That thing my sister said

On Christmas Day, during Christmas dinner, we all toasted absent friends. This of course included Diva, my youngest sister, who was spending Christmas with her father, my ex-step-father. And I remembered that ex-step-father and his partner had announced they were expecting a baby back in July. Or, they had announced it to Diva, who’d told my mother, who then phoned me up at work in a state of cheerful gossipy excitement to tell me all about it, and I had been typically infertile-step-child disgruntled about it, because, frankly, I was instantly consumed with envy, and because, very frankly, I dislike my ex-step-father and though Diva assures me he has mellowed a great deal since, he made my adolescence so almighty fucking miserable I don’t know if I could warm to him if he became the Dalai Lama.

Anyway, because, nevertheless, I am well-bought-up, and because it concerns my beloved Diva finally getting to be a big sister after being the family baby all her life, and because (and I have this in writing, despite disgruntle and envy, see above link-to-post) I wished my ex-step-father’s partner well, and I wanted the baby to be fine, I asked how they all were. Surely the baby was due any minute, if they made the announcement in July?

‘Oh,’ said my mother, ‘that’s not happening any more.’

What? Seriously? Seriously?

I think I said I was so very sorry to hear that, and that my heart went out to ex-step-father and his partner, and then I looked at my plate and tried very hard not to sob right into it, and felt miserably furious with myself for ever having been scathing about and envious of their luck, and, oh, poor Diva, no baby brother or sister for her after all.

Minx, uncertain but curious, being eight, then asked ‘did the baby die?’

And Trouble (my sister her mother), answered ‘well, it wasn’t ever really alive, so it couldn’t’ve died.’

I have a voice, I have been told, of steel and flint, when I am very angry but resolutely trying not to shout. So in my voice of steel and flint, I answered ‘that’s absolutely not for you to say. It’s up to the parents to say if they felt their baby was alive.’

Trouble said, ‘well, that’s debatable.’

‘No, it isn’t,’ I replied, steel and flint now with extra rail-road and don’t-fuck-with-me. ‘At least, not by you. You have no right to decide how people think or feel about their babies.’

And then I ate the rest of my dinner without looking anywhere at all except either at the plate or straight ahead. In case I felt the shoulder-seams of my cardigan tear as my skin flushed bright emerald green.

Trouble deals with being chastised in two ways. Either she bears a grudge and sulks for days before finally breaking out in an impassioned rendition of ‘Nobody loves me, everybody hates me, I think I’ll eat some worms (and die in agony and it’s all your fault)’. Or, she becomes unusually affectionate and good-humoured. I got the affectionate, good-humoured Trouble for the rest of the visit. I can only assume she remembered who exactly she was talking to and decided to let it go as I was clearly a tad unhinged by my own experiences. I can only hope she thought about it and realised I was, actually, right.

Diva’s tiny sibling was alive, because its parents told everyone it was there, and everyone was expecting it to join us. My even tinier, heart-and-nervous-system-free embryos that all tanked before seven weeks, were also alive (if pretty damn watery, bless them) because I knew they were there, and oh, so wanted them to stay. And that’s what matters. And it’s not debatable.


18 responses to “That thing my sister said

  • QoB

    You were and are absolutely right that it’s not for the observer to decide what feelings are valid. The appropriate range of responses to a pregnancy loss announcement go from “I’m so sorry” to “How are you doing?” to perhaps a hug, if wanted and go nowhere near intellectual and scientific debates about what constitutes ‘life’ or at what stage of gestation ‘baby’ is an appropriate word. The only appropriate response is sympathy and empathy and then taking your cue from the people involved.

    Of course there are all kinds of interesting legal, philosophical and scientific arguments to be made about those things (and I have been known to happily engage in them) but there are appropriate times for them.

    How did you get to be so well-brought-up and yet Trouble doesn’t know this?

  • manapan

    Damn right, and very well stated. I’m sorry for them all too.

  • a

    Ouch. I’m glad you have a steely voice to use. It may be too late for Trouble to get the point (although maybe she did), but Minx will definitely be a sensitive soul to her friends who might have issues.

    And watery though they might have been, they were definitely alive.

  • Rachel

    May, I am so sorry. It seems that your family repeatedly downplays what you have been through, and I can only hope that it is through an (entirely stupid and misguided) attempt to make things less awful than they are for both you and them. I am astounded by your patience as I would have promptly exited the table (or thrown something. Or yelled. I’m from a loud family after all).

    • Laurel

      Right on.

      I recently took this training in spiritual care (for people staying at the hospital) and the number one thing I learned, which afterwards I realized I had sort of already known but they made it explicit and put it up front and center, is that the immediate automatic default response for a lot of folks when hearing about trouble and pain is to say “oh, it’s not that bad” to the sufferer in some shape or form; and that they may *think* this is about comforting the afflicted but that in reality it is 100% about making the “comforter” feel less uncomfortable.

      True comfort is giving by acknowledging the deep grief or pain that comes with illness, dying, or death of a person or their loved one. But it is incredibly difficult to confront either and so many people try to palm it off with “you’ll be okay” or “it wasn’t that big a deal”.

      You did not only the right thing but a great thing by calling her out on it. Maybe she’ll have gained a little extra insight into how life might be for others.

      I can’t remember if you wrote this or if I’m just imagining it, but has there been a hint that Minx was unexpected for Trouble, or that Trouble was a young mother? I wonder if that puts an even greater divide between you two on this topic than might otherwise exist.

  • Amy P

    I would’ve either bit my tongue bloody or been shaking as responded (more like the tongue-biting, with Minx present, as when I get shaking-mad, volume is uncontrollable…)


  • Betty M

    She is lucky she only got the voice rather than the fists of steel. I get she might not have wanted to do an entire lesson on reproduction etc over Christmas dinner but seriously? Words fail.

  • Jenny F. Scientist, PhD

    Appropriate things Trouble could have said : “Yes” ; “Yes, they are very sad” ; “The baby stopped growing (factually correct, if evasive)” ; “Minx, we will talk about it later, honey.” Inappropriate: anything else.

    Oy gevalt.

  • Emily Erin

    You handled it beautifully. I’m sorry that you had to, and I am sorry for your ex-step-father’s family. Hugs to you for dealing with it, and may the conversation cause Trouble to think a bit before she speaks next time. UG.

  • katyboo1

    Good for you for being steely. You are right. All mine were alive and I lost them at about the same gestational time you lost yours. I always think of them as my children, and I always will, and nobody but nobody gets to stand in judgement over me about that. I’m glad you did not stab her in the eye with your fork, because she is your sister after all. I admire your restraint. x

  • thalia

    Ugh. Trouble with a capital T. Well done you.

  • bumbling

    *sigh*. And, well, I’m just not sure what else to say.

    To absent loved ones x

  • Melissia

    I am so sorry that you had to endure such thoughtless comments, and so glad for Minx that she has you to model compassion and caring.

  • wombattwo

    Big sigh…
    I am so glad you have a steely voice to use. I hope she’ll remember this and think twice in future. I’m in awe, I probably would have hidden under the table and burst into tears!
    And of course your babies were alive. Of course they were.
    Sympathies to Diva’s father and his woman – even if unlikeable, nobody should have to go through this.

  • twangy

    Oh man, but I have had plenty of reason to observe recently: aren’t people just bizarro? Why the need to measure out a bit of basic empathy so meanly with a eye-dropper? And the inability to make the leap and just be able to say: No, I don’t know what that is like, but I can imagine enough to feel an iota of compassion. It doesn’t actually COST anything! It’s not a scale! It’s not a competition!

    Anyway. Not to rant! I am sorry the need to get green and bursty arose at all. And so sorry for the bereaved parties, for that is a unique and painful loss.

  • Valery Valentina

    My admiration for your steel and flint. It has taken me many days of wanting to comment, of trying to find words. But there is something about 2012 that is not helping.
    I’ve made a picture for you instead. Have to find the right cable and will mail it to you then.

  • Amy

    Damn straight, and good for you and thank you for saying so.

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