The usual elevator awkwardness was particularly irksome that day. I adjusted my purse and glanced at my phone as if I had some desperately urgent message just arriving, trying to pass the time between floor one and floor four. The woman across from me held a glaringly pink baby carrier with the most beautiful baby girl peeking out from a sea of rosy, pink blanket softness. The baby couldn’t have been more than four or five months old and had just a touch of light brown hair with the biggest, brightest blue eyes.
I shouldn’t have looked. Looking prompted me to smile at the baby. I couldn’t resist. Who could have? But, smiling at her triggered that thing that exists in every mother–the desire to connect with other moms. My mouth spoke, and regret immediately washed over me, as I asked, “What’s her name? She’s beautiful. She reminds me of one of my babies.”
The woman replied, “Ellie. She has decided not to nap so far today, but it hasn’t caught up to her yet.”
And then it happened. She asked me the question–the one dreaded by all of us loss moms.
“How many little ones do you have?”
If it is possible for time to stand still, I am quite sure it does, every time the question is asked of me. I suddenly find my brain and my heart in a horribly uncomfortable tug-of-war, and I worry the person standing before me can glimpse a hint of the gruesome, invisible battle that is unfolding within me. The victor of that battle depends on the day. The hour. The minute. The second.
On this particular day, my heart won the battle. My brain put up a good fight, though. It charged ahead with all the usual thoughts:
This stranger doesn’t want to know about your loss.
It will make her uncomfortable, especially when she has a little one about the same age as your baby was when she died.
Just say five and leave it at that.
But my heart–my heart just couldn’t be defeated. There was no way it was letting my brain win because that would mean omitting her.
And how could I ever do that? When parents send children off to college, they don’t stop counting that child. So why should I not count my daughter just because she now lives in Heaven? She’s still my daughter, after all. And I know I will see her and hold her again someday. We are separated physically, but it is temporary.
After what seemed like an eternal pause to me, I politely smiled and answered the woman.
“I have six children, but one of them now lives in Heaven.”
Then came the response loss moms know all too well. The sideways head tilt. The sudden transformation of a smiling face into one that looks like it just spotted a shivering lost puppy, standing in the cold rain. And then the look was attached to an emphatic and seemingly rehearsed, “I’m so sorry.”
For a moment, I felt sorry that I’d brought an unpleasantness to what had been a friendly, casual conversation. I quickly moved along by saying the customary “thank you” and trying to make the woman feel better. I told her the ages of my other children, and then the elevator door opened just as I was finishing. The woman and I smiled at each other, and I waved at the baby girl as they exited the elevator and headed down the long hallway.
I was then alone in the elevator, enveloped by an eerie emptiness that abruptly brought my thoughts to the undeniable surface.
I tried glancing at my phone, but that didn’t help. I started replaying the encounter in my mind and wondering if I had done the right thing. Should I have just said five kids and gone on with casual chatter?
My baby girl’s face entered my mind–her big, bright blue eyes and her little touch of light brown hair. And I closed my eyes and whispered to her in the empty elevator, “I will never leave you out. I may not always tell every stranger about you, but in my heart, you are always here. I miss you. I love you.”
The elevator stopped and I got out to go on my way, carrying my sweet baby girl in my heart.