by Becky De Oliveira—
Seven months pregnant with my first child, I found myself cornered in a shopping center in Watford, England, by an elderly woman who wanted to talk.
“Do you know whether it’s a girl or a boy?” the woman asked, reaching out to pat my tummy.
“Boy!” I said. “At least that’s what they tell me. The sonographer said she was ninety-nine percentsure.”
“I have four girls,” the woman said. She was small, stooped, with glasses on the end of her nose and big green button earrings. “Didn’t have much luck with boys. My first pregnancy was a boy. The umbilical cord wrapped around his neck and he died.”
I wasn’t sure what to say; I frowned and murmured sympathetically. The woman went on. “After my first two girls were born, I became pregnant with another boy. Same thing happened. Umbilical cord around the neck. He died too.”
“That’s horrible,” I said. “I’m so sorry.”
The woman waved her hand dismissively. “It’s a long time ago now, dear. But you see,”—and at this point the woman moved in closer to whisper conspiratorially—“sometimes, the thing you fear most, it happens!” She was South African, so she said it “heppens.” Somehow, that pronunciation made the word scarier. My stomach tightened and I felt light-headed.
“No,” I said. “That’s not how the saying goes. It’s: ‘Most of what you worry about never happens anyway.’”
“Rubbish!”the woman said. “The thing you fear most happens all the time.” She patted my shoulder. “Good luck, dear.”
Of course she was right: tragic things do happen all the time, possibly to people who have rightly dreaded them all their lives. Even so, as the woman walked away, I felt a wave of indignation at her tactlessness. “What an awful woman,” I thought. As if I didn’t already have plenty of my own worries and fears. I had stopped reading books like What to Expect When You’re Expectingmonths before the birth because upsetting chapters kept me awake, hyperventilating, at night. I didn’t want anyone telling me anything like the truth—not if the truth was scary or depressing or gross. Not even if it was someone else’s truth, really having nothing whatsoever to do with me. “Can you believe what this crazy woman said to me when I was pregnant?” I’ve raged to various people over the years—until recently when I thought of something I’d never considered before.
My grandmother was famous for saying, anytime a subject arose that she didn’t wish to discuss, “It’s too nice a day to talk about that.” And let’s face it: most days are too nice to talk about dead babies or child abuse or illness or infidelity, and yet there is never a day so nice that it holds these horrors back, stopping them from flooding people’s lives. These things happen; why is it not OK to talk about them? Why are those who break conversational taboos considered, at best, rude and, more frequently, a little crazy?
Granted, it’s somewhat tactless to approach a pregnant stranger and tell her horror stories about dead babies, but I don’t think this woman shared her loss with me for my benefit. She’d probably been muzzled all her life: by people who were bored of her pain, people who wanted her to “get over it.” She too had probably, at one point, believed that “most of what you worry about never happens anyway,” and she couldn’t understand how that foolproof talisman—worrying—hadn’t worked in her case.
People complain all the time about the stock phrases “How are you?” and “I’m fine”—how rote and meaningless they are—but we aren’t real keen on anyone breaking the established conversational protocol. We don’t want to hear anything like the truth, even if it has nothing to do with us, even if it might help the owner of that truth to have said it out loud and, in doing so, to have banished some of the fear and dread that cling to it.
Often, I think we dislike frankness—the abandoning of the social script—because we don’t know how to respond to it. What on earth are you supposed to say when your friend tells you she was abused by her uncle as a child, that her husband is an internet porn addict, or that her child has a learning disability and may not finish school? We tend to think people confide such things in us because they are hoping for solutions. So we offer advice. We tell them to forget about the uncle. It was years ago. Doesn’t matter anymore.We point out that the problem could be worse: At least your husband isn’t having an affair. At least your child doesn’t have cancer.We encourage them to look for lessons. Think of everything you’ve learned from this experience.The person on the receiving end of such advice is frustrated. What he wants is for someone to acknowledge that life isn’t fair, that he had a right to his hopes and a right to mourn his loss.
We’d all be better off if we said the truth more often. First of all, we’d realize that unhappiness, disappointment, and tragedy are not uniquely ours. Everyone has problems. Everyone has made mistakes, been occasionally (or often) stupid. Everyone has terrors they won’t speak aloud for fear of summoning them. Yet we choose to hide, we put on a “brave face,” we call ourselves “private people” as if that’s a moniker to wear with pride.
I wish I’d listened more closely to the woman in the shopping center, maybe asked her some questions rather than judging her harshly. She would have benefited from the chance to talk, if only briefly, and I would have had a glimpse through a window into a whole other world. That’s what every conversation is: it’s a chance to look at another person and ask, “Who are you?” There are infinite answers to that question; every one of them a tiny universe, forever expanding, filling the void.
Becky De Oliveira is a doctoral student at the University of Northern Colorado, studying research methods. She also has several jobs in teaching, writing, editing, graphic design, consulting, and podcasting. She does special projects for the Pacific Union Conference.