I consider myself to be a fairly open gal. I write about darn near every thing that happens in my life on the Internet. I’ll talk with anyone about pretty much anything. My kids know they can ask me anything and for better or worse, they’ll get an honest answer.
But there is one question I absolutely dread. I loathe hearing it almost as much as I loathe answering it.
And it’s a question I get asked routinely, whenever I meet someone new.
“How many kids do you have?”
Six years ago, I never hesitated to answer this question. I’d happily tell anyone who showed a whisper of interest (heck, I’d tell those who weren’t interested) that I was the proud mother of three beautiful children. I wore my parental battle scars proudly, even if I did refrain from showing off my stretch marks.
But when my (then) youngest son died unexpectedly, with no medical explanation just shy of his fifth birthday, the question became an albatross to bear. There didn’t seem to be an easy answer to a simple question. If I answered ‘three children,’ it would lead to me explaining that my youngest son was deceased and wow, talk about a conversation stopper. There is no normal conversation after laying that bomb on someone. People simply don’t know how to react upon hearing that type of news.
If I answered ‘two children’ I felt like I was lying to myself, my broken uterus and the child whose memory I’ve sworn to honour for the rest of my days.
My son Shale may not draw breath any longer but he certainly exists in my heart and to not include him as one of my children simply because he no longer existed physically would break my heart all over again. A mother’s grief never fully goes away.
Over the course of the last six years, I’ve become more comfortable answering the dreaded question, but mostly because I’ve learned to become more comfortable in accepting other people’s sympathetic responses and maneuvering the conversation back out of the morbid shadows and into the light.
But every now and then, the question still throws me for a loop.
“How many children do you have?”
With the adoption of our youngest son, I now proudly answer, “I have four children.” I no longer explain my son passed away unless it comes up in conversation in a natural way. But recently, I was introduced to someone who was casually familiar with my story and upon hearing me answer ‘four’ she asked, “So you still count Shale?”
I was startled by this question and could do little more than nod, and because I was staring the anniversary of my son’s death date straight in the face, I was more sensitive than ever to this question. Luckily for me, a good friend sensed my discomfort and stepped in to take over the direction of the conversation.
But I left that exchange wondering if I’ve been just lying to everyone and to myself. Sure, I have four children in theory but I’ve never raised more than three at a time. We adopted Jumbster more than three years after his brother passed away. For those three years, I was busy raising my two surviving children.
So I guess I’ve had three then two then three children again.
Which would be fine but my heart still screams that I have four children. I still love four children even if I’m not going to see all four grow up and fly from my nest. And by this line of thought, can I really count Jumbster since I’ve only had him for over two years and I never gave birth to him? He’s been parentless longer than he’s had a family to call his own.
Which, of course, is absurd. Jumby is as much my child as the three I gave birth to. I’ve got a fancy piece of paper telling me so even though my heart already knows this to be true.
How many children do you have?
I don’t know how to dismiss the absent third child. I don’t know how to erase five years of parenting him. And I don’t know how to explain to the curious public that just because he’s dead he still counts.
Because he does. As much as his living, breathing, sometimes annoying siblings.
My name is Tanis and I have four kids. You’ll never meet one of them, but every time you look in my eyes, you’ll see him.