It was less than 24 hours after being told that my husband had a brain tumor that someone first said those words to me. I remember it vividly. I was standing outside of Travis’ tiny ER room, a roughly 12×12 prison cell that he was sharing with a lady who was having some severe intestinal difficulty, trying to find some breathable air. A doctor came by and asked me if anyone had spoken to me in a while. I said “no,” and so he proceeded to run through the details of the death sentence that Travis was facing once again, this time suggesting that it might be best to just take him home to die.
A woman who had been walking by stopped and listened intently to every word he was saying. She gasped and covered her mouth with her left hand while shifting an unlit cigarette into her right. As the doctor walked away she wrapped her arms around me and started crying. She smelled like a mix of stale coffee, alcohol, cigarette smoke, and hairspray. She was tethered to an IV pole and had failed to fully close her gown following a trip to the bathroom. While she attempted to comfort me, I gagged a little from the smell and wondered if she’d washed her hands.
She asked me the two questions that I get most often from people who meet Travis and me as a couple for the first time – How long have you been together? And Do you have any children? The second question is an obvious follow-up to hearing that we’ve been together for 10 years, married for 5. I mean, I assumed we’d have kids by now so why shouldn’t everyone else in society?
With cancer entering the conversation this line of questioning has changed dramatically. I used to respond to this question by saying something like “not yet,” or “we’d like to,” or even just “someday,” with the goal being to signal that this was something we wanted but that maybe you shouldn’t dig too deeply into our personal struggles with conceiving. Now, with so much uncertainty hanging over our future, I often pause and hesitate when faced with the dreaded kid question.
The smelly drunk lady in the ER was just the first of many people to take this line of questioning down an incredibly painful path. She talked about some guy she knew who had cancer, her own kids whom she sometimes wished she’d never had, and about how she only got to party on weekends when their dad “had to take them.” When she finally got the hint, that I didn’t feel much like talking, she gave me one last hug and said those fateful words “well, at least you don’t have children,” as she walked away to sleep it off in her cell some 15 feet away. I’ve heard those same words, or some variation, so many times in the past 18 months that I’ve lost count.
What she and others don’t know is that right around the time we were in the hospital receiving the devastating news of Travis’ cancer, we were supposed to be there for another, happier reason. After years of struggling to conceive, we were supposed to be welcoming the baby that I miscarried earlier that year.
I would be lying if I said that I myself hadn’t thought about how much more challenging the past 18 months would have been if there had been an infant in the mix. The words “at least I don’t have a baby to deal with” have even entered my own mind from time to time. But the comfort of knowing that I am not responsible for a tiny human life at a time when there are so many other things on my plate, is always quickly replaced by the crippling devastation that comes with knowing that we lost someone that we so desperately wanted to be a part of our lives.
But I won’t use this forum to lecture anyone on the finer points of comforting those who are grieving a loss. Newsflash, we’re all really bad at it. Even if you think you’re good at it, I promise you’re not, and that doesn’t make you a bad person. You meant well when you told your friend that God would never give them more than they could handle, that their loved one was in a better place, or that you could never be as strong as they are.
This is national infertility awareness week and so I hope this post raises some awareness of the struggles that so many couples face while they are trying to grow their family. I don’t want you to stop posting your baby shower photos, although I’ll admit that sometimes they may make me feel sad. I don’t even mind that you made that April fools pregnancy joke, it wasn’t funny because it’s not very original, but it didn’t hurt me. I don’t have a problem with you complaining about your kids being the terrible little monsters that I know they can be, and so I won’t lecture you about appreciating the fact that you were able to create life.
So why raise awareness of infertility, or anything else for that matter? Well, I think we’re just better people when we take the time to consider the daily struggles of those around us. That’s it, just be considerate. Do more listening than speaking if you don’t have something constructive to add to a particular conversation. And know that when you do say something ridiculous in an effort to comfort a person who is struggling or grieving, we will talk about you and make jokes about your attempt to console us in an effort to help us get through the day (so, thank you for that). And at whatever point you are struggling and I say something stupid and inconsiderate to you, I hope you can forgive me and find a way to laugh about it.