.. I carry his presence with me back inside
like a lit votive around which
I am cupping a hand to keep
the moment alive.
Seven weeks after Jimmy died, Dan and I found ourselves in an Uber on the way to the Sacramento airport. Shellshocked and shattered, we were heading up to Portland to celebrate Jimmy’s beautiful, far-too-short life. Our driver was friendly and chatty and eager to please. If it bothered him that we both insisted on sitting in the back seat, instead of one of us joining him upfront as we normally would have done, he didn’t let on.
“Is it warm enough in here for you? Would you like a bottle of water?”
We steeled ourselves, realizing that he was intent on making friendly conversation, torn between our need to be left alone and our desire not to make this kind, hardworking young man feel dismissed or uncomfortable.
“Where are you off to today? Going somewhere warm, I hope, to get out of this rainy April weather.”
Dan told him we were traveling to Portland to visit friends, which was true enough. That we used to live in Oregon and had moved back to California several years ago because we missed the sun and the warmer weather. I’m sure Dan asked the driver about himself, but I don’t remember anything about their exchange, only Dan’s concerted effort to fend off a break in the conversation. And our silent pleas from the back seat, imploring this kind young man not to ask the one question we were desperate to avoid answering.
Halfway to the airport, Dan ran out of small talk, and the car went silent.
“Do you have any children?”
Yes, said Dan, without missing a beat. A daughter named Molly. She’s a senior in high school, a softball player. She’s been playing since she was four and loves the game. Next year, she’ll be heading to college, to play softball. He talked about Molly’s high school team, their prospects for the season. Her travel ball team. The classes she was taking.
Just before the airport exit on I5, the car went quiet again.
“Do you have any other children?”
I froze, my lips already half forming the word ‘no’ when I heard Dan say softly, “No, we don’t.”
The rest of the ride was a blur, as my thoughts swirled. I would have answered the question the same way had Dan not spoken up. I had neither the energy nor the desire to explain to a stranger that my son was dead, much less share the circumstances. I wouldn’t have been able to navigate his response, manage his chagrin or reassure him that it wasn’t his fault for asking. Yet the response burned. By saying ‘no,’ Jimmy wasn’t just gone. Dan and I had denied his existence, momentarily cutting him completely out of our lives.
Even now, eight years after Jimmy’s death, I still struggle with the right way to answer when someone asks about my children. I quickly assess how I think the other person will react, how much I can handle, what I’m willing to share, before choosing how to respond. But I have never again left Jimmy out of my response.
Having to explain to a casual acquaintance, service provider or complete stranger that one of your children is dead is a layer of agony you don’t anticipate as a bereaved parent. The calculation of how the other person will receive this horrifying news. The reassurances you will need to offer. The kindness you have to demonstrate. How could they possibly know how devastating this seemingly simple question is? And who can blame them for becoming mortified and self-conscious for stepping on a third rail they couldn’t even see?
As any grieving parent can tell you, the range of reactions is broad. Most people stammer, unsure of what to say beyond “I’m so sorry.” I’ve learned to let them off the hook quickly before they make the situation worse by saying something embarrassing or unintentionally hurtful. I am rarely interested in discussing the intimate details of my son’s illness or death with someone I don’t know well or at all, so I’m happy to steer the conversation in a different, more superficial direction.
I discovered early on that age and occupation are no predictor of how the other person will respond. When I told Jimmy’s best buddy from preschool, then 26 years old, he paused, then said, “I’m so sorry. And so sad to hear this. Would it be okay to ask what happened?” In contrast, at coffee with a Methodist minister who claimed to work with bereaved, the woman acted as if she hadn’t heard my answer to her question about how many children I had and abruptly changed the subject.
Just as each of us love and grieve uniquely, so, too are the answers we offer to the burning question we most want to avoid. Crafting a response takes time and practice. We make mistakes and try again. We determine how much we want to reveal and to whom. We slowly build our endurance for staying in the conversation and fight to find a way to be kind, even as we want to scream and stamp our feet. Although the awkward, sometimes painful exchanges far outnumber the sweet ones, I remain ever hopeful each time that the other person will want to lean in and help keep Jimmy alive with me.