My neighbour was discovering that the reality of pregnancy differs from the sitcom version where you’re chipper and bright-eyed, except sporadically when the urge to hurl catches you by surprise. She had difficulty manoeuvring life through the cloud of perpetual fatigue. Over the garden fence, I glanced at her 15-week belly and assured her that feeling soul-crushingly drained is pretty common. I kicked a football back to my son, a bit worried that my own 8-week belly didn’t have me floored. “It will be so great to raise our babies together, but boy, given that you know how tiring it is, I’m amazed you’d go ahead and have a second pregnancy!”, she cheerfully shot back at me.
A second pregnancy.
I just stood there, stunned from the shock of Nadia being taken away from me again. Two years ago, my neighbour watched my belly grow, ballooning until I could barely get around. She knew I was carrying a girl, and that we named her Nadia. She brought us food when we returned from the hospital with empty arms, and she offered to take care of our son. But now that two years have passed, that second pregnancy apparently never happened. Because if it had really happened, we’d now have a dead baby smack in the middle of the conversation, and how does one deal with that? Conveniently there was now this new pregnancy, the second pregnancy, to take the place of the previous one and remove any lingering tension.
That new pregnancy faded into nothingness soon after, but even if it had developed further, it would not have changed how I feel about Nadia. People know that there is nothing quite so terrible as losing your child, and yet, beyond trying to cushion us in the very early days, nothing in their behaviour betrays a special knowledge about us. And that special knowledge is rather simple: our children continue to be part of our lives. You might not see them, but they sit across from you at the table when we invite you to dinner. They walk to school with their siblings. They are in that sand castle that didn’t get built at the beach. In those clothes they won’t outgrow. And yes, Nadia’s absence was toddling around the garden with us as the conversation was unfolding, and my impulse was to instantly let go of reality and hold her close.
Relationships live in the spaces between people, are held in place by those people, each one on their own end. When one person drops their end, the other one is left trying to find ways to hold the entirety of the connection on their own. Integrating this lopsided bond into a single person’s existence can be intense and all-consuming. I think about my dead daughter as often as I think about my living son – many times, every day, she crosses my mind. She does not need to be there for my relationship with her to be one of the most profound bonds that I have.
When she died, for the longest time I couldn’t even articulate my needs, let alone find ways to meet them. I lost the ability to keep myself upright. I wished someone else had been there to intuit my needs and take over and hold the pieces of my life in place while I grieved and grappled with questions about life, death, meaning, and looked for ways to integrate this senseless tragedy into who I am. I ached for a society that isn’t divorced from dealing with death, whose members have some idea about the predictable daily challenges.
My neighbour’s lighthearted denial that Nadia ever existed was perhaps rare in its blatancy. However, the continuous accumulation of the silence of many leaves me similarly jarred. People will frequently ask about my son. But unless I bring Nadia up myself, she goes unmentioned, a topic that is almost superstitiously avoided. I wish someone would say: “your daughter would have been about two right now, wouldn’t she?” Nobody does. The silence I am offered instead is a deeply respectful one, but after a while it becomes difficult to see a difference between silence and forgetting.
This is why I had to take my first steps in this new reality as a bereaved parent while leaning on people I barely knew. Mostly it was fellow survivors, and they keep on hoisting me over the many hurdles of living beyond her death. And yet I still acutely need those who knew me from before – to continue knowing me and holding my entire life story in one place. If there is one thing I could convey to them, it is this: after cultivating my bond with Nadia so carefully, I have come to a place where the familiar shape of her absence is a comfort to have around. And for me to feel fully welcome in your company, I need her to be welcome as well. Unless we can all sit there in amicable silence, a part of me will always be kept back, tending to the daughter I carry with me everywhere I go.
Do you have anyone to help you carry your children forward? What do you read into other people's silence?