One of the most innocuous conversation wasters there is… small talk… chit chat.
I always wear my wedding band. That’s a sign I’m married. I’m 47 years old. That’s a sign I might have kids. So sometimes, just to be polite or pass the time people will ask.
Do you have children?
Who knew this simple question would become so painful
I had three. I have two now, I guess, or maybe I have 3, 2 on earth and one in heaven, 2 living and 1 deceased. I don’t know.
Let’s settle on I had 3 for now. Maybe that’s my answer, but it’s not for everyone. That’s the answer for people with whom I’m prepared to share my story. It won’t be the conversation they thought, I’ll need time and I need to be prepared to give them all the details.
But it’s not for the lady in the grocery line, or on the subway is it?
If I just say 3 then there’s the next question. How old?
Kata is 10. Drew is 15. Kevin WAS 21 when he died in a car accident 4 months ago.
In July Kata will turn 11, in September Drew will turn 16, later that same month Kevin WOULD HAVE turned 22. What then? Is Kev 22? Is it “Kev WOULD HAVE been 22”, is it “Kev is forever 21”? Tenses were never my strong suit.
To date I’ve answered “the question” with a quick “2” if it’s a casual encounter. Things are still way too raw for a detailed discussion with some stranger. Is that a betrayal? I’m not sure, but I think my wife thinks so. When we’ve been together and “the question” has been asked she gives me a look of panic silently asking me to answer. When I’ve blurted out the easy answer her look is pained. Not angry, just pained.
I do have some history that relates to this. Kevin, technically was (is?) my stepson. Now the truth is I never thought of him that way. He was just my oldest. That’s all, no more, no less. His father was involved in his life, and Kev spent time at his father’s house but I never felt that made our relationship different than my relationships with Drew and Kata. Our relationship was a little more complicated that’s all. We never really talked about it. It just worked. He called me Gary, or Gar-Bear (Thanks Wedding Crashers), not dad. That was never awkward, just kind of how things were. Drew has adopted the Gar-Bear thing too. It was never disrespectful, more affectionate than anything so I’m OK with it.
But how should I introduce him? That was always the question. More often than not he was just my son. I didn’t really like “step” anyway, it always kind of stuck in my throat. This could however create a silly awkward moment.
Many years ago at my twentieth High School reunion I was sitting with Mark, one of the guys I used to hang out with, and his wife. We were sharing kid pics and Mark mentioned how much Kevin looked like me. Lisa and I chuckled and explained. Mark and his wife then chuckled and explained that his daughter was also, technically, his stepdaughter. So I guess I wasn’t the only one.
Around the house Kev was usually “The Big One”, Drew was “The Middle One” or “The Younger Son” and Kata “The Girl” or “The Little One”.
Sometimes there was a “need to know”. A coach or a school would call and the different last names were obvious. I guess I should apologize to the one or two coaches who called and asked if Mr. Mc____ was there. I probably could have been a little more understanding about that, instead of just saying “no” and leaving them hanging there. It wasn’t very nice, I apologize.
I guess that’s the point. When there was a need to know, or a closer relationship, the full explanation could happen, but that would take time. But for the casual observer Kevin was just my son, or my oldest.
In either case it seems as if the full explanation would require more time than a brief encounter would offer. The difference is leaving “step” off never felt wrong; in fact it actually felt like a truer reflection of our family dynamic than anything else.
OK. Now that I’ve had time to think about this I know the right answer is “3”, now and forever.
So what about the follow-up?
Right now, today, 10, 15 and 21 roll off my lips, but what about next year, or five years from now?
In 2017 does Drew “pass” his older brother?
This may seem trivial to you if you’re not a bereaved parent, but it’s a way more fundamentally difficult question that you can imagine. We don’t always want to share the most painful thing that’s ever happened to us with a stranger; on the other hand we want to honor and respect our lost child. It’s neither simple nor easy.
Will Kevin grow older in my minds eye? Will I dream of him as a 45 year old man? I don’t really know the answer, but I know he hasn’t stopped being my son. I fact I feel his “son-ness” with an intensity that I never felt before. We just don’t have language for this. You can be a “widow” or an “orphan” and tell your story in one word. But how do I explain “well, I have a stepson, who I helped raise from when he was two and two biological children, but they were all my kids and the oldest, who technically was my stepson, but always felt like my son, died at 21 because he and his friend were stupid one night”.
We don’t have a word or a phrase for that.