I’m in the kitchen doing the dishes. It’s that hour just after the kids wake from their naps. I spent their naptime working and am now desperately hoping they’ll entertain themselves for a bit while I try to fit in a few household chores.
Then I overhear my three-year-old son Jackson say to his 17-month-old sister, “This is a perfect time to spend time with you, Ada!” She replies gleefully, “Yeah!” even though I doubt she understood the sentence. I look over and see the two of them on the couch, huddled under a huge fleece blanket that usually lives on my son’s bed.
Then, later in the day, I hear my daughter say, “Dat-sen!” It is the first time she has ever remotely clearly articulated her brother’s name. The sound is so precious to me that I make her say it again. And again. And again.
Of course, between these moments came all the other things you’d expect from siblings who are just about two years apart. Tug-of-war over the blanket under which they were just snuggling. Screaming from the little one when the bigger one wins the tug-of-war. Shouts of “MINE!” reverberating through the house.
I have learned to cherish all of it, the heart-melting moments and the crazy-making ones, because they have not been easy to come by.
I grew up with three half-siblings, all from my mother’s first marriage, and all significantly older than I. I never had playmates in my house as a child, and by the time I was ten, I lived alone with my parents in our house. And while I am closer to two of my siblings now than ever, we are still not what most people would characterize as “close”—we talk infrequently and see each other even less. When I married my husband, I was determined that my children would have a different experience—we hoped for three kids, fairly close together.
Fate had other plans, as fate so often does.
We had our first, Hudson, two years after we married, and when she was about 15 months old, we started thinking about trying for a younger sibling for her, shooting to have them two to two and a half years apart. And then, catastrophe.
Hudson was struck with a very sudden bacterial meningitis infection and died after a short stay in the ICU. And we were no longer thinking about a brother or sister for her, but about another child that would become the oldest, but would really never be the oldest. During the early days after Hudson died, I didn’t know if I could even think about that child, but we knew that while our plan for our family had been most horribly and irrevocably altered by fate, we still wanted to move forward with it, mangled as it was.
We got pregnant about three months later, and our son Jackson was born just eleven days after the one-year anniversary of Hudson’s death. Though that time was so fraught with every possible emotion, Jackson’s birth finally shone some light into some corners that had been so dark ever since Hudson’s death.
Again, we thought we’d start trying for another child when Jackson was about one. Again, we were interrupted. When Jackson was nine months old, I discovered a lump on my neck that turned out to be cancer—Hodgkin lymphoma, to be precise. Just when we were finally going to embark on our journey to two living children, two living siblings, we faced a future where that might never happen. There was a chance—a small one, but still a chance, and odds had not been good to us—that I would die. There was also a chance, still a small one, that I might not be able to have kids after the chemo. Not wanting to get two years down the road and wish we’d done otherwise, Ed and I preserved six embryos before I began treatment.
A few days after my first chemotherapy treatment, we were on an outing with Jackson and passed a very kind older couple who stopped to coo over him. The wife asked me how old he was, and I told her he would be one in just under two weeks. “He’s ready for a little brother or sister!” her husband said jovially. His wife chided him a touch, knowing that this was a rather personal suggestion in any event, but not knowing that he’d just dropped a giant emotional bomb. “Yep! Yep!” I said, and beelined away from there as fast as I could. When I got far enough away, I punched my fist in the air as hard as I could and shouted, “YES! YES, HE IS!” realizing that part of me had actually wanted to punch that man in the face himself. In the span of a second after he said that Jackson was ready for a brother or sister, I thought, “HE ALREADY DOES HAVE A SISTER! SHE DIED! AND I’M SUPPOSED TO BE PREGNANT RIGHT NOW! BUT I HAVE CANCER! SO JUST. SHUT. THE. FUCK. UP!”
I went through four months of chemo and achieved complete remission by mid-August. My periods stopped completely during this time—I was essentially menopausal and terrified that it might be permanent. On my oncologist’s recommendation, we waited a month before trying to get pregnant again, just to be sure that all the chemo was out of my system. Much to my great relief, we found ourselves pregnant just a few months later, and our daughter Ada was born the following August.
Ada was a challenging baby, easily the most challenging of the three, made all the more so by the fact that she was our third. We thought we had the infant parenting thing down pat, only to discover that we knew nothing about this particular baby. Unlike her older siblings, who were generally pretty laid back, she was fussy and difficult to soothe, and she went through a stretch between the ages of four and nine months where she was up for hours in the middle of the night, rejecting any and all attempts to get her back to sleep. It was during this time that we decided we were not going to have another child. Despite our long-time plans to have three children, and our desire still to have three living children, we both began to feel we might not be up for another one, especially another year of infancy.
And then she turned a bit of a corner, started to chill out a bit, and we started to think about how fast that first year goes, and that if we could just get through it, having three living kids was still what we wanted in the long run. We agonized over the decision for several months and ultimately let fate decide. Which meant we were going to get pregnant again. And we did. Again in December, with another August due date.
It was my great fortune to have had three uncomplicated pregnancies and deliveries. I had no reason to expect anything different from the fourth. Ever since Hudson died, I had stopped believing in the idea of keeping pregnancy a secret until it was “safe,” so we started telling people not long after that first positive test.
And just a little before six weeks, I had some spotting. It came and went. I checked in with the OB and saw the baby’s heartbeat on two different occasions a week apart. The spotting seemed to have resolved. And then it began again. And it was more like real bleeding. And I went to the OB again at nine weeks and discovered that the baby had died, probably within a day of the last time I’d seen its heart beating a week before.
So here we are. Seven years, four pregnancies, and still only two living kids to show for it.
We have been so lucky getting pregnant—I’ll always be grateful for that good fortune. But when I lost this last pregnancy, I couldn’t help feeling . . . what, betrayed, perhaps, by the universe? Again? It’s not that I believe we are immune to tragedy—how could I possibly believe that? But these roadblocks thrown in our path each time we try to add another child to our family begin to feel like too much.
I have no idea whether we’ll ever manage to add a third living child to the chaos of our household. So when I heard my two living children playing so sweetly together, when I heard my younger daughter say her big brother’s name for the first time, it brought me to my knees. Those moments were so hard-earned, and I was so grateful for them.
And in the next moment, when they were screaming at each other and at me, I was grateful, too. Mind you, I wanted to pull my hair out and down a glass of wine at the same time, but holy shit, I was grateful. One Good Thing about the sound of my kids fighting is that they even have each other to fight with.