Caught Off Guard, or Variations on Familiar Questions

By Sara Barry

“And are your kids healthy?”

Thankfully I was still clothed when she asked me, not sitting awkwardly on the crinkly paper at the end of a table with a gown tied in the back and a drape spread over my lap. Even so, the question caught me off guard.

Subconsciously, perhaps I had expected something, but this was a new variation on “Three kids must keep you busy” or “How old are your kids?” or “Boys or girls?” The answers to the latter two are in my medical record, though you may need a little bit of math to figure it out.

So I was sitting on a chair, vinyl padded, I think. The questions were routine for the most part. My myomectomy, c-sections. She puzzled over the way they were written in my record, and I clarified that there were three.

“And are you kids healthy?”

Deep in the bowels of my records, there should be a note that Henry died. If nothing else, a letter I wrote about my experience to help ease the transition to a new OB/Gyn years before, but perhaps when they were copying things that got let go. Or perhaps the person doing intake wasn’t privy to those things or hadn’t bothered to read. It’s a thick packet. Not nearly as thick as Henry’s was, but thick enough.

For her the question is routine, one more thing showing up her screen. A quick yes or no check box. For me the question is . . . charged.

I got really still. I held my breath and then took a deep one. My lips turned in as my brain set up barriers to keep me from lying back in the hospital bed while he was taken away, keep me out of the NICU, the slow tick-tock stillness of the waiting room when he had surgery, the shock of his ambulance ride, the tangle of tubes and cords around him as he turned blue, holding his foot as they tried one last time to save him.

My lips turned in to that pursed place they do when I am holding it together and they caught on my teeth. Tears welled up into my eyes and nose. It’s probably good they got my blood pressure already.

My brain supplies the facts: Down syndrome, heart problem. It fumbles with the word defect and A-V canal, terms that had learned to trip off my tongue. I am out of practice. I pull out pulmonary hypertension, I say he died at 6 ½ months or maybe I round and say simply as a baby.

She says, “I’m sorry” without looking at me.

She fumbles with her keyboard. “It won’t let me enter this.” His death becomes a technical issue to solve. Eventually she is able to start typing. “You said Down syndrome?”

“Yes.” I don’t say the rest. I don’t say died again. She doesn’t need more information. I wonder if died got in there or if they’ll ask about my son with Down syndrome and the heart problem next time.

“My girls are healthy,” I add almost as an after thought. I don’t know if that goes into my record either.

It’s not really an afterthought. I am grateful for their health. People make sure to remind me to be, as if I wouldn’t be, as if, because I talk about Henry’s struggles and about my experience with him that I don’t see how lucky I am. I love their vitality and vibrancy. I feel the rise and fall of their breath when I check on them at night, smile at their laughter and antics. I am aware. I am grateful. I never seem to make it clear that it’s an and. I am thankful each day for their lives and health and I miss Henry. I long for his potential. I wonder who he would be.

She doesn’t notice that I have retracted, that there are tears in my eyes. She doesn’t offer me a tissue from the box hiding behind her laptop. She just asks the rest of the questions and I answer.

Yes, yes, yes, no, yes. I talk about my dad’s high blood pressure and my mom being pretty healthy, taking deep breaths all the while.

It’s been 10 years. It shouldn’t be a big deal any more, right? And day to day, it isn’t. But sometimes a question catches me off guard. Sometimes I have to say it again: my son died.

And ten years later, people, too often, still look away, change the subject, gloss over. We don’t know how to talk about death. We don’t know how to deal with it. I didn’t need to say a whole lot about it. But I wish she had looked me in the eye when she said sorry. I wish we could have paused just a moment to acknowledge that something big had happened.

She finished up her questions. I was polite and wished her a good day as she left. Then before I stripped my clothes off, I grabbed my own tissue, wiped my eyes and nose. Then I put the gown on, ties in the back, and just managed to get on the table before a knock on the door.

There are no more questions about my children. We talk about me. My overall health. Tests I’ve had or hadn’t. My diet. Perimenopause. Fibroids. It was my first time with this provider. It was a good visit . . . and what I remember most was that question.

***

I’ve been back to that office once since this experiences, and there were no surprises this time, no questions that caught me off guard. I’m more adept these days at handling even the surprising questions, but I remember how very hard they were in the first few years.

What questions have caught you off guard? How did you respond, and how did you deal with the emotional surge of the question?