Other People’s Pain
One of my husband’s colleagues is in town for a conference, and last night he came over for dinner. We were having a normal kind of chat; you know, sex, politics, religion. Then the colleague asked if the station wagon in the driveway was mine. When we told him it was my husband’s, he looked confused. “I thought you had a boxster or something,” he said. We explained how I’d forced the hubs to trade in his sporty car for a dad mobile and the colleague laughed. He said the car he really wants only has two doors, and his wife won’t let him get it because they are trying to have kids.
I began salivating emotionally, like a lion who smells a wounded wildebeest.
Now, to be fair, I didn’t know the colleague was wounded. I only knew that he mentioned my favorite (or least favorite, or at least most consuming) subject of the last few years: trying to make another human being. The conversation was moving too quickly for me to zero in, so I waited until the next time my husband went to the kitchen before I pounced.
“So,” I said, you guys are trying to have kids?” My eyes were shining with enthusiasm. That’s so great! I wanted to say. That’s so exciting! I was so proud of myself. Finally, for the first time, I could be happy that someone was trying. Look at me not shying away from the subject! Look at me being NORMAL!
“Yeah,” he said, and he hesitated. Still I somehow suspected nothing. “We actually had our first setback recently. D was 16 weeks. It happened about 3 weeks ago.”
And all of a sudden I was the person I never want to be, the person I have come across so many times–the one poking directly into someone’s deepest wound. Fishing around for scraps of bone, breaking scabs, draining blood.
“Oh God,” I said. “I am so sorry.”
He was open to talking about it, a little. But as I was trying to listen and nod empathetically, I could only thing one thing: I’ll be 16 weeks on Thursday.
What happened? I wanted to ask. Actually, I wanted to scream it hysterically. What happened? What went wrong?? What were the signs??? What should I look for???? What can I do?????
And: This isn’t supposed to happen. She was supposed to be past the point of danger. I am supposed to be past the point of danger.
I was quick to tell the colleague our story: the losses, the years, the IVFs. I wanted him to know we weren’t just regular, fertile assholes. I wanted him to know that he wasn’t alone.
He said with a grimace, deep lines around his tired eyes, “Everyone has something.”
And I realized that he was alone, in the way we are all alone. In the way that our universal pain is always tinged with a personal flavor. Loss is loss. And our losses are our losses. It knits us together and keeps us apart.
Maybe one of the greatest gifts we can give another person is their suffering–without trying to fix it or make it go away.
Maybe it’s one of the greatest gifts we can give ourselves.