A few years back, when we could actually safely dine out, I was at an extremely upscale restaurant for a business dinner. There were some prestigious folks there, high level executives and power players. It was a delightful scene, trying foods I’d never even heard of.
In most settings, small talk consists of weather, sports, and family. Plus the occasional “Where did you grow up?” Inevitably my male counterparts (with all due respect) largely speak sports dialect whenever possible. It is an easy way to connect without actually saying anything.
Conversely, and this is a generalization but truly my experience in having met and dined with hundreds of strangers, clients and colleagues, women tend to speak about family. “Do you have a family?…Do you have children?” This is is the equivalent of sports talk for men. We love to talk about our children if nothing else, and it is a safe conversation starter in most circles.
Unless the circle includes me. Unless you have had an ectopic pregnancy (1994), lost your 13 month old daughter to Aplastic Anemia (1997), and lost your son at birth (2002) due to, although we opted out of the autopsy, echogenic images which confirmed his body wouldn’t survive.
Back to dinner: Someone of great stature and prominence asked me the question, making conversation: “So Lisa, do you have kids?”
For anyone who has lost a child, this is the kind of question we have to pre-plan for. Depending on the audience I might say, “Yes, my son Zach is 21” and go from there, turning it back to the questioner: “Tell me about your family…”
(As an aside, the “Tell me about your family” is a safer conversation starter which I highly recommend, over “Do you have children?”)
Reliving the pain of my children dying through these chats can be brutal. (Thank God for bathroom stalls where overwhelming tears can be shed quickly and privately.). But I have learned that having a “canned, ready answer” is a tool I can count on.
When I am not in an environment where I want to go deep, and/or feel like the situation is not able (or worthy) of receiving my truth, I keep it light, mention nothing about our losses, and redirect the conversation to someone, or something else.
My fellow diners were a group of mature, life-seasoned and caring human beings. Contrary to my usual practice of defending with a simple answer, when asked the question “So Lisa, do you have kids?” I answered honestly.
“I do…” and went on to answer questions about Zach’s health, my daughter Alexis who died, the role of genetics and our road to balancing our lives with a such a complex adult child who requires so much moment to moment support.
I linked Aplastic Anemia (Alexis’ cause of death) to Shwachman Diamond Syndrome, the over-arching genetic diagnosis of all three children. I shared how, after Alexis died in 1997 we participated in a full genetic work up before deciding to have more children. We were counseled that the disease which took Alexis was a “fluke” and there was no evidence of a genetic etymology.
I then shared a few common details of the disease and how we came to diagnose Zach in early 2000. I confessed that he is an absolute miracle, beating the odds of life expectancy and just how full our lives are with him in it. “Although Alexis only lived 13 months, and we thought Zach would also die young, he is strong and healthy and the light of our lives.”
What happened next surprised even me. The response of this individual was “You must be scared every day that he will die.” I had tremendous appreciation for the courage it took to make that statement, one that mostly only a seasoned griever would have the presence to ask. It was my response that shocked me as the words left my mouth:
“No, I am not scared every day that he will die because I know he will. I will likely outlive him, which isn’t such a bad thing for Zach, plus, we will all die.”
I went on to describe the liberation of accepting death as inevitable, and how freeing it is to live in this one day knowing everything is ephemeral. (A longer chat which I look forward to writing about in the future.)
By the time the meal came, the group conversation took a new and welcomed direction away from my family and on to lighter things. I felt a tiny growth spurt when I drew on the Faith that this group would not be derailed by my truth. It felt Divine to be able to answer the questions honestly, and in ways that respected and honored my children, while providing a little perspective to most anyone that overheard our conversation.
Accepting our own mortality, and that of those around us (even our children) is a taboo exercise, let alone common dinner banter. But it’s real. And real things change when you survive in a way that let’s you face each day as if its your last.
Here’s to making the most of today, let’s give it all we’ve got and look into the eyes of loved ones as if we may never see them or they may never see us, again.