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An excerpt from

A Mighty Boy

Sarah Pullen

I don’t shy away from the boys seeing me cry.

I’ve spent much time teaching them about empathy over the years. I read all the usual childcare books when they were small. They were full of stark warnings about the difficulties boys have in expressing their feelings or connecting emotionally with others. So I would sit all four of them in the bath together and we would play a stupid game. I would make a variety of expressive faces and I would get them to guess what emotion I was displaying.

“Anger,” they would yell, as I drew my eyebrows down and squeezed my lips together.

“Surprise,” they chorused, as I widened my eyes and drew my head back.

I tilted my head and looked up out the corner of my eyes. I lifted up one corner of my top lip. They looked at each other and shrugged. I scratched my head.

“Confused,” the oldest two finally shouted.

I hunched my shoulders and let my mouth droop. “Sad,” said Oscar, delighted to get one over his younger brothers.

“Don’t be sad, Mummy,” said a three year old Silas, putting a wet arm around my shoulders and planting a soggy kiss on my lips.

Over the years, I tried to get them to recognize these feelings in themselves. After a fight with a brother, I would ask, “And how does that make you feel inside?” or “Can you tell me whether you feel angry or just misunderstood?”

So why would I hide my feelings from them now? I know this is hard for them at times. Inigo sees silent tears fall down my cheeks in the car on many occassions and he’s now alert to the triggers. If a sad song comes on the radio, or a song that Silas loved, Inigo sticks out a hand and rests it on my knee or pats me on the arm. He cranes his neck to see if my cheeks are wet.

I reassure him. “It’s OK if Mummy cries sometimes,” I say. “I’m very sad about Silas and sometimes I have to cry. Crying makes me feel a bit better for a while. ”

He nods, accepting the strangeness of adults, wise beyond his years.

He hears me sobbing in the bath and gets out of bed to come and join me. Sometimes my tears trigger his and we cry together. He has lost his best friend and biggest fan and he needs to cry for Silas too. He needs to know that this is normal and no one will judge him or think less of him for it.

The other boys see me puffy eyed and wet cheeked and they give me enormous bear hugs, drawing me into the strong circle of their arms. I’m comforted by them but reminded yet again that I will never feel Silas draw me close this way. As they overtake me in height and rest their chins on my head, I know that Silas will never reach this milestone that all sons dream of and I am further derailed.

Several months after Silas dies, Rufus asks me a totally unexpected, perceptive question. We are in the vegetable garden, kneeling on the dirt, digging out stubborn weeds. Summer is on the way and the runner beans are already coiling around their canes.

“Do you think it would have been easier for you and Daddy if Silas had been forty when he died?” says Rufus without lifting his head.

I’m floored by the emotional intelligence he displays. I think about my reply and take a deep breath.

“I don’t think it would ever be easy to face the death of a child at any age but in certain ways it might have been easier if Silas was older. He wouldn’t have needed us so much. He would have already have left home and made a life for himself. Maybe he would have children of his own so we would have had some part of him left but at the same time it would have been harder in different ways. Hard for his children and his family.” I pause and imagine a little round cheeked son of Silas running around. I close my eyes and the image vanishes. I turn and look at Rufus. “He was very little and he believed and trusted in us. He never questioned our ability to make him better. He needed us and that makes it harder for me. So the answer to your question is yes.”

He nods as though he expected this response.

I continue. “But I have a friend who texted me after Silas died. She lost two babies, one a stillbirth and the other in his first week of life. She told me that she envied every day that we had got to spend with Silas. Does it make it harder that we had Silas for eleven years and got to know him so well and that she never had a chance to get to know her babies? I think so but I also understand that we were lucky to have had him for the time we had.”

I know none of my boys will ever truly understand the enormity of our loss until they have families of their own but at least they are not shying away from it.

At times like these, I think, “Maybe we can do this. Maybe we can make this journey and pull the pieces back together. Maybe we can salvage something.”