I’ve reached the point where I have a stock reply when people ask if I have children: “Not yet.” It’s simple, straightforward and conveys my intention to be a parent. Most people who ask me don’t know about my cancer history, so even though I always feel my heart sink a bit each time I hear the question, I don’t begrudge people for asking.
Today, I had the unexpected experience of someone taking this otherwise innocuous question to another level. In court this afternoon, I found myself in a sidebar conversation with two other attorneys and the master presiding in the courtroom. We were discussing a case involving a father of advanced years who had produced a child with a much younger woman with a long drug history (and 8 other children whom she had not raised.) The conversation was somewhat pointless, as the master had already rendered her decision, and it mostly involved the parties involved discussing the burdens of child rearing.
At one point, for no discernable reason, the master looked at me smiling and said, “Do you have children?”
I offered my stock reply. “Not yet.”
She persisted, leaning forward from the bench and staring deliberately at my belly.
“Any coming?” she asked.
I was stunned, and felt my face flush as my mind raced to images of tumbleweeds blowing through my abdomen. I began walking away, laughing nervously.
“No,” I said simply.
All I could do was shake my head.
First, I kicked myself. Why didn’t I just shoot back: “Actually, yes. My husband and I are waiting to adopt, and one day soon we’ll welcome a beautiful new-born baby into our home.” Why did I freeze?
I quickly realized that not every moment is a “teaching moment.” It’s not always appropriate to try and educate people about your specific circumstances, or the fact that something they’ve just said might be hurtful, or offensive, in light of those circumstances.
But then I stop again: why do we always have to hold our tongues, and make excuses for the people who offend us, and refrain from vocalizing the hurt that people inflict when they make assumptions, or ignore the possibilities of a reality beyond their own limited experience? I don’t really feel like I should be charged with enlightening people – attorneys, no less, who work in family court, and see adoptions happening every day – about the fact that there is more than one way to be an expectant parent. But the truth is, I am tired of falling mute, of feeling smothered by the pain of my cancer experience and everything it has stolen from me, at the moments when I most need to cry out and be heard.
Perhaps the next time I find myself in one of these awkward situations, I’ll have the presence of mind, and balance of emotion, to offer a simple explanation of my status as a waiting parent. The trick, I guess, is separating that fact from the memories of the illness that brought me to this place. That’s the place where I get tripped up, where the legacy of my cancer pulls most forcefully at my heart.
In a wonderful bit of cosmic synergy, later in the day, after this bizarre interlude, I shared messages with a bunch of members of my young adult cancer posse about the upcoming film “50/50,” about a young man diagnosed with cancer. For the first time in our lifetimes, a major film has been made about our experience. We’re all unique, having endured different variations on the main theme of being young and facing cancer. But there’s a universality to what we’ve been through that draws us all together, and particularly when there’s a chance for a wider, non-cancer audience to get a taste of what we’ve all been through, there’s a sense of cohesion and community that sustains and uplifts me.
Especially on days like today.