I poked at the fatty tuna on my plate with my chopsticks, eyeing up the one remaining California roll sitting atop a pile of shredded daikon radish.
“You mind if I eat that?”
Natasha glanced down at the plate, and said, “No – go ahead. I ate the shrimp.”
As I dunked the roll into my wasabi-tainted soy sauce, I said softly, “Nat, I think about getting old all the time now. I think about dying alone. And without money. I bumped up my 401k last week.”
Nat sipped her wine, and looked out the window at the people running to beat the impending rainstorm.
“Yeah. I stress out about money too.”
“See, that’s why we need kids. Because then you have someone to take care of you when you’re old and sick. Who’s going to care about my feeding tube? Who’s going to smuggle in a Culvers butter burger when I’m supposed to be on a low-fat, low-sodium diet? Who will lean in close to hear me whisper Rosebud?”
“I’ll come visit you, Jen. You know that.”
“So you’re saying that I’ll die first? Why am I always the one to go? Why are all my friends still going to be healthy and playing Mah Jong in senior living centers while I’m wearing diapers and having my jewelry stolen in a VA hospital?”
“Don’t you have to be a veteran to go to a VA hospital?”
I picked at the label of my Sapporo beer, and shrugged my shoulders.
“I don’t know. Probably. And now I’m too old to join the Army anyway, so I can’t even count on that. I mean, friends are great, but they don’t owe you. Children owe you. Friends will all have lives of their own to deal with. Look – Kim just bought a house. Seamus is going to buy one. Dr. Greene owns some stuff. Everyone’s getting established. No one’s going to have time to listen to me babble about the good old days while I buzz the nurse to come change my bed pan.”
“Well, Jenny. You can always still have children. A lot of women have children later in life, and they’re perfectly healthy. Start cranking some out!”
I took a deep breath and sighed, “See. That’s just it. I always wanted to have children, and I know that it could still happen, but something changed in me this year. I don’t know if I want them now. I mean, I did want them, but I think it’s just too late. I’m too settled. I don’t want to be taking care of children when I’m 60. And I think I finally just accepted that fact.”
“So then what’s the problem? Now you don’t want to have kids, so don’t have any kids. That’s one less thing you have to stress out about.”
But that was exactly the problem.
It was accepting the idea that I won’t have children that upset me. I always thought that acceptance was the end of the line, the final destination, the ultimate goal, but it’s really just the beginning of a whole new loop. Dr. Kubler-Ross lied to us all. I find myself grieving the fact that I have accepted this childless future. And the cycle continues. Right now I’m in denial that I’ve reached acceptance. Next week I’ll be angry about it. Then maybe I’ll do some bargaining. And so on.
I can’t pinpoint exactly when this philosophical change took place, but I suspect that it was a somewhat gradual evolution. Looking back over the years, I noticed a change in the way I spoke about children. I was able to track my state of mind through semantics:
“Someday when I have kids…”
“Someday if I have kids…”
“If I had kids…”
Nat continued, “And doesn’t part of you just want kids so that you can see what they would look like? I know I do. Maybe someone could just morph your face like they do with the missing children on the milk cartons to see what your kids would have looked like.”
I laughed, because it was true. There is a huge part of me that wants kids just to see what they would be like. Would my daughter have curly hair? Would my son be funny? Smart? Talented? Popular?
But what if she didn’t have curly hair? I know it’s so wrong of me to say this, but on some level I would be disappointed with a straight haired child. Sure, I’d still love her, but I’d always wonder where my genes had gone wrong. And one day, DCFS would remove her from my home because I was deemed an unfit mother for having given my three year old an Ogilvie Home Perm.
She kept pulling off the wigs! What did you expect me to do?
I started thinking more about Nat’s idea of being able to predict what my child would look like, and I really think she may be onto something. Instead of figuring out how to store more and more songs on smaller and smaller devices, I wish the geniuses of the world would work on creating some virtual reality simulators that would let me experience the things I will probably not experience in real life, so that I can feel like I haven’t totally missed out.
You know, things like:
This could satisfy my curiosity, without all the financial and emotional implications. I just hope someone invents that baby simulator soon, though. Even my virtual eggs are starting to turn.
Natasha listened sympathetically as I rambled on about birth and death and Social Security and hospital gowns. Somewhere amidst my monologue on dual incomes, I glanced outside and realized that it had started to hail. The steady high-pitched pinging on the windows kept time with my mind’s frantic pace.
Eventually, the waitress came by to see if we needed anything else, and then handed us the dessert menus. After half-heartedly flipping through the pictures of coconut sorbet and tofu cheesecake, I paused and said, “Nat?”
“Just promise me you’ll bring me a butter burger.”
Natasha looked up, smiled and said, “It’s a promise.”