The Heartbreak of ‘How Are The Kids?’
“How are the kids?” asks my dentist as I reposition limbs to recline on his chair for my bi-annual teeth-cleaning.
“Fine, thanks.” (Well, that would be “kid” not “kids” and I’m not sure how “fine” she is, but I don’t want to get into that now.)
“So how old are they?”
“Nine and 13.” (Actually while my younger daughter is 9, Natasha was 12 when she died, but 13 if she were still with us.)
“Thirteen, huh? She’s probably starting to like the boys!”
“Yeah!” (Oh, I wish she were here with us and “liking” the boys, or the girls –- that would have been great, too.)
“Open wide, please.”
But it’s too late. I’m welled-up with renewed “if only,” as my dentist begins to scrape the detritus off my teeth. “You OK?” he says, when he notices a tear trickling down a flushed cheek.
“Yes, fine. Just my contacts bothering me,” I splutter between pokes from dental weaponry.
Our conversation hits an extended hiatus as the dentist pursues the laborious scraping of my teeth, working his way from molars to canines and incisors, back to molars, then down to the lower jaw and repeat. I’m grappling with wildly disparate unpleasant feelings: mild discomfort at the contortions required of my mouth to accommodate the instruments used to pick at my teeth; concern for my dentist, who is mistakenly concerned that he is hurting me; but mainly the emotional maelstrom unleashed from that everyday pleasantry: “How are the kids.” How I loved having two kids. How I loved being Natasha’s mother. How I ache for the daughter that I lost.
One hour later I am in my car. I rest my hot face on the steering wheel. My head is throbbing. I have Tylenol at home. That, together with the work I have lined up for the day, will make me feel better.
But the anticipation of imminent calm is shelved when I stomp on the brakes as a skateboarder zips in front of me seemingly from nowhere. He is lying on the side of the road, apparently unhurt.
I roll down my window. “If you’re going to ride that thing on the road, you need to pay attention to the stop sign,” I say to skaterboy.
He looks away, but I am in his face as steadfast and unyielding as a teacher demanding an explanation for homework that wasn’t turned in.
“How old are you?”
And because he’s (only) 14 and probably still a few inches shorter than me, I don’t leave it at that.
“Well, my daughter would have been around your age,” I venture shakily, watching to see if his eyes meet mine. “But she died. Not from skateboarding, like you’re the only one on the road that matters and nobody can hurt you. From a brain tumor.”
He catches my eye gingerly and squirms. “Sorry.”
“I’m sorry she died, too. Just be careful, please. Your parents probably love you a lot, too.”
At home, I take two Tylenol. My head hurts, but it’s my heart that hurts so much more.