“I think hydrangeas should be the flowers at Mom’s funeral.” 

This is what my little sister says to me, driving through the farmlands of southern Ontario. Her blue hair is striped in shadows from the setting sun, so she looks like one of those fashionable Instagram personalities. It’s strange for me to see her like this: a young woman, stranded by beauty she does not fully understand. It seems so recently she was in my bedroom, coated in baby fat, asking how to kiss with tongue. 

I hum in recognition as if this idea is familiar when really, it’s the first time I’ve considered my mother’s funeral. Then I ask why hydrangeas.  

“They’re pretty,” Harper replies. “She planted them in the backyard when I was a kid, and even though no one goes out there anymore, they still haven’t died.” 

Harper is right. A row of hydrangea bushes lines the back wall of our current house. I remember our mother planting them. Hunched on her knees, her curls frizzing out of a boxy safari hat on a warm spring day. Those bushes were one of her few attempts to make the backyard livable when we first moved in. The plot of dirt was too shady and wet for grass to grow. Depending on the season, it’s either a thin sheet of ice or a bath of mud, sprinkled with dog shit no one picks up. The hydrangea bushes are the only permanent mark my mother managed against the wilderness. 

“We had hydrangeas at the old house, too,” I tell my sister. “Blue ones out front. You wouldn’t remember, we moved out before you were born.” 

This is not quite true. My little sister was born the year we left my parents’ starter-home, but she lived there for a while. Her presence was the catalyst for change. One body too many in the cramped two-bedroom. 

“Really?”  She’s excited. “Did Mom plant those too?” 

“I don’t think so,” I lie. “They were there when we moved in. She planted the other ones—the bleeding hearts.” 

I wonder if Harper will call me out on this. Will ask how I know, since I wasn’t alive when my parents moved into that house. Will ask why I sound annoyed, as if she’s done something wrong. But she only shrugs and continues to smile, taking refuge in that small undercurrent of satisfaction always running through her. 

Harper is like this: placidly happy, the cool sheet pulled across a morning lake. She often giggles to herself, remembering a meme or joke, and she feels no shame in this simplicity. It seems wrong to me that she should be this way, possess this contentment. I think of her as an accident. The child that shouldn’t have been.  

The summer my mother carried Harper inside her was a blur of heat and food. My mother was either hungry or eating, sweat staining her shirts and camisoles. More than once she allowed us to skip church, claiming the stuffy pews would make her faint. We ordered lots of pizza—Papa John’s, extra cheese. The kitchen was messy, counters sticky with jam or sugary syrup from fruit-flavored popsicles. My older sister Jessica and I were free to do what we wanted.

It was that July, at the beginning of her third trimester, when my mother planted the hydrangeas. My father said it was a mistake—the timing wasn’t right; the plants would die at the first hints of fall. But my mother did it anyway. At dawn she was on her knees, her moon-like belly resting on her thighs as she bent over the soil, her hands thick with dirt. 

The night before we moved into the new house, Jessica and I packed our stuffed animals into garbage bags and waited for our father to turn off the lights. 

“What do you think it’ll be like?” Jessica whispered. 

“I dunno. Big. I won’t like it as much as here.” 

“Not the new house,” she laughed. “Having a little sister.” 

“How do you know it’s a girl?” I asked quickly. 

In those days, competing with Jessica came naturally to me. As a rule, nothing mattered as much as beating her, and this game stayed forever fresh because beating Jessica was impossible. Even if I did practice piano more, or eat my dinner faster, Jessica knew things I didn’t—things like the enormous bulge inside my mother was a girl. 

“Dad told me. He took her to the hospital. That’s why Deborah babysat us all day.” 

I was crushed, furious with myself for not realizing my parents’ conjoined absence meant something significant. Then Jessica said, “You know she’s supposed to come any day now? And then Mom won’t be so fat anymore.” 

That night I fell asleep imagining my mother’s stomach deflating like a birthday balloon until all that remained were piles of wrinkled skin, hanging over the snap of her jeans, and a baby crying in a strange room I did not know. 

The older I get, the more I appreciate the importance of graveyards. The flats of southern Ontario are littered with them. Even those old town squares with nothing more than a church and a corner store have set aside a small plot of land, crooked with gravestones and old crosses. On my way to pick up Harper, I pull over at one, a tiny lot labelled RC Cemetery. The sign is planted in the middle of the graveyard. Rising behind it is an effigy of the Virgin Mary—not a beautiful one, as you see at city cathedrals, but rough and distinctly medieval, her eyes daggerlike and Byzantine, her mouth slightly open. Only her arms are welcoming. Two small hands emerging from drapes of stone. But even these are dull and rough from the passage of time, the details of her girlish fingers lost under smudged dirt. 

The rest of the tombstones are no better. I take my time, wandering through each row until I’ve read the epitaphs on all thirty or so. Often the carving is so eroded there’s nothing left but a date, something like 1849 – Edith Pre— or Loving Husband, 1794. Most coffins lie unmarked, I realize, and a thrill runs through me at the gothic drama of the unknown dead. It’s then I think about the importance of graveyards—the importance of building monuments so people remember, only to find that the monuments themselves forget. 

“How is school?” I ask Harper. “Do you miss Gabe?” 

I say this even though it’s clear Harper is not upset about her breakup. Her cheeks are flushed from the winter cold; she looks exactly as university students should: disaffected and casual, bright yellow earrings glinting against her blue hair. I’m surprised to hear she’s not already dating someone else. It seems to me her easy smile and almond eyes are the ideal combination of attractive and non-threatening. I wonder if my cheeks were ever so full and rosy—if there was a time when I too was unwittingly desirable, instead of calculated and the tiniest bit too thin. A figure with too many edges. 

“No,” she says. “The last time I cried about it was a week ago, and that was mostly because I was high.” She shrugs. “He really wasn’t it for me. I mean, c’mon, how long am I supposed to date my first boyfriend?” 

Something in me winces at this unearned wisdom from my little sister. Both Jessica and I swore we would marry our first boyfriends, and both relationships ended in melodrama and a decided number of tears. 

Harper seems to be remembering the same thing, for she says, “I think break ups always seem like a failure to us sisters in particular because of Mom and Dad. But realistically, our parents are the exception. I don’t know a single person who married their first boyfriend or girlfriend. Even dad had another relationship before Mom, remember? Margaret or something?”

“Elizabeth,” I say. “The dancer.” 

“Right. So really, it’s just Mom who’s special. Everyone else has to go through this trial-and-error period before they find somebody. Look at Jess. Only getting married now after years of bad boyfriends.” 

“Sure but—” I dislike the way this conversation is evolving. “I was upset over my first break up. It would make sense if you were.” 

 “No, I’m really not. The only thing that kind of gets to me is—well—do you promise not to laugh?” 

“I promise,” and it’s the most honest thing I’ve said this trip. 

Harper bites her lip and squints at the road ahead. “Sometimes, I get worried about my fertility years. That if I’m not pumping them out by 25, I’ll never get a chance.” 

I don’t laugh. I think about the IUD stuffed between my legs. Then I say, “Don’t worry. All women think about that at some point. But you’re fine. If you don’t have time left, who does?” This is the second honest thing I’ve said during this trip. 

My mother had a miscarriage. Right after me and before Harper. She never mentioned it. The only reason Jess and I know about Oliver is because of the letter we found in the basement one afternoon while looking for Christmas decorations. It was addressed to my Aunt Cathy, who died from alcohol poisoning a few years later. 

What I can’t stop thinking of is how lumpy he was, my mother wrote. He just tumbled out of me. I saw his toes. They were so tiny, Cathy, you wouldn’t think they were real. I’ve been wearing socks ever since. 

“What does it mean?” I asked Jessica. “Who’s Oliver?”

Before then, I didn’t know about miscarriages. Didn’t know that babies sometimes drown inside their mothers’ wombs or are strangled to death by cords or are squeezed out through sweat and labor when their lungs stopped working months earlier. I don’t know why my mother bothered with a name, something classic like Oliver. Oliver was never really a person—just a six-letter word my mother wrote one afternoon. It doesn’t make the miscarriage any less sad to say the child never became somebody—it just creates an act of honest remembrance. Oliver never existed; my brother was a clump of red that stained a pair of my mother’s pants and is only thought of occasionally with an emptiness that never stays very long. 

“So, how’s Jessica?” Harper asks. 

“Good. Nervous. She keeps trying on her veil with different hairstyles.” 

Harper laughs. “Has Zach arrived yet?” 

“His flight gets in tomorrow. For the rehearsal.” 

We’re nearing home now. The next time Harper speaks, it’s softer, as if she’s afraid of my answer. 

“And—are you doing okay? You know—no fighting?” 

I do something between a smile and a laugh. An awkward gesture that signifies without explanation. For I haven’t found a way to articulate the entanglement of dull and common pains churning within me. Sometimes, I think that it has nothing to do with me—with the things I want, the things I choose. That the pain is something else: a dense and difficult love forced upon me. On certain days, it’s so heavy it feels like hatred, and other days, it doesn’t feel like anything at all. 

“I’m happy they’re finally getting married,” I say into the darkness. “Jess seems content.” And perhaps because I can no longer see Harper’s face, I almost believe myself. 

After a moment or two, Harper giggles. “How long until Jess is pregnant—if you had to guess?” 

I give a wry smile as I take the last exit before home. “I’d be surprised if she’s not already.”  

Years later, I discover my mother buried Oliver. His grave lies two towns over, underneath the bell tower of an old church. The lot is green in the summer months, with purple wildflowers splattered through the grass. Oliver’s grave, though small and shaded, is easy to find, for the hydrangeas are rich and lush, bursts of decadence misplaced amidst the grey headstones. It takes me two hours to snip off the blossoms with a pair of kitchen scissors. One by one, until everything is shorn. 

About the Author:

Sheila Mulrooney is the lead editor of Autofocus, an online publisher of autobiographical writing. Her work has been nominated for Best of Small Fictions and appeared in journals such as Barnstorm Journal, Lost Balloon, Rejection Letters, and elsewhere. You can find her on twitter at @SJosephine10.

Feature image by Robert Keane/Unsplash