“Does Natalie have a brother?”
I sat on the institutional molded plastic chair, and the two ways I could respond flashed through my brain.
I could tell the nurse performing a routine patient intake interview that yes, Natalie has a brother. He doesn’t have an age or suffer from allergies or asthma because we never met him. He died before he was born, but that doesn’t make him any less her brother or a member of our family.
Or I could give the easier, and in my mind, more cowardly way out, and just give a simple “No” response. The nurse was looking for possible allergens or links to allergies as she interviewed Natalie and me, and a stillborn baby brother was surely not relevant to her inquiry.
Before I responded I locked eyes with my sweet seven year old, and I struggled with what to say. She knew what was going through my brain, I could tell in her questioning, unsure gaze.
If this was a test, I failed, because I gave the cowardly answer and replied that no, Natalie doesn’t have any brothers. The nurse moved on to, “Does she have a sister?” and with my affirmative response followed up with, “What age?” And as I reeled off my other girls’ ages, she responded with “Wow, four girls?! Dad has his hands full, doesn’t he?”
This comes up a lot. All the time, in fact. Any time my husband or I are anywhere in public with all our children, people comment to us that we have four girls, or all girls. Especially now, when there’s a baby in an infant car seat attached to the stroller or shopping cart we are pushing, people want to know if with that baby we finally got our boy. And when they see that my sweet Ellie is another girl, they laugh or exclaim or comment slightly disparagingly, “Wow, all girls.”
Sometimes it’s easy for me. I come back with a quick, “Oh, we have a son, too, he’s just not with us right now.” But only if it’s possible for me to make a quick getaway or keep walking down the aisle at Target, where they’re not going to ask me how old he is or where he is. Because honestly, strangers in the store or at a park don’t really want to know those answers. They don’t want to know that my son died, because then they’ll feel terrible for bringing it up and immediately say, “I’m sorry,” to which I am programmed to respond, “It’s okay.” And it is, but it’s also not, and I don’t want to be the one comforting them. I wish I was strong enough to do just that, to talk about my son freely and openly to any and all who dare accost me and feel justified in commenting on my girls.
Girls, by the way, who are precious and wonderful and if I was blessed to have ONLY girls as a mom, I would be grateful and content and thrilled to be the best mom I can be to my priceless daughters. The number of times I was approached while pregnant with both Patrick and Eleanor by people wondering if it was a boy or girl in there. . . .well, that’s a blog post for another time, maybe. But really, people, all girls or all boys, all children are a blessing from God.
I’ve talked with my girls many times about this very issue of how to respond to intrusive questions. I told them that they don’t have to share Patrick with anyone if they don’t want to. That it is okay to just tell people about their sisters, because Patrick is special and precious and private. I don’t want them to feel stuck feeling awkward as another kid or adult tries to make sense of the information about their dead brother. We don’t seem to deal with death very well in our culture, and especially the death of an unborn child. I would never want some idiot to try to tell one of my girls that Patrick doesn’t could or that he’s not their real brother because he died before they could meet him. So I’ve counseled them to keep him sacred and safe with our family and friends–strangers aren’t important enough to know. Macie handles this in her own way–she is quick to exclaim, “Don’t forget about Patrick!” to me as I’m nodding along with some kindly grandma-type in the checkout line about having all girls. But the older girls understand a little better, so they just stay silent. I think, like me, they sometimes don’t want to risk bursting into tears while talking about him.
He looks like them, my son. He looks like my daughters. Actually, truth be told, Eleanor and he are very, very similar in looks. She’s been a joy, a precious gift after our sorrow, and has been welcomed into our family with such love and rejoicing. His place, though, is always open. It’s healed over in my heart and I feel great peace most days. But he’s still missing and we don’t ever forget that. The flippant grocery store or nurse interview conversations aside, he is never gone from my mind. So if you hear me telling someone that I have four daughters and don’t mention my Patrick, don’t ever think it’s because I don’t love him enough to mention him. It’s because I love him too much.