When What Happened, Happened

by Hanna Hunstad

I have never met my hero. She is not a celebrity. You would not recognize her name or see her on the cover of a magazine. We never met; we never talked; our lives have never crossed paths. Yet my hero’s impact has guided me though life.

When the world had known her only for ten months, my hero suffered from a brain tumor and died. Unfortunately, her disease was discovered just 48 hours before her death, during a normal check-up. My parents had always assumed she would be the last addition to the family. Three was enough, two boys and one girl. But her untimely death changed my parents’ perfect plan. About a year after her death, I was born. I would like to think she saved my life. One thing is certain to me: I owe my sister everything.

I was “little” when my mom told me about her. I do not remember my exact age. My mother took great care of Emma’s grave and often included me in the process. The warmer days at the cemetery seem to stick out the most in my memory. My job was to wash the grave with a bucket of water half my size. The ice-cold water would sizzle and instantly dry as I watched in fascination. Skipping past the graves, I made more round trips than necessary to fill the bucket up with water before pouring it on my sister’s grave, wondering whether she left as fast as the water did. I was confused, but that feeling also evaporated quickly. I did not dwell on the thought of my sister as I spent the rest of my time at the cemetery cheerfully running around graves and wondering about the stories of the dead.

One Christmas morning, still too innocent at the age of six to grasp the concept of death, I came racing into the family room in an effort to beat my brothers to the couch. With Amy Grant’s “Grown-Up Christmas List” playing in the background, I began to pass out presents. When I snatched the stockings from the mantle, I couldn’t help but notice my sister’s stocking—“Emma” was delicately stitched at the top—looking sad and less plump than the others. I reached for it and the room fell silent.

“Hanna, honey, I don’t think Santa got Emmi anything,” my mom said, in an effort to distract me.

“But Mommy,” I yelled, “maybe Santa just forgot she died!” Then I reached into the flat stocking. “There’s something in here!” I pulled out a folded piece of paper and ran to my Dad’s lap, the safest, most comforting place I knew.

“Dad! Santa got Emmi something! Read it! Read it!” In my excitement of thinking Santa had remembered her, I failed to notice the nervous stares and stillness of the room.

My Dad slowly opened the small piece of paper and read out loud: “Dear Santa, Emma is with God now. She doesn’t need any gifts; she has given us far too many.” I saw a few tears slide from my Dad’s eyes as I sat on his lap staring at him. My Dad, the strongest, happiest, most optimistic man I knew, was crying.

Dizzy from confusion, I slid off his lap, my place of ultimate comfort, and watched as he returned the note and hung Emma’s stocking back on the mantle. I did not understand the note. I went back to my job of handing out gifts with a sense of guilt and shame. I did not want to make my Dad cry. And I most certainly did not want to be sad on Christmas. Conversation eventually picked up and soon the sound of Amy Grant’s Christmas album was overwhelmed with our laughter. Distracted by the festivities, I paid no mind to the note for the rest of the day, but I would never forget how the room became foggy when my father cried that morning. For the first time I felt sad about my sister’s passing. Her influence was visible.

Although I thought it was impossible—since we were never even introduced to each other—I missed my sister as I grew older. During middle school I tried to fit in with Abercrombie clothes and straightened hair. I didn’t have many friends or plans for weekends. My brothers didn’t hang out with me; they were far too old and cool. In these frequent times of loneliness I wished so badly to have an older sister. “She could braid my hair, do my nails, tell me about boys, and teach me how to become popular; you know, show me the ropes,” I thought. And then I reconsidered a thought that had often kept me up at night; “Emma. She could’ve been that, she could’ve been here.” Angry and irritated in such moments, I asked God why he had to take her: “She could have been my friend! I would have had someone to hangout with all the time!” I pictured her with long, beautiful, shiny, blonde hair, and a gorgeous, confident, light-up-the-room smile. She was perfect; the kind of sister that other girls envied. I longed for her friendship and guidance, I needed her life and wished she had never died. Until then I had thought of her as an “event,” something that “just happened.” But she was so much more than that.

The beauty of the Michigan autumn occupied me as I sat on the homebound bus on a normal school day when Emma became even more of a part of my life. The leaves lit up the trees as if they had been set aflame. I had no friends to text, let alone talk to, and no plans other than homework and swim practice. As I got off the bus I inconveniently stepped in a massive puddle. Mud splashed all over my shoes and pants, covering my only bus buddy: my trumpet in its case. The bus driver drove away without any notice of me. Alone, I started crying. Realizing my selfishness, I abruptly thought of Emma. If she had not been born, if she had not died, my life would not have even been a thought in my parents’ minds. My crying stopped then as quickly as it had started. That was the moment I realized I have reason, purpose and worth.

Wiping my tears and preparing myself for my mother, who always knows when I am upset, I stood up tall and walked the rest of the way home. Normally my mom would ask a million questions, but that day the mud was a clever excuse for my tear-stained face. She cleaned what was then hard-caked mud off of everything. I watched and smiled. At that moment, the pain my parents suffered hit me hard before quickly disappearing—instant pain subsiding with relief. How they had the will to get through the death of a child and decide to try again was beyond me, but I loved them for it. They called me their “miracle child” because I was born two months premature but had survived with no side effects. Their love for Emma, of me, and life itself is indescribable. My mom looked up from the mess and asked what I was smiling about. “I love you” I said and went in for a hug.

The next morning, I stood tall, just like the day before when I had walked home from the bus. That day I had reason, purpose, and worth. “Emma had ten months, heck, I have my whole life,” I thought while reaching for the two-shades-too dark eyeliner. I threw it away. Sick of sadness, I smiled. Sick of loneliness, I spoke up. Sick of fitting in, I was different.

My sister’s death still does not make sense to me, and I do not think it ever will. Not a day passes that I do not think about her. Although we never met, she has made me appreciate life and time in a more genuine way. I rarely see the glass half-empty. Life goes too fast.

Ten months may be just another academic year for most of us, but for Emma, it was a lifetime. I have been told that Emma was the happiest baby, in her ten months. And when what happened, happened, my parents had hope—and then they had me.

So many memories of my childhood are bound by Emma. She will never let me forget I have reason, purpose and worth.