolences (as well meant as these would have been) either.

3 jodifur { 12.07.10 at 1:45 pm }

Oh that poor, poor child. I’ll never forget the time that I saw a lost child and said “where is your mommy” and she said, “my mommy is dead.” My heart stopped beating. I learned never to assume anything.

4 Rebecca { 12.07.10 at 1:50 pm }

Oh. That’s so sad.

5 Katie { 12.07.10 at 1:52 pm }

Dear god. That’s heartbreaking.

6 serenity { 12.07.10 at 2:16 pm }

I know that reaction, too.


7 Tara { 12.07.10 at 2:17 pm }

What an experience…so sad.

8 HereWeGoAJen { 12.07.10 at 2:33 pm }

It is going to stick with me all day too. Actually, my next door neighbor friend when I was growing up had a sister that died before I knew him. I knew him for a few years before he even told me. It still sticks with me, even though it has been twenty years since I found out.

9 Rachel { 12.07.10 at 2:37 pm }

This post will stick with me.

I knew someone in college who was conceived not long after her parents lost their then-only daughter in a freak accident in junior high. I think of her often.

10 Audrey { 12.07.10 at 2:44 pm }

This post just kills me.
But I do believe she will remember you, Mel, as the rare person who did not shrink away from her truth. Thank you.

11 a { 12.07.10 at 2:50 pm }

I wonder if she was more surprised that she told you about her sister or that you responded to her the way you would have if she were an adult. I’d guess it’s probably not a topic of open discussion at her house.

It’s never just shelving books…

12 Maria { 12.07.10 at 3:40 pm }

I love your reaction. And somehow it makes me wonder if she’ll be back to talk to you. Perhaps you can go get your masters in counseling. 😉

13 manymanymoons { 12.07.10 at 3:43 pm }

Sounds like you handled it just right. I’ll be you’ll both remember that for the rest of your lives. It was probably the first time she had ever said that outload. Good for you for not shying away and comforting her.

14 A.M.S. { 12.07.10 at 3:55 pm }

How very sad. I remember how surreal and awkward it feels to say something like that. I can only imagine how hard it is for a little one. Hopefully in that brief encounter you gave her that all-important first spark of understanding that it’s ok to speak of them. After all, to speak the name of the dead is to make them live again.

On a happier note; my very first volunteer job when I was in middle school, was in the public library. I had the task of reshelving books and “reading the shelves” to make sure everything was where it belonged. Years later, when I was in grad school, one of my many jobs was as a substitute librarian for the county. I’d get called in the morning, just like a substitute teacher (which I also was), and I’d head off to any of the public libraries in the county to fill in for a shift. I checked books in and out, pre-computer system so I got to stamp the date cards, shelve books, help people find things, and most importantly, set aside books I wanted to check out. I absolutely loved it. Limited responsibility, a day surrounded by books and people who loved them, time to read, and the sheer pleasure of being in a library.

I knew you and I were soul-sisters!

15 Sarah { 12.07.10 at 4:37 pm }

Oh how heart breaking. Now that I am a mom, when I hear of a child dying, I always think of the parents. How horrible for them. But how equally horrible for the siblings. My cousin died in January (he was 23 and in a car crash, dying instantly) and his only sister is lost. Just completely lost. I think too of my own sister, with her brain cancer, and how I cannot even begin to think of living without her. Now putting all that on the shoulders of an elementary school age child. It is heart breaking.

16 Kristin { 12.07.10 at 9:33 pm }

I’m so glad she had a sympathetic ear.

17 Heather { 12.07.10 at 9:50 pm }

That’s so sad. I’m so sorry to hear that. When I was in high school, one of our classmates died. Every time I saw his little sister, it broke my heart. I’m sure she didn’t think of it all the time, but it just bothered me. I used to work in the library at college too. It was a great job.

18 Baby Smiling In Back Seat { 12.07.10 at 11:35 pm }

Putting two aspects of your story together, it’s so strange when the sibling whose name induces eye-rolling dies and becomes a permanent hole in the child’s heart. For all of the complaining that kids do about their siblings, the thought of a sibling actually being gone forever is too horrible to consider. Same for the parents who get told “I wish you were dead.”

One thing that’s always struck me about Harry Potter is that so many kids spend so much time complaining about their family, and some kids would give anything to have someone, anyone.

19 brid { 12.08.10 at 2:02 am }

Horrific… We are in a relatively small town–80,000– and I just heard on Monday that a boy in Gr. 7, not at our school, was diving for a volleyball in the snow. Apparently, he crashed into another child’s leg, snapped his neck, and he died on the way to the hospital. I don’t even know how to process that type of information. You send your kid to school… in Gr. 7, thinking as they get older they get safer… but no. Can you imagine the phone call? My little one was running in the hallway and crashed into another and he ended up with a pretty colourful eye, and the call from that incident sent me reeling… I cannot imagine.
And only in November, one of my students emailed me and said his younger brother and his aunt were victims of a fatal head-on collision. His brother was only 22-years old. How do we process these things? A brother. It doesn’t get any closer, even if you aren’t close. And thirdly, there was a 10-year old boy near here–his mother is close friends to a very good friend of mine–who was piggy-backing his three-year-old sister, a tree fell on them, and the 10-year old died. The three-year old only had a scratch. I don’t know how that happens. It’s too much. Emily said that when she saw the mother, she looked like she had been through a war; she didn’t know what to say and saying nothing is perhaps even worse. Sometimes I see the kids and I get so scared that something will happen to them. We usually get the whole, ‘well, you’re really lucky to have Jack, at least’, (in terms of our shit fertility), but sometimes the fear or pain of not getting a sibling for our boy is out-weighed by the fear that something freak could happen to him and he’ be gone too. Our lives would be over. Maybe when there are other kids, there is a reason for parents to pull it together; I cannot imagine the loss. I commend you, Mel, for standing up… it’s good for the little ones.
What a horrible subject to even have to consider.
sigh… xoxo

20 womens health questions { 12.08.10 at 2:08 am }

Oh my god! My eyes are hurting and tears are starting to fall. It is very sad to know that your loved one died especially to this young girl. I feel for her. :'(

21 April { 12.08.10 at 10:56 am }

That is so heartbreakingly sad.

22 Sushigirl { 12.08.10 at 11:03 am }

That’s a shame. One of my siblings died when I was at school and one of the staff was really crappy about it. When I was off she was apparently gossiping to the rest of the class about it, not in a “let’s talk about what happened” but in… I don’t know, more of a grief tourist sort of way, if that makes sense? You were a lot nicer than a lot of people would have been.

And, when I’m on the subject,in my experience schools could be better at handling sibling deaths. I remember having to watch an extremely depressing video about casualties in WW1 the first day I was back, and I was totally sobbing in class; this was at a really small school and EVERYONE knew. In the case you mentioned, maybe the sister’s file could have been marked as being deceased or inactive or deleted, so the poor kid isn’t getting hit with reminders at times she doesn’t expect? Cos not everyone will handle it as well as you did!

23 tash { 12.08.10 at 11:58 am }

Oh Geez. I hope she knows she can come back to you and not be embarrassed — because it’s not embarrassing, it’s just really fucking awkward. I’m glad you’re the one behind the desk. And now I wonder how many days Bella has shockblocked by admitting the same.

24 Wanna Bee { 12.08.10 at 12:43 pm }

How wonderful that you helped keep the memory of her sister alive. She probably doesn’t get to talk about her loss very often. It is such a gift to be able to be with someone’s grief and not run from it.

25 Eve { 12.08.10 at 2:28 pm }

Yes, you were the perfect person for her to come across. I see a lot of bereaved kids in my therapy practice, and I am always struck by the depths of their sorrow. I guess I’m happy (if you can say that) my son is and was so young with the loss of our baby that it’s more of a matter-of-fact mention with him. I wonder how it will impact him and our daughter as they get older.

26 Bea { 12.10.10 at 7:04 am }

And now it’ll stick with me. What an awful thing to have happened to her and her family. I wonder how she’s coping.


27 Battynurse { 12.26.10 at 2:33 pm }

Oh my. How sad. Makes me want to reach through the computer and into that library and give that girl a hug.

(c) 2006 Melissa S. Ford
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