I am ashamed, but it is true.
I can talk to rock stars. Famous people. I can even bring myself to look them in the eye and speak what I hope sounds like words.
But I have a radar for pregnant women and women with small children. Round, full bellies induce panic. Tiny babies with loud cries sound like music that suddenly turns sad and deteriorates into echoes of madness. Even older-but-still-small children send me running in the other direction. I cower in a corner and hide, praying they will all just go away. Don’t talk to me. Don’t acknowledge my presence. Let’s just go on pretending neither of us exist. Don’t pretend like you don’t want to, either. I know what I look like to you pregnant moms. I know I am the cautionary tale. I am the black cloud that descends on your happiness, a reminder that Sometimes Bad Things Happen, and you’re scared to death it will happen to you, too.
Don’t worry. You’ll be fine. That statistic only seemed to be reaching for me.
There is a list somewhere. A very sad, twisted list that only a person who has lost a child could understand, of all the things that scare me. They aren’t things that make me simply sad. They are things that haunt me long after the experience is over, replaying in my mind like a crime scene.
Here are just a few:
Do you have any kids?
How am I supposed to answer that? Well, it depends on who is doing the asking. If we’ve just met, I swallow a rock the size of Texas and say “No.” If we have already been introduced, and I feel in a sharing mood, I swallow something Moon-sized and say, “No, sadly, we lost our first child” and just hope they don’t come back and say something stupid. Because stupid comments scare me, too. Fortunately, I am not the recipient of many of them.
Jokes about dead babies/kids
Yes, these exist. Hubby and I went to a movie last year and there it was, in all of its insensitive ugliness. Needless to say, I couldn’t enjoy the rest of the movie. In fact, I’ve largely tried to forget it. I can’t even remember what the joke was. But it left me crying and inconsolable on the way home, haunting me. Another evening ruined by my depression.
People who try to pass their kids off on me
Now, some people are ignorant. But some parents are also stupid, and I’m not sure into which category they fit. I don’t ask questions. I just secretly hate them for turning me into some kind of curmudgeon who hates children. Anyone who remembers The Old Me knows I used to love kids. I used to borrow people’s children, offering to babysit, and having more fun than even the kids themselves. I used to be a big kid myself. Turning down the offer to “babysit,” “look after,” “watch,” or otherwise be responsible for someone’s child breaks my heart and makes me want to throw myself in front of a moving train. After all, do they not know I lost my own?
There are many things on this list. Things like baby aisles in stores, a visit to the OB/GYN (I HATE THAT PLACE), or worse yet – running into someone who knew me in those six months I was pregnant, but haven’t seen since. Hopefully, this fear has been put to rest with the passing of time. But it happened more than once. And there is no preparing for it. It is a very awkward, painful conversation involving the question “Hey, didn’t you have a baby?! Where’s your little one?” and trust me, BOTH parties are humiliated and wished they had never run into each other, and hope they never do again.
Now that I’m writing this, I see clearly why I hate crowds, and meeting new people, and new experiences, and otherwise leaving the house in general. Because although it has been nearly two years ago, it still feels like yesterday. It’s amazing Hubby and I can even function at all.
But I can’t live in a box forever, no matter how desperately I want to. There are things to be done. People that require some kind of interaction. And there are events that I must attend, all with a little help, of course. Help = bourbon.
The last time I was caught off guard was during the rehearsal for my best friend’s wedding. The wedding party was lined up in the foyer to practice our entrance into the hall and the walk down the aisle. As the maid of honor, my place was right before the flower girls, two of whom also happened to be my little nieces. I will not go into the guilt I often experience for being an “absent aunt.” But they are always so excited to see me, and I try to act excited to see them, too, even though their presence is a reminder that I don’t have kids of my own.
The eldest niece, who is six, proudly declared “I love your necklace.”
She was referring to the heart-shaped pendant on which my little boy’s footprints are engraved, with his name and date of birth on the back, accompanied by his birthstone and a large teardrop-shaped gem.
“Thank you,” I answered sweetly.
“Can I see it?”
I leaned down so she could get a closer look, feeling as if I was about to be beheaded.
The other flower girl (not my niece), who had to have been at least seven or eight, wanted a closer look too. “Whose footprints are those?” she wanted to know.
“Those belong to my little boy.”
“Where is he? Is he all grown up?”
Oh, God. How do I explain this to a child? I froze, unsure how to proceed.
In a split-second, I decided on the truth.
“No,” I said kindly. “He died after he was born.”
“Oh,” exclaimed the little girl. “That happened to my mom. She had a teeny tiny baby, and when he came out they had to put him in a box, he was so small. I can tell your baby was little too, because the footprints are so little.”
I supposed this logic made sense to a kid, so I didn’t bother to correct her. In any case, I wanted out of this terribly tragic discussion, kid or not. Not only was I trapped in a conversation with two young children, but I was trapped in a conversation with two young children about my dead child. The roaring in my ears was starting. I could feel the vacuum of despair growing stronger, and at any moment I would be sucked into the darkness of mind and emotion.
“I miss him very much,” I told both the little girl and my niece.
My six-year-old niece, who had been listening thoughtfully whilst wearing a pained expression on her little face, shifted her feet. She touched my arm, and the words that came out of her mouth sounded so grown up, and strangely so comforting, that it nearly took my breath away.
“Yes,” she said. “But we will see him again soon.”
The roaring stopped. Surprise set in, along with the overwhelming sense of calm. I was helpless but to pull my little niece into my arms and bite back the tears.
“Yes,” I told her. “Thank you. We will. Soon. And then you will have another cousin!”
She grinned wildly and squealed with delight.
Someone motioned that it was time to do my practice run down the aisle. I stood up, turned around, and faced a new challenge: empty chairs that I knew would be filled with faces that Saturday, with all eyes on me.
But I felt, at least temporarily, that the dark cloud that hangs over me was removed. That dark cloud that cripples me into isolation, and scares other people into silence. With a few soft, heartfelt words, a six-year-old blew it away like it was nothing but dandelion fluff.
I was touched and amazed and felt a sense of rejuvenation. I can do this. I can get through this. With enough help, enough kind words, and just a little empathy. It goes such a long way with me. It doesn’t even take much. Any attempt to reach out to me, to save me from that vacuum of despair. Any and all acts of kindness, even the little things, mean so much. So much.
I’ve been so blessed to receive these little kindnesses, from friends I’ve known for years to friends I’ve only begun to get to know. Even veritable strangers have extended this kindness. It always catches me off guard. It always surprises me. And it is always cherished for the saving power that it has and is.
And it’s funny how sometimes it comes from the people I’d least expect.