At day care, Charlie has a classmate named Henry. (Actually, he has two named Henry, plus a Ben, a Mateo, an AJ, a Caroline, a Lillian, an Eden, and a Jahsaiah. I am currently taking bets on how long it will be before Jahsaiah defaults to Joe, or goes on some sort of wanton spree because, damn.)
Anyway, Henry's mother is pregnant. The baby is a girl, she told me at our last potluck. "Do you have a name chosen?" I asked. See, I'm absolutely aces at this small-talk-with-pregnant-women thing.
"Oh, we're letting Henry name her," she told me, eloquently rolling her eyes. "Henry has named the baby..."
This is good, y'all.
"Perfect if she wants to be a stripper," drawled another mother.
"Even better," I said, "vice president."
So I go into Charlie's room one morning and he proffers his sock monkey. "This is my baby sister."
"What's her name?" I ask.
"Foxy," he says, the duh unspoken but obvious.
It started a while back. I can trace its origin exactly. It was while we were at my mother's house the week of my father's funeral. Charlie was in the den with his cousins, the youngest of whom asked him, "Don't you want a baby brother or sister?"
Until then, it simply had not occurred to Charlie — beautiful almost-3 narcissist — that it was an option. Since then, he's mentioned it several times, with varying degrees of casualness. Yesterday while we did housework together, he asked over the roar of the vacuum, "Do I have a baby brother?"
Believe me, kid, you'd know it, I thought, turned off the vacuum, and said no.
"Why not?" he asked in the tone he uses every time he's thwarted, an offended, entitled whine that would make me itch to slap him if I weren't such a patient, empathetic, understanding parent, perfect in every way, ideally suited in every particular to raise this miraculous creature.
"You just don't," I told him. "Some people do, like your friend Joseph — he has a new baby brother. Some people have a baby sister. Henry's going to have a baby sister soon, right? But other people don't have a baby brother or sister."
He sat on the back steps to think about that for a few minutes, and I turned the vacuum back on to finish in the hallway. He watched me work for a moment. Then, histrionically — almost-3, remember — he said, "I am so sorry I don't have a baby brother."
Yeah, well, so am I.
I have two brothers myself, one older, one younger. In the first few days after my father's death, my older brother, P., took charge, talking to the police, writing the obituary, calling the insurance company, arranging the funeral service, managing the thousand baffling details that suddenly all must be addressed right this very moment.
This was very much in character for him; he is a person who gets things done, feels his responsibilities keenly, and does not let his family down. It bothered me at the time; the swiftness of it all offended me — like, shouldn't we take a few days to say, Holy shit, what just happened? But that feeling didn't last. It was completely clear that those things did need to be taken care of quickly, and any pique I felt was quickly supplanted by gratitude that he stepped in without a fuss to do what had to be done. I know he was grieving, no less than any of us; that may well be how he dealt with it. Doing something.
When we talked last year about what it could mean to have only one child, many of you said that the idea of losing a parent factored into your feelings about it. That you didn't want your child to be alone in the world when you die, for example. Or that you didn't want your child to have to face the harrowing process of caring for an aging parent without the support of a sibling. Those statements didn't have much meaning for me then, not having experienced any of that yet myself.
Now I understand it better. Watching my brother take care of things, I was acutely aware that every phone call he made was one my mother didn't have to. He did it, I know, for our mother, but he also did it for me, and for our brother, T. He was the one who requested the coroner's report; I was the one who called every night and asked Mom how her day was. Said, "Yeah, I cried today, too."
We each did what we could, what came most easily to us, to help our mother in those terrible days. Between us, I think, it might have been enough.
I can't honestly say that any of this has intensified my desire for another child, a sibling for Charlie, since it was already plenty strong. I am, however, newly aware of that aspect of things, newly appreciative not to be an only child myself. Not to be my mother's only support. Not to have to face the paperwork, the daunting bureaucracy, of a loved one's demise on my own.
My mother, incidentally, is making her own will. She asked me if there were anything of hers I specifically wanted. "Mom," I told her, "there's only one thing I want, but I really, really want it. Please: Make P. your executor."
My friend T. has told me she's glad she has a sister because when their parents die, "she's the only one who'll hurt like I'll hurt." The only one who'll have lost what she's lost.
I think of that, and then I think of something Paul's sister once said, in an attempt to reconcile their differing impressions of childhood: "Each child in a family actually has different parents," depending on many factors. Personality, sex, birth order, parents' age — variable after variable influencing how we all relate.
And both things, I think, are true. My brothers lost the same person I did, the steadfast protector, the frustrated critic, the teacher, the storyteller, the tough act to follow, the man who often asked us, "Have I told you lately how much I love you and how proud I am to be your dad?"
But. We three are different people, requiring different things; in a real sense, we had different fathers — varying, perhaps, in only the details, but I feel the details matter. The hole in my brother's lives has a different shape than the one I feel in mine. They don't hurt quite like I do. No one ever can.
Of course, Charlie will be fine, whatever happens, whether this upcoming cycle gives him his Foxy or not. We all pretty much are, right? Even in deepest sadness. I think — I hope — we don't really miss what we never have. Especially an almost-3 Charlie, who, as he helped me coil the vacuum cord yesterday, just moments after being "so sorry," asked me, in all seriousness, "What is a baby brother?"