When driving to work I’ve been taking alternate routes to navigate around the myriad of potholes. I happened to pass the house of my former employer. He’s a physician and quite a friendly guy. He retired sometime during my tenure at that job. The most poignant moment of our acquaintanceship happened shortly after I started. We were engaging in small talk- the usual question and answer session about where we live, our family life and where we went to school. I noticed that when questioned about the number of kids he had he looked down and paused. Then he returned eye contact and answered “one”. Now I am pretty oblivious to the obvious, I admit, but the subtleties of behavior are like bells and whistles to me. The sadness in his eyes was a profound sadness, a sadness that was integrated into every aspect of his life. I took note, but finding it inappropriate to ask him or anyone else, I let it go. Sometime later, one of my peers informed me that a year earlier his son, and second child, had been in a fatal car accident, an accident caused by a deceptively masqueraded, cracked axle on a car that he had recently bought. To anyone, losing a child is unanticipated and devastating. To this man, losing the child that he considered to be his best friend and the member of a very close knit family, was paralyzing. Supposedly, he fell off the radar for months, leaving his patients to be seen by his overwhelmed business partner. When he finally returned, he would get calls from his wife hysterically crying from the grief that she was unable to endure. It’s a scar for anyone of course. I sensed that the scar was even deeper for this emotionally sensitive man. He would never be the same after that. So when I innocently asked him about his kids, I inadvertently opened a wound that had never healed, the blood oozing slightly more after our conversation. I felt terrible that I had initiated this emotional recall and never asked him about his kids again. I always carried some guilt about it, and blamed myself for being so intrusive.
Years have passed and I have since forgiven myself for stepping into a tumultuous situation. This morning, when driving by his house, I remembered that moment and the grief that swept over his face, and I momentarily grieved for him. How would I represent myself if I were suddenly less a child? If someone asked me how many I had, how does one answer honestly without unraveling an emotional blanket that drapes over every facet of one’s life? You are faced with choosing the pre-calamitous number or the post-calamitous number, both riddled with some truth and some untruth. Either way, you must reconcile your devastation that sits embedded in your very persona. I’m sure this gentleman, with his gentle and sensitive integrity, desperately wanted to spare his cohort the anxiety associated with hearing such heartfelt news as much as sparing himself the retrospection of this life-changing event.
There is definitely no perfect way to approach a predicament like this, and I completely understand why he lied. By so doing, it maintains a light casual conversation and enables all parties to go about their business as usual. Today, I endearingly remember the man that wanted to spare me his grief.