David Sedaris published a piece in the New Yorker this week about his younger sister’s recent suicide. He describes his relationship with his sister, her relationship to their family and what it means to be one of 5 siblings, rather than six, all with his trademark cringe inducing humor. I love David Sedaris, I love his stories about his family and I really liked the piece. At the very beginning he describes the awkwardness of talking about the amount of people in your family when someone is gone forever.
Now, though, there weren’t six, only five. “And you can’t really say, ‘There used to be six,’ ” I told my sister Lisa. “It just makes people uncomfortable.”
I recalled a father and son I’d met in California a few years back. “So are there other children?” I asked.
“There are,” the man said. “Three who are living and a daughter, Chloe, who died before she was born, eighteen years ago.”
That’s not fair, I remember thinking. Because, I mean, what’s a person supposed to do with that?After reading those words, I sat back and sighed. Because in 18 years I will still be missing Magnolia and there will still be a hole in our family and I will still have to figure out how to talk about how many children we have with strangers. And then I thought, “That’s not fair. Because, I mean, what am I supposed to do with that?”
And while my life and family are radically different from David Sedaris and while my own experience of loss doesn’t include years of family drama, the question of how many people make-up my family is one I spend a lot of time thinking about these days. Deciding what to tell strangers or new people in our life about how many children we have is a real challenge. And that is just one part of this whole crappy situation that is really unfair.
There are basically two options when someone asks me how many children I have, I can say one or I can tell them that I had two and my younger daughter died earlier this year. Neither option is easy. The first feels like a betrayal, not only to Magnolia and her very important place in our family but to my grief and our loss and the pain that comes from being in the world without her. The second option is hard because it ends the conversation.
So far, I always choose the second option. Her absence in my life is still so huge, it is with me and in me every moment and the thought of not acknowledging her place in our family is impossible because we are still figuring out what it means. Sasha and I have both shut down a few casual conversations this way.
There is usually a long pause (the first indication that we have just swerved off the road of casual chit chat). The pause is not so I can decide what to say, it is so I can prepare myself for their reaction. Then I tell them. At that point the person who asked looks stunned. They will put their hand over their heart, they will pull in their eyebrows and maybe a sharp breath, then they say quickly how sorry they are and how horrible that must be or some other variation on those two thoughts. And I know they are sorry and shocked and have no idea what to say, so I nod my head and say thank you. Then they find an excuse to get away quickly. And I am left feeling alone and sad. And honestly, that is what feels unfair to me.
Since Magnolia’s death, Sasha and I have spent a lot of time avoiding large social gatherings with people we don’t know. Mostly because it is hard to sustain social chatter—because we are sad, tired, don’t really care, and because we hate being asked how many kids we have. Every social interaction with someone who doesn’t know us, or our family, is an opportunity for supreme discomfort. But not just for the stranger who is suddenly confronted with my grief and my new reality, but for me too. Because it is lonely and hard to feel a conversation end so abruptly and to feel like I should be responsible for the other person’s feelings when I’m suddenly confronted with my grief and my new reality again.
People are all different and I don’t want to suggest that it would be wrong to say that I have one child and move on in the conversation. There may come a time in my own life where I make that decision, but it feels wrong for me now, so I don’t do it. Right now, I am still reeling from all of the ways our life feels different without her and still desperate for her to be known and remembered. Even with strangers.
There is one person who got it just right for me. I have continued to think about our interaction since it happened in June. I was standing on line in a children’s clothing store with a pile of pajamas in my arms for Delphinium, behind a very chatty lady. She was holding up all of the conversation so I was mostly smiling and nodding and laughing while she performed an entertaining monologue. Then she asked what sizes I was buying and I told her and she said, “So you only have one kid?” I paused and then told her about Magnolia. She was shocked and said how sorry she was, but then she asked what her name was and whether I had any pictures. I pulled out my phone and showed her pictures of Magnolia while she exclaimed about her adorableness and beautiful smiles and asked how she and her sister got along and listened to me talk about them together. She hugged me and said it was a tragedy for the world. We went to different counters and I paid for my clothes while wiping my eyes and blowing my nose, she did the same at her counter. She yelled goodbye and “God bless” as she walked to the door.
I was, and am, so grateful to this woman for giving me a real moment of support and love. She didn’t need my care taking and she genuinely wanted to know my little girl and to acknowledge that she was here. Which is what I am trying to do when I say she died. She was here and she was wonderful and important, and now she’s gone, but she is still my child and I am still her mother. The stranger I met that day let me be Magnolia’s mother and understood that she was still a part of our family.