Excerpt: Gail Gallant’s ‘The Changeling’

In her new memoir, Gallant explores having and losing faith — and how being conceived to replace a deceased sister shaped her life
By TVO Current Affairs - Published on Aug 23, 2019

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When I was five months old, I died. A year later, I was reborn. Or so my mother said.

I only understood this fully when I was four years old. It was a crisp and sunny spring morning. From the window over the kitchen sink, we could see the backyard right down past the pear trees. My mother said they were beginning to bud. I was sitting at the table next to her. She held Jeannie on her lap. Linda and Glenna were at school. I loved these peaceful weekdays, just me and my mother and my baby sister. I could talk with my mother all day long. Jeannie wasn’t old enough to join in.

The kitchen table, part of a metal dinette set with chrome trim and red vinyl chair seats, felt cool on my forearms. My legs dangled above the black-and-white checkerboard linoleum-tiled floor. There was a crucifix over the kitchen doorway and an oval-framed picture of the Virgin Mary on the high-gloss turquoise wall. The milky smell of Jeannie’s lumpy Pablum permeated the kitchen air, and her baby legs kicked out in happy anticipation at the sight of each spoonful.

I was listening to my mother, who was reminiscing about the moment she saw me in the hospital bassinet by her side.

“Your eyes were wide open, looking all around the room, just as though you’d been here before,” she said. “Just like this.”

She rolled her grey eyes up and about the kitchen, left and right, bright and confident, not like a newborn baby at all. She laughed, and I laughed too. Her skin was pale against her thick dark hair, and her face was tighter on the left side because of her long white scar. It made her smile look a little crooked.

“You were identical to her in every way,” she said.

I had been hearing fragments of my birth story as far back as I could remember — the labour-free delivery, the anesthetist singing “Jimmy Crack Corn,” but this time was different. Perhaps I’d finally been weaned on just enough Catholicism to recognize a miracle story when I heard one.

“God brought me back?”

My mother smiled coyly.

“Well,” she said, “that’s certainly how it looked.”

Did she fear it would have been audacious, blasphemous even, to speak the words directly? God performed the ultimate miracle, a resurrection, just for me.

Instead, she let the facts speak for themselves. She let me draw my own conclusions.

I was too young to understand the full implications of her story, to begin to imagine the dark grief she’d only glided over, or to reckon with her claim that God had acted so deliberately in my life, but I did understand one thing: I was special. And, more importantly, I was special to my mother. I was her miracle child. The weight of this knowledge left me breathless, like being presented with the most precious gift from the most important person in the entire world.

Excerpted from The Changeling by Gail Gallant. Copyright © 2019 Gail Gallant. Published by Doubleday Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.​​​​​​​

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