I saw her literally the moment I found a seat, on the floor in the very back of the room-- I was late and the room was full. I hadn't expected to see her there. I hadn't really expected to see anyone I knew there. It was a talk on raising bilingual children, held at my old Alma Mater, where I also worked for several years, until the summer after A died. I'd forgotten her husband's first language wasn't English. But had I remembered, I'd still not have expected to run into her-- I would've assumed that she'd graduated already. Instead, there she was, having made it to the talk early, judging by the seat she had-- one of the best in the house.
Casey was a TA in the class I ran the spring before A was conceived. About half way through the semester I began to suspect that Casey was pregnant. About two thirds through, her bump made all speculation mute. She was a good TA, even if not particularly an extra mile kind. But then again, in hindsight it's tough going an extra mile through the early pregnancy while you are TAing a big class and working your tail off in the lab too.
The moment I saw her was palpable, a mini lightning bolt; in my head, certainly, but what felt like inside my chest cavity too. Way beyond your standard issue butterflies, this was real anxiety-- throat grabbing, stomach tying, air rarefying split second of oh, crap, I'm so not ready for this. I wasn't sure if she knew, and thought that she likely didn't. I was pretty sure she knew I was pregnant, though-- I remember running into her that fall, right as she came back from maternity leave. By that time I myself was unmistakably round, and going to the bathroom so many times during a workday that I was sure that alone fulfilled my daily exercise requirement. So that's where I ran into Casey one day that fall, and that's where she filled me in on the somewhat complicated childcare arrangement they'd hobbled together for her son, who she was totally in love with, and that's where I told her I too was expecting a boy.
There are certainly people who saw me pregnant who didn't remember later. In their defense, those people were meeting me for the first time then. Casey, on the other hand, knew me before. I was pretty sure she remembered. I know, I know-- unless you are a celebrity, and TV takes care of announcing your comings and goings, chances are there will be people who won't be up on your news, fresh and not so much. And there will be new people you meet who won't know. And so from time to time you will be in a position to decide whether or how to tell someone that your child is (or your children are) dead.
Telling people is a staple of our early days as bereaved parents. It's a large part of why many of us would rather not leave the house. But somehow we do (tell)-- often we send emails, or ask friends to pass the news on,-- and at some point we do (leave). And eventually the telling, if it happens, is mostly to the people who didn't know us before. To them our babies become dead a split second after they first come into existence as mental images, right after everyone's favorite word-- but. "I had a baby, but..." "We had twins, but..." "I was due in December, but..."
These hurt, of course. They hurt a lot. But they hurt differently than the early tellings. A while ago, Natalie talked about the early ones, about how when you do that, you get to see someone else's joy and anticipation for you shatter, the might've been crumbling into is. Again.
When I saw Casey from my ground-level seat that day it occurred to me that she just might be the very last person to have seen me pregnant who still didn't know. Sadly, it didn't make me better at telling her. Worse, it didn't even make me more prepared.
After the initial shock, I forced myself to concentrate on the talk, even though I kept stealing glances at Casey. She was knitting. Obviously listening, but also knitting. Which, I understand, betrays a certain level of skill. During the Q&A session, I asked a question, guaranteeing that if Casey hadn't noticed me before, she obviously would now. (Yes, not one of my brighter moves, I know.) Meaning that after the talk was over, I had no choice but to say hi, especially since the speaker was enveloped in a small crowd, and I was waiting until that receded so I could buy her book.
I'm a kind of parent that generally speaking does not do guilt. I make decisions and live with them. But that doesn't mean I don't have regrets. And I definitely regret what happened next. Because? I screwed up.
We started talking. About grad school (she hoped to finally be done this year) and work (I filled her in on where I've been), about the whole bilingual kid thing (she asked how well Monkey was doing with the Old Country language, and then how we managed to hold on to it so well). I asked about her son, and she told me they are having trouble because her husband, the one who speaks the foreign language to the kid, gets home on the late side. She used her son's name when she was telling me this. Same as A's middle name. I knew that, of course-- she's mentioned it a bunch of times, most notably that one time in TA meeting when everyone was teasing her about the possible nicknames, and she drew the line at one that, I admit, would've bugged me too. So I knew it, but it wasn't at the forefront of my mind right then, and so it packed a bit of a punch for me.
Maybe that's why I screwed up, because I was still off balance when the next question came. "So how old is your younger one now?" Or maybe I screwed up because of how the question was phrased, quantitatively, especially since we'd just listed Monkey's age, and her son's, causing my numbers-oriented brain to want to account for the Cub's age too.
What I said was "He died." And after the properly horrified I am sorries from her and her husband, and the short version of stillborn, 34.5 weeks, "But we also have a three and a half months old now."
I regretted it almost immediately. But? But? What the hell was I thinking when those words left my mouth? Spotlight shifting, minimizing, covering up the dead baby with the live one. Am I not the very person who insists, sometimes very loudly, that my sons are separate and distinct individuals, not to be confused or conflated? What I should've said was "A would've been nearly two now. Sadly, he died. We miss him every day, and love him always. We also have a new baby, who is three and a half months old. He is a joy, and we love him madly. But we still miss A. At this point, we are pretty sure we always will." There. Would that have been so hard? She asked about A, about the baby she knew about. And my answer should've stayed focused on him.
I spent the drive home thinking about what I should've said. I obsessed about it almost nonstop for several days after. It wasn't just that I minimized my own son-- the very thing that drives me crazy when done by someone else,-- I worried that I left a wrong impression about babyloss in general. I worried, and still do, that the way I spoke left the impression that the cure for dead baby blues is a live baby. An all too common misconception I am afraid I might've reinforced. Really, Julia, "but"? Real nice. Real smooth.
I considered emailing Casey to tell her what I should've said in person, and to tell her why it was bothering me that I didn't. In the end I decided it would be too weird. I still think about it, though, seven months later.
How did you tell people early on? Have you had to tell since? How does it feel? If you are that far down the road, how do you decide which of the new acquaintances to tell? Have you had your own Casey-- a person who last saw you pregnant? How did you handle that?