The boys were five weeks old when Alex died. In my head he has never got any older – how could he? If I think of those thirty-five days – and rarely do I allow myself to do so – it is of a hand curled around my finger; a butterfly heart beneath the translucent skin of a child who never left his cot. A child who never laughed. A child who never grew big enough for clothes knitted on the tiniest needles.
With a mixture of pride and grief I see Josh grow into his role of the only son. I see his shadow fade as he makes his way through life alone, and slowly, carefully, I pick my way through life as a mother of three, not four.
And throughout all of this, Alex remains a baby. A tiny, three-pound, bird-like baby, whose weight is far less than the blankets in which he is wrapped. He lies in my memory as he lay in my arms: quietly, silently, calmly.
Last week Josh asked to do some sewing. ‘I want to make a picture’, he said. He trawled my fabric stash for greens and blues; for red, for ribbon and for buttons, and he sat on the floor with his tongue between his teeth as he pulled the thread back and forth. ‘It’s Heaven,’ he explained, pointing to the strip of sky stitched to the top. ‘It’s a huge poppy field in Heaven, and I’m going to use these buttons for Alex.’
‘They’re too big’, Evie piped up, ever-concerned with accuracy. ‘Alex was really, really small’.
Josh shook his head patiently. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘but not now. Now he’s six, like me. Now he’s big. Isn’t he, Mummy?’
For six years I have closed my mind to the thought of how Alex would be now. I have turned away from imagining a second head on the pillow, another plate at the table. I have never let him grow up.
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I suppose he must be’.
So I took a deep breath and I listened to Josh tell me about Alex; about the games he plays in Heaven, and the friends he must surely have there. I heard tales which made me hide a smile, and I heard the imaginings of a boy who has come to terms with death far better than I ever could.
When I think of Alex, I remember pain and grief; impossible choices; a tiny white coffin. When Josh thinks of Alex, he smiles at the boy running free in a meadow of poppies; a world built out of the love of a brother left behind.
I can learn a great deal from my son, I think.