The train brother and sister

This post is about my older living child. If you are feeling sensitive about others' living children, please skip this.


I am a boy. She is a girl.

I am big. She is small.

I am her brother. She is my sister.

I am the Metra. She is the El.

We were three. Now we are four.

Gender. Stature. Numbers. Opposites, new formations, favorite things, references. The unequivocal, irreversible way a three-year-old’s awareness of self was cemented, and his knowledge of the world expanded, as we announced to him gently about his unborn little sister.

Days later, we stuck two little Lego figurines – that of a little boy and a little girl – to a yellow Lego platform. The boy wore a hat, the girl had pigtails. They were my little son and my littler daughter, and we were very proud of our favorite ‘sculpture’. As we were fulfilled with our little children.

The Lego figurines still stand on my dresser. My children’s Lego avatars are together there, close to each other, on the same plane, in the same world. And around them plays a little boy, alone, his eyes not even daring to look at the figurines or claim them anymore. Now he calls himself “the boy who doesn’t have a girl.” Now he doesn’t want to grow up, turning his head side to side whenever someone calls him a ‘big boy.’ But even now, irreversibly, in his beautifully numbered world, we are four. When I burst out crying because he says that he always thought she was going to come out of my tummy and play with him, but she left without playing, he instantly assures me from the backseat, “Don’t cry Maani. I know she is always with me.”

Where do I begin this story of love, who do I tell about them? About a little boy and his undying love for his dead sister? What should this story be about? Should it talk about the truncated promise of camaraderie and companionship? Should it talk about love, pure and strong, that he poured from his heart? Yes, maybe. Maybe this story is about all of that. Yet, along the way, it becomes a murky tale of destruction, betrayal, abandonment, of meaningless loss. This story is about unfulfillment, of breaking apart, of having all this love but not having the one to give it to.

And then, this story is about a journey. Of a train brother and his train sister, running on parallel tracks. Never to meet again, never able to touch or hold hands. But always running together.

We rage on, angry, livid, that this happened to him, that our baby is having to unlearn all that he learned, and walk backwards at a time when the only road for him should be the one ahead. We are heartbroken that he was made to lead, and then left alone midway without a sense of direction. We watch helplessly as he eyes friends’ siblings longingly, coming home to tell me someone’s ‘baby is growing teeth,’ or another’s ‘baby is walking and falling down.’ Then we talk about what his sister would have been. Would. Have. Been. You would think it is too much for a little boy to imagine. It is.

But he smiles as he imagines “Bonu walking and falling down, walking and falling down.” He looks at my lost eyes, and smiles wider. I wonder if he would have smiled like this if she were here, walking and falling down. She. Were. Here. You would think it is too much for a mother to imagine. It is.

Then we travel together to what-if-land, stretching our imagination as far as it would go. Yet, it never stretches to reality, bouncing back like a big colorless knotty yo-yo. The imagined shapeless vision lays bare a very defined and empty reality. So we let our minds come back, shaken, frozen, broken. We let our imagination break away and freeze up, little by little, as we wander back to what-is-land, still smiling, and never looking away from each other’s eyes.

Those who know and love Aahir often tell me how he has had to grow up in the past year. That is partly true. Aahir, who is my knight in 5T clothes, grew up too much, too soon, long before Raahi died. He watched his Maani cry the day Baba left for Columbus, and there were still three toothbrushes in the caddy. They hugged and talked about her fears for Bonu, and he watched her make countless trips to the hospital alone. He grew up into a sheltering tree the morning he found his mother scared and needing to go to the hospital, since Bonu appeared to be coming that day. Sleepy-eyed, yet wide alert, he offered to wipe the spilled milk at breakfast, and again they worked as a team, he the fearless comrade, hurriedly putting on his shirt, she the tireless fighter, getting his bag together. When he said that he loves Maani, Baba and Bonu, as Maani buckled him into his carseat to go to his school, and then to the hospital, her eyes were full and her mental reserves empty. She desperately hung on to his faith, as hers was gone. He was three years old.

Those three-year-old hands would pull Raahi’s rolling bassinet to a private room we were finally allowed to bring her to, after her second surgery. His toes would get hurt every day, as the wheels rolled over them. He pulled on, never looking away from the bassinet. At the hospital, he stayed way past his bedtime, his eyes fixated on his little sister. He often fell asleep on the couch, waking again when it was time to go, his sleepy fingers pulling the bassinet back to the hospital nursery. All of the nurses knew Raahi’s big brother. All of them said he was the most caring big brother a little sister could ever have. When we would visit her by ourselves, they would all ask for my “big helper.” They didn’t know that he was less a helper and more a sustainer.

His “Big Brother” shirt hung in his closet, waiting for the day he would bring her home. He wore it for the first and only time, on the morning of July 15, 2013, as he danced around, readying his trains to welcome his baby sister into his home. He pulled at the “standy,” the feeding bag pole, at the hotel and the airport during our move, and ran ahead of us, alerting everyone, “Watch out, watch out! My little sister is coming!”

In the early morning eight days later, all he could do was scream. “Don’t hurt my Bonu Baba!” as a distraught Som gave CPR to an unresponsive Raahi. “I don’t want to go Ma!” as I pushed him into the neighboring room in the hotel. I could hear him screaming from behind the closed door, in there with strangers, as a war was raging outside. My comrade, my warrior son.

After we brought him back from a friend’s house that evening, he was quiet. He didn’t ask any question about his missing sister and the missing swing he had put together with Baba two days back. He lay next to me, ears perched like a wounded deer, sometimes holding my arm, often curling closer. He listened intently over the pouring waters as I sobbed in the bathroom. “Maani is crying,” he would alert everyone.

In the following days and weeks, Aahir got to know that his sister had “flown away,” and that he was never going to see her again. He remembered the little box in his chest, which housed the trains in Evanston and Tiki Mashi (my friend Katie), wondering if Bonu will be living there from now on. I had told him that everything and everyone we love live in a little box in our chest, and we carry them everywhere, when he was heartbroken at having to leave the Metra, the El, and Tiki Mashi back in Evanston. And I had said that the trains are going with him. “The Metra is Aahir, as it is big, and takes serious, heavy steps. The little colorful El Train in Raahi’s favorite purple, the color of my university, is Raahi herself. It flits by next to the Metra, hurrying along, running fast, just like she will soon!”  Aahir loved to think of himself and Raahi as the train brother and sister, and from then on, he would often talk about the many journeys they would take us on, and how he would always run ahead of her, showing her the way.

We didn’t know that the littlest train would outrun us all in four days.

A week after Raahi left, Aahir asked me, “Has she gone on to her next station Maani? Why can’t the Metra go there?”

I ask myself that question every day, and try to understand it. Was this earth one of my little explorer’s many sojourns, was her brother her fellow traveler only for this one short journey? Did she know how much we loved being on this journey with her? Has she gone on to her next station? Is she saving us all a seat on her train?

I don’t know. I know that right now, we’re on the magical Metra. We tell him every day how much we love riding with him. We watch every day as he gazes into space, still looking and wishing for his colorful little El train to run by his side, and the emptiness, the meaninglessness of this drive clouds his eyes. Then he smiles back at us, and takes us on a spectacular journey, holding my hands tight, leaning on his father. Showing us what lies ahead, and what comes along the way.

We wave the flag, clear our throats, and blow the whistle for the train brother and sister.


How have your living children responded to their loss(es)? Is there any special imagery/story you have created or found that helps them address the absence of their sibling(s)? What have you, as parents, learned about them from the way they are growing up with and despite loss(es)?