We’re taking our annual Fall trek to buy a jacket for our daughter. Every year, these trips to this same swanky store get busier and noisier as her mobility and verbal ability expand. Today she is wandering through the store interrupting 3 patrons and 4 staff people with her call-and-response to “Mommy?” and “Daddy?”. Still, we find the coat that fits, and a hat for my wife, and we make our way to the front of the store.
As she is packaging our purchases, the kind clerk engages our girl. Who, in a rare moment of magnanimity, reciprocates. So they talk about stickers and doggies, and I can see the day’s bright light dancing in the kind woman’s eyes. Many of the words are hard to identify, but the kind woman does her best. Really connecting now, our Ella brashly volunteers that she “has a baby in her tummy!” I’ve heard that it is common for kids to mimic their mothers in this way, and the kind woman seems to know this too. She glances at my wife’s belly and smiles. “It’s my sister!” chirps the little voice, and today she goes on to add that she also has a “doggie and a brother in there, too!”.
The woman, wise and with a few lines and some gray to show her experience, follows the lead, asking for details. The sister is named ‘Ella’, the dog is named ‘Marcus’, and the brother is named ‘William’.
And so we see it coming, and have a moment to prepare ourselves. We’ve been trained to give a forthright and simple explanation of our situation, and we’re learning to do that. Still, there is no point in rushing ahead.
After talking further with Ella, the woman kindly inquires of my wife, who fills in the pieces: Stacy is indeed pregnant with a little girl, Ella wishes every baby was named ‘Ella’, Marcus is the dog who lives next door (and who gave our daughter a stuffed doggie), and William is her twin brother, who died. As my wife says this, there is in her voice and visage not a hint of self-pity or malice, but only a small sliver of sadness. We are not, so far as I can tell, trying to inflict some damage, but are simply bound to the truth of our experience. So we tell the truth, and try not to wince or apologize.
Sometimes the waiting takes longer than the truth, as today.
The kind woman blinks and catches her breath. “Oh,” is all she says, and her face looks like someone has punched her in the gut. She doesn’t say “sorry,” or “really?” or even “oh, no…” She doesn’t ask for more detail, or change the subject, or disengage from her conversation with a tow-headed two-year-old. All of those perfectly appropriate responses are subconsciously set aside in favor of a gasp and real tears and that deep recognition that shit happens, every day and in every way. She voices the reality that echoes through our lives, and through everyone’s life.
Gazing even more intently at this little girl, the nice woman says “Oh.” And then she catches her breath and continues the conversation about doggies and stickers and brothers and sisters.