Once We Were Four

This kind of happiness requires courage. It requires a willingness to love. A willingness to forgive. A willingness to believe in some sort of goodness. It requires that we each accept what has been lost and offer ourselves to what we have now. Meredith Hall, Beneficence

Long before I had children of my own, one of my cousins cautioned me about the challenges of having more than two children. His third had just been born. He was exhausted and earnest, the way involved fathers are. “When you have two kids, you can play man-to-man defense,” he told me. “But once you have three, you have to play zone.”

Years later, when Molly was becoming a toddler and Jimmy was in first grade, Dan and I briefly considered having another child. I was caught up in nostalgia as we cycled through the lasts … the last bottle, the last booster seat, the last little one to sleep in a crib. As wrung out as their late night feedings had left me, I missed nursing a baby in the quiet darkness. The sweet warmth of skin-to-skin contact. The rock-like weight of a sleepy infant cradled in my arms. The conspiratorial hush in the house, leaving us to bond undisturbed.

Dan has two siblings and insists that someone was always getting left out when he was growing up. He loves kids and was game to have more, but maintained that we had to have an even number. Two or four, but not three. Having grown up in a quiet household with two older parents, the idea of three children, while appealing, was already a bit intimidating. I couldn’t imagine having a fourth.

During the kids’ cavity-prone years, the idea of another baby flitted through my head periodically, but I allowed our hectic life to hustle me past any lingering regret. As a Libra, I look for balance, and the congruity of our family appealed to me. Two parents and two children. Two males, two females (as long as you don’t count our dogs). Two hands, one to hold each child’s hand as we crossed the street. One boy, one girl. Even-steven. Symmetrical. Complete.

Until cancer split our world apart, and Jimmy died, leaving us a threesome. Two parents and a child who wasn’t born an only and never wanted to be one. Molly had grown up grateful to Jimmy for providing a buffer from her parents’ constant attention. Now she was the recipient of far more scrutiny than she wanted, weighted down by our fear and worry. Our knowledge that the worst can and does happen hung heavy in the air around her.

Death is a complicated calculus. We are a family of three who should be a family of four.

Although my grief is no longer as jagged as it once was, I will never be completely free of the guilt I feel that Molly had to finish growing up alone. The co-keeper of her childhood memories is gone, the only other person who understands what it was like to grow up with us as parents. Her guide and role model, the person she most wanted to be like when she was little. The uncle her children, should she choose to have them, will never meet. As Dan and I grow older, the burden of whatever care or accommodations we need will fall solely to her. And when we die, hopefully long before she does, Molly will be the last surviving member of our tight-knit quartet.

When Jimmy was diagnosed with brain cancer at thirteen, I refused to believe that he would not survive. By the time he died eight years later, I could no longer bear children. It felt like a cruel trick on the part of the universe. My parents had been loving and attentive, but I’d often been lonely growing up as an only child. I longed for a companion, a confidante, someone to blame things on. I thought I’d made sure that my kids would have the sibling II hadn’t had.  I also was embarrassed by how naïve I’d been, thinking that the choice had been ours alone to determine the forevermore size of our family. I deeply regretted our decision not to have another child, but it was too late.

Over time, the three of us have found a way to navigate forward. To regain our balance. To find what heals and what makes things worse and to allow space for the ways grief manifests differently for each of us. We’ve learned to let go and stay close. To let our breath out and start trusting the universe again, knowing that if Dan and I fret constantly about Molly, we will put a stranglehold on her life. We have learned to reclaim Jimmy, to reclaim us. To say that we are a family of four, even now. That one of our pillars is no longer living in his body doesn’t mean he’s not present, no longer important, any less real. We have found a way to carry him with us by saying his name freely, reminiscing about the past and talking about how much he would have loved a place, a person, an event.

We are bound and enduring, stitching Jimmy to us as we go. This aftermath life requires fierce faith and a stubborn belief in a future we can no longer picture or predict. Instead, we let life unspool, offering each other quiet grace, room to grow and safe haven when the longing for Jimmy gets too painful. Our love for him has brought us this far, and now, without him, it is what allows us to go on.

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  • Jan Haag says:

    Beautiful, Margo… I love the stitching of Jimmy to you three… and oh, how that last paragraph rings so beautifully and true. And oh, the line, “Death is a complicated calculus.” It so is… and you write about it masterfully. Thank you!

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