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“Is this your first?”
I pause and look into the eyes of the inquisitive stranger. I see that my delay in answering surprises them, and now the time passing slows down and becomes more awkward.
My mind races along with my heart. Answering “yes” would be simple – if not for me, at least for the stranger.
Answering “no,” with the obligatory explanations, would demand an honest but brutal response that the stranger had not anticipated. I have tried both answers to this loaded question in the past, and neither has proven satisfactory for me.
The stranger is impatiently staring now, anxious for the anticipated happy response, or at least a “no,” followed by a glowing account of a child or children at home.
I can see that the stranger regrets asking; they didn’t think it would take this long to get a response. After all, they only asked the question because society demands this type of polite inquiry, a sharing of happy news and maybe even some helpful advice.
If I answer “yes,” the response will be accepted with a smile and quickly followed by the obligatory “How far along are you?” or “Do you know if it is a boy or a girl?”
I will try to share the stranger’s comfort in my response, block out the nagging truth in my heart that burns ever brighter and more clearly with the dishonesty of my response.
Why doesn’t it help me, that I can spare this stranger the agonizing truth? I am often amazed at my ability to detach myself from the pain within me, impressed in some strange way that I can enact this falsehood in public.
Only I know the lamentable price I pay for playing such a role. The detachment is only possible because the grief is too personal and explosive to share.
As time goes by, I am better prepared to assess the use of a “yes” response. Will this person ever know the truth? “Yes” allows me the privilege of not having to provide an introduction to my grief.
The delay is causing the stranger to become restless; the interchange to which they have invited me has extended beyond their expectations. The response is not expected to have any great impact on their lives, other than the boost from what is sure to be a happy response. Why would someone hesitate to share their joy?
If I answer “no,” I must explain my firstborn. On bad days, this explanation has kept me from leaving the house or answering the phone.
As my explanation unfolds, the stranger will show uncensored shock and disbelief. The surprise of having bad news relayed where only good news was thought to be often leads to even more personal and pressing questions.
The stranger will be ashamed at having brought up such an unhappy topic, and in their embarrassment they will ask questions that will only add to my pain.
Like a person being fired upon, I will answer these questions, but the answers will not be welcome.
The answers only confirm a tragedy that the stranger will not want to accept, and I will witness their struggle as they search for a sympathetic response.
If only they could just say they’re sorry. I become tragedy personified. My personality and identity fades for the stranger, and I am now “the woman whose baby died.”
Answering “yes” or “no” becomes an issue of self-preservation.
“Yes” is used on the days when I cannot face sharing my grief with a stranger, so I hold it inside.
“No” happens when I am able to cope with the pain, and saying it is often redeeming, but not without a price. Either way there is no right or wrong answer, only the one that I need to use.
The real answer lies in the compassion of a stranger to respect the hesitation in a pregnant woman’s reply.
Time heals – for the most part that is true – but I will not forget, nor would I wish to. To forget would mean never recognizing a time when I, too, would initiate a conversation with a pregnant woman by asking her if it was her first; a time of innocence when I never considered the unthinkable in relation to such a happy event.
I envy the stranger’s innocence. My firstborn taught me that once innocence is lost, it cannot be regained; but it can be treasured and revered whether I answer “yes” or “no.”
Sandi Duyvewaardt lives in North Vancouver.
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