We were standing in front of a wall of student artwork at Stenwood Elementary. The first-graders had drawn pictures titled, “Who Am I?” and now their parents had to figure out which one was made by their child, based on a riddle the kids had included with their drawing. And here I was unable to pick out the one done by my 6-year-old Jai.
“I cannot find him either,” my husband Sameer said.
Slowly, we studied all the 23 drawings again. One struck me as a possibility: “I have a sister who is younger than me,” the riddle read. “I love lions and tigers, and I have a fish.”
Everything fit—except for the sister part. I lifted the paper and flipped it over, and sure enough, there was Jai’s name. I carried the drawing with me into his classroom. Jai came running to me, “Did you find me, Mamma?”
“Yes, honey, but why did you say you have a sister when you don’t?”
“Yes, I do,” he insisted. “Shivani is my sister, she is.”
Shivani is my sister’s daughter; she lives in Arizona, halfway across the country from our home in northern Virginia. But Jai persisted: “Mamma, did you see the other drawings?
Everyone else has a brother or sister. Everyone, except me.” And then, weeping, he ran out of the classroom. I just stood there. A few parents patted my back. “He will be fine,” they said.
It isn’t that my husband, and I did not want another child; we’d been struggling with infertility for a long time. But after that night, we decided to step up our efforts to conceive. We had been trying the calendar method and been unsuccessful but began using ovulations kits, etc.
As luck would have it, I became pregnant right away. Unable to contain my excitement, I told Jai when I was only a few weeks along. Within hours, he announced the news to the grocery store clerk, to the garbage man, to his teacher, to strangers we met on walks, to everyone. “I am going to be a big brother,” he boasted.
Our happiness was short-lived: I miscarried at four months. With much heartache, my husband and I resigned ourselves to the fact that perhaps our family would just be the three of us. “Jai, the baby is not coming,” Sameer told our son gently that night “Mamma is not too well right now. Her back hurts.”
“Okay,” Jai muttered, saying nothing more. He didn’t bring up the subject again until a month later, in the school parking lot, when he asked, “Mamma, is the baby not coming because I wouldn’t be a good big brother?”
I wished that I had the perfect answer for him. I longed to know the best way to soothe the pain of a child crying for a sibling. But all I could do was weep with him. I explained that losing the baby had nothing to do with him, and I promised that someday, somehow, he would have a sibling. “Yes!” he responded. “Right now we are only an almost perfect family.”
After much discussion, my husband and I decided to try in vitro fertilization. Several rounds failed, but a year later, I was pregnant again. By this time, Jai had stopped asking for a sibling. But I noticed the he sometimes seemed sad, especially on holidays when his friends were out with their extended families celebrating. We are a family of immigrants. My closest relative is six-hours away by plane.
When we finally told Jai about my pregnancy in my third trimester, he greeted the announcement with giggles, laughter, and shouts of joy. Once again, he broadcast the news to everyone we encountered. Then he cleaned his room, picked out books the baby could read, and even set aside a baseball and bat for his new sibling.
My husband noticed that each morning Jai went to the prayer table that we have in our house and prayed. “Please God, take care of my Mamma and my baby. Please don’t let Mama’s back hurt again. Please.”
Jai asked if he could name the baby, and we debated about what to do. We wanted to let him weigh in, but we didn’t want to end up with a child named Nemo or Buzz Lightyear or Cinderella. So we compromised and gave him a short-list of names from which he could pick. “How do I name the baby if I don’t know if it is a boy or girl?” he asked.
Off we went for an ultrasound—with Jai in tow. When the technician announced we were having another boy, Jai’s face lit up. “We are having a baby brother,” he said. “We are having Arjun.” He had chosen the name of a brave and legendary Hindu warrior.
Jai planned my baby showers with my friends, sat with me as I wrote thank you notes, and helped my husband set up the crib and the changing table, giggling all the while at the tiny diapers he stashed underneath. Meanwhile, I was in and out of the hospital with a very dangerous pregnancy. But we all prayed and stayed positive.
Arjun, by the grace of God, arrived on his due date. Jai proudly wore his t-shirt that said, “Big Brother,” when he came to visit us at the hospital. When I brought the baby home, I was greeted by a big sign Jai had made: “Welcome Home Mamma and Arjun.”
When the baby was two months, I got a rather unusual call from Jai’s teacher. She said she wanted to show me something my son had written about his brother and asked me to stop by the classroom the next time I was at school.
Suddenly, I felt very nervous. During my pregnancy, friends and family members had warned me about sibling rivalries. They said it could be hard to introduce a new addition, especially to someone who’d been only child for so long. Was Jai now bothered by his brother? Was I giving Arjun too much attention?
I was in the classroom the next day. “I asked the students to write an essay on something that was important to them,” his teacher said, handing me a yellow binder. “Most of the kids wrote about soccer, baseball, playing outside or watching TV. Jai is the only one who wrote about his brother.” I opened the binder, and read all 8 pages of Jai’s essay in a daze.
Every detail of Arjun’s birth was captured—from who picked Jai up at school the day his brother was born to the look of the hospital room where I stayed. He even described making the welcome home sign. I took the essay home and placed it in Arjun’s memory box.
Arjun is now almost 2 now, Jai is nearly 9. The boys are totally different: Jai is soft-spoken; Arjun is louder than six toddlers put together. The older one loves to read; the younger loves to dance.
Yet despite their differences, my boys are inseparable. While I have no doubt Jai would have eventually adjusted to being an only child, I feel secure now that my sons will always have each other to rely on. They are each other’s keepers, and our family is no longer “almost perfect.” It feels perfect in every way.
Monica Bhide is a food writer and cookbook author. Her work has appeared in Food and Wine, Bon Appetit, Eating Well, The Washington Post, and many other national and international publications. You can find her at: www.monicabhide.com. This article previously appeared in Parents magazine. Reprinted with permission.
First published in India Currents in Dec. 2012.