(or Simple Questions, Complicated Answers)
People can ask the darnedest questions. I can’t tell you the number of times we’ve been asked “Are you going to have a third?” or “Do you want to try for a daughter?” Usually this comes in the form of idle small-talk and meaningless banter. I have to hope that the questioners are just naive, and that they haven’t given much thought to the myriad of ways one could answer these seemingly innocent questions.
No matter how often it happens, it always takes my breath away, even for just a minute. My heart wrenches, a sadness overwhelms me. I might pause for a minute to think about how to respond – or how I would like to respond. I usually defer to simple answers: “oh, I think we’re done” or maybe even “you never know.”
Truth is we already have a third child, a daughter. She was our first and had to leave this human realm before we even had a chance to hold her. She wouldn’t have survived here on earth, but I have to think she is somewhere, without pain, in the great beyond.
There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think of her. I often wonder what our lives would look like now if we were a party of five. How would life be different with a girl and two boys? What would our son be like as a middle child? We chart the passing years, and think about how old she would be, and in what grade in school.
When we realized that there would be no baby to bring home that fall, we got a dog instead. We needed an outlet for our grief, something else to focus on. Our family dog is completely crazy – but hopelessly devoted to and protective of our family. Sometimes a friend or acquaintance will suggest, in a way that’s meant to be helpful, that maybe we should get rid of the dog – that we have our hands full with 2 boys. Maybe, perhaps, but I don’t think many people realize, or understand, what this dog means to our family, the hope he embodies, the way he helps us mark the passage of time.
When we celebrate our dog’s birthday every October, we are also celebrating, albeit quietly, the not-quite birthday of our little girl. When we first found our dog, and learned of his birthday, we knew it was a sign. Anytime someone asks me “how old is your dog?,” I always think she would have been that old too, by now.
I often feel this pull, this urge to have one more. I never know if it’s a longing for another child, or a longing for her. I suspect that it’s the latter. I know there’s a missing piece, in my heart, in my soul, and it’s hard not to look for something to plug the gap. There is a wish, a foolhardy hope, to be made whole again; to stem the grief and longing and sadness that constantly oozes from that wound.
The reality is that when you lose a child, no matter the circumstances, they always remain a part of you. They are not physically here, but their spirit lives on in some realm. And as a parent-not-meant-to-be, you carry on and carry that child’s spirit with you. Forever. Life moves on, grief recedes (but never goes away entirely), old hopes are relinquished, new wishes emerge – but you carry that love and hope and desire and promise with you. Always. And they carry on too.
I am really intrigued by the idea of emotional memories, and specifically ones that often manifest themselves physically. Over the summer, my Facebook Memories reminded me that I had posted the status “I have a headache” on that same day seven years before. I chuckled because I was having a particularly painful headache that day too. And so I shared this memory, with the commentary “Maybe there’s something about this day on the calendar because yes, I have a headache.” My aunt replied with a comment: “This is the day your grandmother passed.” And when I looked back at my headache log – which I keep in search of such elusive patterns – I was not so surprised to discover that I’ve had a headache on this very day nearly every year since she died. Surprising? Not really.
Similarly, I feel this missing piece more acutely at two times a year: when we lost her and around her due date. Even if I didn’t have a calendar, I could still mark the passage of time accurately just from the feelings that well up in me, right on cue, each and every year.
When we lost her, we shared her – and our – story on an organization’s website dedicated to supporting families like ours. It’s been years since I felt the need to re-read those words, but when I went looking for our page the other day, I was met with a mix of shock, grief and horror to find that our page was gone. The site had been upgraded to a “new updated program” and it seems we did not receive the communications about this change.
In some ways this outcome is quite prophetic. Those words on a website were a way for us to stay connected to her. But websites get upgraded, content gets deleted, the world moves on. We can try to create a physical tribute to her memory, but the only such sentiments that can never be erased, or upgraded, are the ones we carry in our hearts.
Despite us never mentioning her, our older son has, on several occasions, made reference to a big sister. He has also referenced his grandfather, who died years before I even met my wife.
I like to think right before my son was born, there was this send-off party from heaven (or wherever we go after this life), and his grandfather and sister were there, celebrating with him, and guiding him safely into our care.
I think that’s a nice way to think of coming into this world.
I hope the same welcoming party will be waiting when we leave this world too. I hope she will be there waiting for me, and that we will finally, after all these years, get properly introduced.