other women

The groom’s sister looks pale and smiles wanly. Her black cocktail dress fits trimly over her belly; she looks six, maybe seven, months along. In the reception hall she is seated alone across the table from me. Her place setting is adorned with a small white candle and a photo in a black felt frame— her father, who died a few years ago. 

I happen to know that hers is an IVF baby. That she is 39, single, and has decided to parent alone. Her grief is so palpable and familiar—alone with sadness at a happy event— that I find myself wondering if this is her first pregnancy attempt, or if there is a loss in her past, or if her baby has complications. She looks so ethereally sad for someone whose brother is getting married. Maybe she just misses her dad.

I should ask her. This new, compassionate me, who is supposedly unafraid of grief, should ask, How are you really doing? But I don’t. I make small talk. I am embarrassed.

I am faking this wedding. I am going to have a good time, dammit. One of my best friends is getting married, the banquet hall full of old acquaintances, and I just want to pretend I am okay. So I do. For the first time I put a huge parenthesis around my dead baby and prattle on about my beautiful stepdaughter, my great new husband, our upcoming move, and how beautiful the bride looks. This is how I get through it. This is how I have a good time.

Later I regretted this portrait of my life. Not because I hid my baby daughter—there isn’t a person in the room who meant enough for me to share her name with them. But because of the other women I might have wounded with my fakery. Because in that moment I chose to continue the cycle, chose not to break the silence.

At the wedding, I try to be cheerful with Alice, who is spending the evening at the edge of the terrace, the edge of the ballroom, the edge of the crowd. She is fidgety with an angry look on her face. Her very tall husband smiles at everyone, mingles, brings her drinks. I’ve met her only once, at a shower she threw for the bride. There she let something slip about how painful fertility testing is. I see the look on her face tonight and wonder. How many losses? How far long? How many failed cycles? How many bad test results? To me, she looks like grief.

photo by laura mary

When I approach her, she barely responds. Her husband swoops in with drinks. Conversation falters. We end up chatting about my stepdaughter and her adventures at summer camp. This is stupid, given what I know. I want to say, How is the testing going? It’s okay to talk to me. I know something about this. But I don’t. I smile and mention Lilly’s name too many times. Finally, we sidle away from one another. But I watch her all night.

Later I find Nissa, a vivacious Filipina in her late 40s with a poet for a husband. I used to pal around with her and the bride, but that was years ago. She wants to catch up and hear my news. I tell her I am a stepmama, and that I am about to move to her old stomping grounds in the west of the state. Her husband points out that they grow good weed there, not that he’s tried it. We laugh.

As I speak, she hears happiness in my voice. She doesn’t hear the parenthesis. So you like being a parent?, she asks. Oh, that is so great, oh…. She looks up at her husband, and I see the pain cross her face. They have never been able to have children. And now I am the jerk, bragging about “my child” to the childless. I could have told her then about Angel Mae. She would have been kind about it, but it would have felt like backtracking. See I am not really a jerk because my baby died and I haven’t been able to get pregnant again either…

But at that moment, I don’t know how to say it. She is wearing a bridesmaid dress and has a champagne glass in her hand.

Jane is on the dance floor. I haven’t seen her since college. She moved to Colorado, then Paris, then back to the Southwest. She is lively and nerdy and gorgeous, just as I remember her. It has always been hard to get a negative word out of her; she smiles broadly even as she tells me about rupturing her Achilles tendon a week before her wedding. The kids are doing great, she says, total opposites in personality, though. Her younger one is adopted.

I could ask why they chose to adopt. I wonder about losses and secondary infertility. I look for answers in her face, but she is still smiling and grooving as Prince’s Seven blares loudly from the speakers. Maybe she adopted simply because she was adopted herself.

She asks if I am on Facebook. I tell her I used to be but not anymore. Why not? I dodge the question.

Maybe this is just me, seeing loss everywhere. Maybe these women felt fine and could have cared less what I rambled about. Maybe I should mind my own business. Maybe it’s a good thing I didn’t make myself into the crazy dead baby lady at the wedding.

Maybe. But I’m pretty sure I’m right about this—that at such a happy occasion, there were sad hearts wandering the ballroom. So I’m still thinking about those women, wishing I had spoken up, wishing we could each have felt a little less alone. But silence was my survival that night. Maybe it was theirs, too.

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These days, how are you with other people’s pain and grief (hidden or revealed)? Has your own loss made you bolder about being with others who are hurting? What is it like when you say the wrong thing, or nothing? Have you ever publicly broken the “time and place” rules because you needed to talk?