How Many Children Do You Have?

Secrets are a perfect stand in for boundaries. Transparent, Season 4

Whenever I meet someone new, I brace myself for the inevitable inquiry — “How many children do you have?” Or, if we’ve been chatting for a bit, and Molly’s name has come up — “Do you have any other children besides Molly?”

In those raw, dark days after Jimmy died, the question was like a physical blow. I scrambled for verbal defenses to forestall it, deflect it, prevent it from being asked. Could I turn the subject back towards the other person? Change topics? Cut the conversation short? Could I subtly signal Dan or a friend to join us, thereby creating a distraction and effectively changing the subject?

For weeks and weeks after Jimmy’s death, I made sure I was only around people who knew. I had a friend make an appointment with my hairdresser, tell her what had happened and ask her not to bring up Jimmy’s name. At Molly’s high school softball games, Dan and I sat deep in the outfield, arriving right at the start of the game, coming in the back gate or walking in with a group of the other team’s parents in order to avoid the families we knew. My trips to the local grocery store were stealth operations conducted at odd hours, executed with military precision and designed to get me in and out of the store as quickly as possible without being seen.

It’s like a sad, twisted game. Dodging, ducking, avoiding and, when cornered, taking a page from Transparent’s Sarah Pfefferman’s book, and telling a lie to protect my shattered heart.

The first time Dan and I were asked “the question,” we were in an Uber, heading to the Sacramento airport on our way to Jimmy’s celebration of life in Portland. The friendly driver asked about our children. We told him all about Molly, her love of playing softball, her creativity, her interest in photography, anything we could think of to forestall the question we both knew was coming. Eventually, the driver asked if we had other children besides Molly. There was a long pause, and then Dan said, ‘no.’ It felt awful denying Jimmy’s existence, but neither of us could bear to talk about him so soon after his death.

But the alternative isn’t great either. I’ve poured cold water on many an interaction by responding to the question by saying “I have a daughter, Molly, who’s 24 and a son, Jimmy, who died at the age of 21 of brain cancer.” It’s not the other person’s fault for making such an innocent inquiry. I still haven’t figured out how to convince the other person that he doesn’t need to apologize or that she couldn’t possibly have known. Mostly people stammer out an “I’m so sorry ..” and try to get away from me as quickly as possible. A few courageous, compassionate souls have leaned in, wanting to know more, to learn about Jimmy or how I’m doing in the aftermath. The most miserable moments come where the other person disregards the information and changes the subject. I can’t really blame them, but the pain of having Jimmy’s very existence ignored never gets any easier.

Nowadays, I don’t hide my should-have-lived son any more. Because I’m more in control of my emotions, I can better manage the ensuing reaction once I reveal the death of my my oldest child.  Sometimes sharing what happened to Jimmy and our family has opened the door to connections and conversations I would never have had otherwise — the consulting colleague who revealed that the real reason he and his wife had moved across the country was because their only child had died by suicide, and they couldn’t bear to live in the house or neighborhood where they had raised him. The new client who shared that she, too, had lost her first born son just days after he was born.

Each one of these exchanges both comforts and heals me, and I feel a little less alone each time I have one. I’ve come to realize that as uncomfortable as I can get trying to manage another person’s reaction to the death of my son, the real reason I used to hate talking about Jimmy’s death was because I felt so ashamed and guilty that he had died. As his mother, I was supposed to protect him, insure his safety, keep him alive.

I’m grateful to every brave soul who has shared their own story of loss with me. Time and the kindness of strangers has taught me that I did the best I could to save my sweet boy, that I was no match for the brain cancer that ravaged his body, that we made the most of our too short time together, that his bright beautiful life will forever outshine his disease and death.

There’s a time for boundaries and privacy but they come with a cost — isolation and loneliness. When I think of our family, I still see two children, and I want everyone else to see them, too.

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