Minus One

By Elizabeth Uppmann

“Is this your only child?”

I am pushing a grocery cart with a toddler in it. The old lady is throwing me the gentlest conversational hook: the opportunity to talk about my children. Some mothers are happy to have this kind of conversation; some just tolerate it. Me, I want to drop through the floor, fake a seizure—anything to escape the knot of tension and nausea that is forming in my throat.

I have to decide if I’m going to say I have two children or three children. The fact is that I don’t actually have three children anymore. Gabriel, my middle child, died of pneumonia in November, 2000. So our family now consists of my two girls, my husband, and me. The factual answer to the supermarket lady’s question is two, but the emotional answer is three. Still three. Always three.

MinusOneI don’t know how many times I have gotten stuck between two and three—in the bank, at the pharmacy, at the school carnival. Each time, I try to find the best way to juggle the truth, my emotions, and the other person’s expectations, but no matter which number I choose, something almost always goes splat before the conversation finishes.

Two is the more straightforward answer, especially with strangers in public, where conversations are too brisk and bare to contain the hugeness of three. But when I once tried two, I discovered it wasn’t the easy way out after all. It was horrible. It was like trying to cure a hangnail by cutting off my hand. The nausea came on full-bore and I spent the rest of the day in the bleak and grimy hole of guilt and regret, feeling I had denied that Gabriel ever existed. The emotional fallout wasn’t worth it, just to save some stranger from a few awkward moments.

So instead I do a little tap-dancing. I say something like No, I have two other children, a girl and a boy, without mentioning that one is in school and the other in the cemetery. If I’m lucky, the conversation ends there.

But sometimes my good stranger presses on, bored and jolly and pleased to be making a connection: And how old are your other two? Well, how old is a dead child? I could say three and a half, the age at which Gabriel died, or I could give the age he would be now if he had lived. Progressing his age makes me realize how much the years have galloped away, but keeping his age static makes Gabriel recede into the background, like a traveler left behind at a motel. Neither answer feels right.

At this point I usually opt for the truth. I try to be gentle. Well, my little girl is eight, and my little boy (looking the person directly in the eye) would have been five this year, but (I tilt my head slightly and smile a rueful smile) he died. I am always careful to say the he died part loudly and clearly, since it’s not what the supermarket lady is expecting, and there’s nothing worse than a couple rounds of He what?. He died. He what? He DIED.

I always wish I could make it easier on people. I hate for them to think I draw them in only to spring this trap on them. If only supermarket ladies weren’t so persistent! It’s like watching someone stride gaily into a tar pit. My tar pit. Don’t go in there, I think. You’ll be sorry.

Because now, of course, the lady has to say something back. For me, the best kind of reaction is to acknowledge that what I shared was a loss, and that loss hurts. In short, the best response is I’m sorry, to which I can say Thank you and then change the subject.

There are other kinds of reactions. People sometimes say wow or huh, their eyes shifting uneasily to the floor. Someone once lifted her eyebrows, looked away, and said a pinched little oh. I was sharing too much. Another time, an acquaintance walked into my tar pit and then blithely walked back out again. “That’s right, your husband told me about that,” she said, as if we were discussing a softball game.

Are these people callous, or am I expecting too much? I don’t know. People should probably be kind to grieving mothers, if only to shore up some cosmic goodwill for the inevitable day when they, too, will grieve. But usually they just want to get away, and why not? There’s no upside to prolonging the encounter, only a potentially embarrassing sob-fest. I know that. I know that my grief doesn’t do anyone any good. It does not increase the gross national product or help the homeless. It’s an invisible wound that takes forever to heal, and healing requires the kindness of strangers—tired strangers, stumbling strangers, strangers who are stitching up their own wounds. People can’t always be helping me with my troubles. People have lives.

Well, most people have lives. Gabriel doesn’t. To me he is still a person, but he is not alive, and that is the root of all this difficulty.

Perhaps a year after Gabriel died, I read an essay in which the writer said her greatest fear was of her son dying. This, she said with great conviction, was the one event she would not survive, the one barrier she would not be able to cross. I admire this writer, but this passage gave me a sour feeling. Sometimes the worst happens; sometimes it happens to you. Then what? Would she really perform the obligatory suicide? Or was this just one of those reckless, superlative things we say, like a dare, to try to express the enormity inside our chests? “Damn the torpedoes! You shall know the extent of my love!”

But then I realized that obligatory suicide might come in different forms. A friend once told me about a woman who brought up her dead son in every casual conversation, ten and eleven and twelve years after the fact. My friend thought this was evidence of deep psychological problems, but I believe I understand that woman. Perhaps she made a promise to her son, or to herself, that she would keep his memory alive no matter what—no matter how much time had passed, no matter how tired or hurried she was, no matter how rudely the other person treated her. If you met this woman and got suckered into hearing her story, it would almost certainly be awkward and unpleasant to get away. You would probably think she was some kind of crank. But she might also be some kind of hero.

And what about my obligatory suicide? What did I choose?

At first I didn’t think I was choosing anything. In the early months after Gabriel died, I thought I was dumbly getting up every morning for no good reason. Actually, I wondered whether putting one foot in front of the other was stupid, immoral even, in the face of so much evil and loss. The world that was my son was gone, along with the smell of his hair, like dusk in summertime. Gabriel was a handsome fellow with exquisite taste: kiwifruit, salmon in dill sauce. My little gourmet. How could I continue to live in the world that had taken those things away? But I had always gotten up in the morning, and choosing a new approach seemed harder than just doing the same old thing.

And then, because I had wanted another child for a long time and because I wasn’t getting any younger, my husband and I chose to have a baby. We named her Lucia, which means light—as in “at the end of the tunnel.” In the rush of parental duty and joy, I forgot about obligatory suicide for days at a time, though I didn’t forget about Gabriel for a minute.

When I look back at those days, I finally understand that I made a choice without realizing it—that I had actually been choosing all along. I chose, simply, to go on. I limped away from obligatory suicide, away from its necessity and attractiveness. I did this knowing that Gabriel deserves as much sacrifice as any mother’s son. I simply couldn’t fulfill that motherly suicide pact. Sometimes that feels like a failure. But I believe I can love him more than life itself and still love life.

Lucia is now three and attending the preschool Gabriel attended, where his teacher has a picture of him on her windowsill. The kids sometimes ask who that is. “He’s my brother,” Lucia says offhandedly. They require no further explanation.

As for my two-versus-three problem, it gradually wore away, like paint on a stair. The all-defining nausea decreased bit by bit as the months went on, and eventually I came to realize that I could talk about my two live children without mentioning my dead one and without imploding from guilt.

Nowadays, when a little old lady asks after my kids, I choose whether to share the secret that is Gabriel. If she passes my instantaneous screening test—if I get a good vibe, if she seems capable of handling the sticky web of feelings surrounding the death of a child—then I might tell her. Or I might not. I’m picky. I usually tell only people who matter to me or who might matter to me in the future. I’m partial to young mothers and elderly people, folks attuned to the reverberations of the beginning and end of life. But it’s okay, now, if a stranger walks away never knowing that I used to have a little boy and that he’s gone. He’s still mine. I’m keeping him safe.

I have, however, begun performing one tiny public ritual in Gabriel’s honor: I make it a point to acknowledge the losses of others who are brave enough to speak of them. I was recently sitting across the lunch table from a new acquaintance, an elderly lady with magnificent white hair. She told the group, with careful control, that her husband had died some months earlier. I didn’t wait for the appropriate pause in the conversation: “Rita,” I said, “I’m sorry you lost your husband.”

She looked at me, a little surprised. Then she said “Well, thank you. He was quite a guy.” She leaned back in her chair and looked off to her left, almost as if she expected to see him there, as if she couldn’t help but look for him. Then she shook her head and smiled. “He was quite a guy.”

Brain, Child (Winter 2006)

 Art by Caty Bartholomew

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