The Phantom Child

I’ll never know, and neither will you, of the life you don’t choose. We’ll only know that whatever that sister life was, it was important and beautiful and not ours. It was the ghost ship that didn’t carry us. There’s nothing to do but salute it from the shore. Cheryl Strayed

As Molly headed to the back end of toddlerhood, eager to be in big kid school like her older brother, I started thinking about having another child. The feeling of a baby moving inside me. The delicious anticipation of wondering what he or she would look like. The dark quiet of nursing a newborn late at night when the rest of the house was deep asleep. I didn’t feel ready to be done, to say ‘no’ to more children. But I also wasn’t sure I wanted another one.

I grew up an only child with much older half siblings who were long gone by the time I learned to crawl. My extended family is full of nuclear families with a few clusters of threes or fours. Dan’s immediate family is larger. He’s one of three as is his mother. His father is one of four.

When I raised the idea of having another child with Dan, he pushed back. It had been a challenge growing up as part of an uneven number. He was happy with two, willing to have four but reluctant to stop at three.

In hindsight, I wish I’d given the decision a lot more thought. Instead of wondering how I might feel if I didn’t have that third child (I couldn’t imagine having four …), I focused on how rich and full our lives were already. How fun the kids were, how busy they were, how quickly they were becoming more and more independent. I was back at work; a new baby would interfere with that. I’d already had one miscarriage. What if I had another? What if there were health challenges with the next child?

It’s only now, standing in the aftermath of Jimmy’s death, that I can see all the ways I talked myself into two being enough. How I looked for signs and proof that there was no reason to disrupt or take chances with the sweet life we had at the time. It never occurred to me that anything could happen to either of the kids or that I might feel differently about the question once it was too late to answer it differently.

These days, I miss the noise and energy of having a second living child. The additional texts and calls. The fourth voice around the dinner table. The third peal of laughter when Dan and Molly watch The Office together. The pain gets particularly acute around the holidays when the stream of intact family holiday cards starts. The exponential way the members grow year after year as the kids find partners and have children of their own. Instead of retreating into the past, the decision not to have a third child still looms large, and most days can only be viewed through the lens of regret.

In my more rational moments, I recognize that I made the decision not to have another baby with the knowledge I had at the time. The universe doesn’t make a habit of warning you that you might make a different one if you’d only had a crystal ball. As the product of a small family, I have no idea how well, or poorly, I’d have managed three children, especially during the days when Jimmy was enduring eight years of hospitalizations, infections, and cancer treatments.

I’m so grateful to have Molly. And I also want my son back. But no number of additional children would have filled the hole that he left in our lives. Molly might have a surviving sibling for the rest of her life, but she still wouldn’t have her beloved older brother.

Life rarely works out perfectly. We make the best choices we can, only to find down the road that they were flawed or ill-advised. We jump in too soon or wait too long. We experience consequences and losses we would never have chosen and would have avoided if we could. For all my grief and regret over my missing third child, I will never know all the ways that decision could have changed or upended everything. It’s a different life that I don’t get to live, beautiful in its own way but not mine.

We made the most of our time as a foursome; we do the same as a family of three now. I didn’t appreciate the carefree days enough before Jimmy’s brain cancer diagnosis, but I didn’t miss the magic of the ones that followed. The years we shouldn’t have gotten after his recurrence, all the moments spent together because of it. I caught as many as I could. I am holding them still. When the sharp stab of regret over what I might have been hits, I try to remember what I did have instead and let that phantom ship sail on by.

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