It’s always the dreaded question when meeting someone new. It’s such an innocent question one would ask when politely getting to know another person. It’s a question I have asked other people numerous times, and one that I have answered with ease for the first 19 years of my life. Now when such a simple inquiry is directed at me, my heart constricts.
“So, do you have any siblings?” I was sitting at a picnic table outside the office building where I just started at that day. I was eating lunch with a girl, same age as me, who was training me. We got along very easily and the conversation flowed smoothly, which was a rare occurrence for me when first meeting someone.
We were slowly getting to know each other, and asked all the basic questions that morning after first meeting. “Where are you from? Where did you go to school? What was your major? What do you want to do?” etc.
We agreed to sit outside together and eat our lunch, but once the questions became more personal, I knew it was coming. It’s not like I’m an uncomfortable, closed-up person either. Ask me my salary and I’ll tell you. Ask me for a tampon and I’ll give you details about my own flow. But even when I know the question is coming, it doesn’t make me any more prepared for it.
“So, do you have any siblings?”
I took a bite of my apple to buy a couple of seconds so I could consider my options. I’ve answered that question so damn effortlessly almost all my life. I never had to give it a second thought. But now, I have to really think about it, which is fucked up.
Every time I’m asked, I go through the same debate in my head in order to formulate an answer. Saying I just have a sister feels unnatural. I’ve always had two siblings, and it feels wrong to leave one out. But it is true, because I do only have a sister.
She stared at me, waiting. My pause was growing way too lengthy, so I finally responded, “Yeah, an older brother and sister.”
“Cool! What do they do? Do they live near you?”
There’s practically always a second part to the question. People want to know more about them, ask some follow-up questions to appear interested and polite. Second debate comes into play. I can make this unsuspecting girl uncomfortable by telling her the truth, but it undeniably makes the conversation take a grim turn. The truth always bums people out, especially when they’re not expecting it.
“My brother lives in New Haven. He works with computers,” I heard the lie come out of my mouth. “My sister lives in Valhalla and works for a cellphone service company.” Before she could get another word in I asked, “Do you have any?”
People don’t realize that things this small, this menial and meaningless, absolutely suck.
Sometimes I tell the truth: “He died a couple years ago.” Or I avoid the awkward confrontation altogether: “Yeah, I have a sister.” No matter what response I give though, it feels wrong. It’s not the truth I’m used to, and it’s not the truth I want to live with.
When I am honest, I have to hear the whole, “Oh my God! I’m so sorry!” Sometimes they ask what happened as a knee-jerk response, which is a question I don’t like to answer any more than the first one. Most of the time they get all solemn and feel bad for asking, even though there’s no way they could have known. There is never a good way to recover.
It’s incredible to think how many small, insignificant things I took for granted before I lost my brother. Whether it’s answering the question “How many siblings do you have?”, or trying to piece together a far-off memory that only he knows the rest of. We don’t realize what these trivial things mean to us until they begin to have a stabbing pain associated with them. There’s suddenly a name and number listed in my phone that I can no longer text or call as casually as I did. My heart pangs when I hear someone complain about how annoying their brother is. My eyes fill with frustrated tears when there’s a problem with my computer that I know he could identify and fix in under 30 seconds.
I never thought that one, dreaded question could hold so much weight. And now whenever asked, I will painfully flinch, collect myself, and then consider my options to give a response, a response that will never feel natural for the rest of my life.