Finding Strength in an Uber When My Driver Asked, 'Do You Have Children?'
It’s a Wednesday morning, and I am in an Uber headed to work. My driver is talkative, so I let her ramble, muttering an occasional “uh-huh” to keep the conversation moving and lose myself in my various social media feeds, allowing the welcome distraction from the buildup of grief I have been feeling lately. She mentions the word “daughter,” and my subconscious tunes in. As I begin to listen more closely, she is talking about the joys and pains of parenting a teenager, and I brace myself. Somewhere along this journey since Kellen left us, I have developed a spidey-sense when I know “the question” is coming. Every woman of child-bearing age in the South knows, “the question.” I take a deep breath, and on cue, she asks, “Do you have any children?”
I pause for a beat as a flurry of emotions and questions fill my head. “Am I really in the mood?” Sadness. “Can I answer without crying?” Grief. “Am I ready to answer the inevitable follow up question of ‘how?’ or even worse, deal with the awkward silence?” Annoyance.
Simultaneously, the memories begin to flood my mind before I have a chance to stop them. I have a vivid flashback to the day I gave birth as if it is happening in real time. I remember my water being broken. I remember the first time I heard his beautiful cry. Eight pounds, 6 ounces of plump cheeks and fuzzy hair. I remember the pedi-flight team as they wheeled him away to the hospital that became our second home. I remember the first time I held him at the hospital. I remember his diagnosis of seven congenital heart defects due to Noonan syndrome. I remember taking him home and breastfeeding. I remember the cardiology appointment when they told me it was time to schedule his first open-heart surgery. I remember the surgeon telling that he would not survive without a heart transplant. I remember ECMO and chest compressions. I remember the last time he made eye contact with me and smiled. I remember saying goodbye.
For a while, after Kellen died, I would boldly, almost defiantly, proclaim to everyone that asked, “Yes, I had a son.” Without care for how uncomfortable it made them after they inevitably asked how old he was and I would say, “He was 5 months old.” I would sometimes relish in the guilt and embarrassment consuming their faces for their intrusion into my pain. I knew they never meant any harm; asking about children and marriage is small talk even amongst strangers in the South. I knew my misdirected anger and desire to make everyone feel and acknowledge my pain was intended for the Universe for taking him from me. As if throwing his name out there every chance I got would make the Universe feel guilty and give him back, but even in my irrational grief, I knew that wasn’t possible. It became my mission to remind everyone he lived and he was here, and I would make sure he would never be forgotten. But no matter how hard I try, the world keeps moving forward and periodically I find myself in a familiar place, there.
While people use various terms like “bereavement,” “grief” and “depression” to describe what there is, no singular emotion exists to describe what it feels like to be there. For me, it is a constant state of being suspended in time and space somewhere between the past and present, in anguish, pain, sadness, anger, confusion, regret, love and all-consuming grief. I felt it in the days before Kellen left us. I feel it leading up to every anniversary of his death and birthday. I feel it during the holidays as I am reminded I have no little one to create new memories with.
Today, I am feeling it four days before what would have been his 2nd birthday.
I snap back into reality, and the tears began to swell, and I closed my eyes.
“Not today,” my heart whispered, so I lied: “No, I don’t have any children.”
I immediately chastised myself for my moment of weakness. I became consumed with guilt as memories of him flooded my mind once again. How could I allow myself to deny him? Am I not strong enough to answer the question?
Today, I am there, and I was beating myself up for just trying to survive an Uber ride.
For parents of children with chronic illnesses, and especially for those parents whose children have gone too soon, there is guilt and sometimes frustration every time we hear the dreaded words, “You’re so strong.” Every time I hear that, especially when I am there, I want to scream from the rooftops that in fact, I am a fraud, barely holding it together as I crumble apart at every memory and moment of longing. See, I am not strong by choice, and given the opportunity I would have chosen the easy road. Life with a toddler fighting to not eat his vegetables would have been far more preferable than visiting my son at a cemetery. Teaching my infant to crawl would have been a much easier task than deciding to place him on life support. I would have given my life not to have to be strong, and for the longest time, I felt that meant I was weak.
But after I arrived at work and said goodbye to my driver, I closed my door, sat at my desk and cried. I allowed myself just to be there, and I looked at his photos that I kept in a booklet on my desk and had the powerful realization that at that moment I perceived to be weakness, I was strong.
Losing a child is an abnormal experience in every imaginable way, and I survived. Previously, I wrote about grief and how through it, we love because even in death, parents never stop loving their children, and because of that experience, we are strong. When we are there, so are our babies, giving us strength in their memories, love and little reminders that they existed. I have realized being there does not mean I do not appreciate or enjoy being here, in the present, and that makes me strong. Kellen and all that encompasses who he was and still is lives both there and here. In him and our journey, I find strength, and as I look back on all we have endured and overcome, I recognize in being there, I am strong.
To those of you walking the journey of grief with a loved one, hold space for them. Be patient with them. Embrace them. Be kind to them. Love them. Because they are constantly living somewhere between here and there, where the past and present collide in beautiful and painful ways. For the grieving parent, I know all too well that each new memory made, joyful and sad, is tainted by the absence of the children who aren’t here. Every anniversary, birthday, graduation and even the deaths of other loved ones transport us there as we remember how our babies should be here living with us in the present. But please know even on the days when you are at your lowest because you lied to survive an Uber ride, you are strong.
We are strong.