Published on March 18th, 2021 | by Tiffany Graham Charkosky


A Letter to My Never-To-Be-Conceived Third Child

I was still pregnant with Andy when Dad and I made the decision to remove the possibility of your existence from our lives. Maybe you would have gotten Dad’s brown eyes and loved to throw rocks into the river or make snow angels, stomping in the snow with puffy boots. You might have worn French braids that would stick out while you spun around in your socks on wood floors. I can almost see you curled up against Andy as he lays in the dog’s bed. 

I had been tested for a cancer-causing genetic mutation and we had decided. If I was positive, I would have the hysterectomy as soon as possible after your brother was born. This is the same mutation that killed your Grandma Julie when she was only thirty, and I was only eleven. The darkness that clung to me during this pregnancy sits so close to my surface that I worry about how easy it is to conjure. I can expose it through something as simple as the absentminded motion of wiping crumbs from the counter with the palm of my hand.

It was a solid decision at the time, made for all of the logical reasons. The team of doctors I had been visiting to assess my genetic risks were kind, but unanimously firm: once my childbearing years were over, my uterus had to go, transforming overnight from simply no longer useful to potentially dangerous. Your dad and I believed that we needed to prioritize the two children that we already had and be grateful for them. They deserved a mother who wasn’t dying from cancers that she could have avoided.

On paper, this is the most logical decision we have ever made. Two kids are what most families we know have. The two boys we had were healthy, appeared to be developmentally normal, and we were going to unselfishly count our blessings, quit while we were ahead, and pull the plug on that risk. Cliches were helpful at the time, allowing us to move through quick and methodical decision making under the bright light of extreme fear. 

During the three months between delivering Andy and returning to the hospital for my surgery, I started exercising. A magazine subscription I had never signed up for kept showing up in the mailbox. You know how much I love to read, but I didn’t have the focus for it as I took care of both your newborn and toddler brothers. But one month, I was thumbing through this magazine and found pictures of Barbie-shaped women in workout positions that seemed simple enough, even for me. I had this mutation and needed to take care of myself, making my body and my heart as strong as they could be, which is to say I needed to become unbreakable.

After I became confident in the one workout I had ripped out of the magazine, I grew bolder. I found a jogging stroller at a yard sale and figured out how to secure your brother in it without his head bobbing around too much. We started by running one house, walking one house, over and over until we went a mile. Slowly, throughout the weeks, we made it a whole mile without walking, and then even further.

I lugged Andy’s car seat into my pre-op consultation and as he slept on the floor next to me, I learned that a woman does not need her uterus in order to produce breast milk. I had no excuse to prolong my march towards surgery. When the day arrived, I had dutifully filled several bottles before carting my breast pump to the hospital with me. Grandma Suzie came to watch your brothers for the day and overnight, so Dad could stay with me at the hospital. As I was being prepared for surgery and shivering in my paper gown, I registered a high blood pressure reading for the first time in my life. My heart was so scared and sad that they gave me a mild sedative to get my blood pressure into a range that was safe enough to administer anesthesia. Believe me, please, when I tell you that I knew what I was saying goodbye to. 

Some of my favorite people, including both your Aunt Brittany and my oldest friend are third children. Ben and Andy will only ever have each other. We would never have a daughter. But we had decided and it was the smart, rational, fair decision to make for your two older brothers. It was also the right thing to do for your dad and me, removing this uncertainty from our lives. I feel certain that you would have made the same choice.

“I have good news,” the surgeon told me afterwards. “Your uterus was completely pink and healthy and you have nothing to worry about for a long time.”

This healthy, pink uterus has haunted me ever since.

I had been able to get pregnant fairly easily. Aside from several months of feeling like I was always hungover, I had regular, healthy pregnancies and deliveries. Ben hated sleeping, which caused your dad and me to fret over what we were doing wrong, arguing our way through bleary-eyed nights. As first time parents, everything about his babyhood put us on edge. With Andy, we savored him and his newness, knowing that there would never be another. He has been especially special to me in this way, embodying all improbable future babies that will never follow him. 

This includes you. We love you so much, even though you are an invisible impossibility. While your dad and I made a final, unchangeable decision in 2012, we talk about you sometimes.

“You know we would have gone for number three,” Dad will say with a hint of regret that breaks me. It’s okay for me to think about you, but it guts me to hear him say what I know deep down inside. My armor is your perfect nonexistence. You will never disappoint or embarrass me, never swallow something horrifying, never be lost in a crowd.

Photo by Brian Charkosky

In my mind, this is my fault. I was born with the broken DNA that elevates my risk of cancer. I’m the one who watched my healthy mother dissolve away, who actually, as a child, prayed at one point for her to die so that I could stop worrying about when it would happen. Not only do I carry the cancer risks, but your older brothers have a fifty-fifty chance of inheriting this gene. You would have, too. I can’t bear the thought of your brothers and dad going through that with me. There is so much I need to be here for. Do you see?

It’s not that Ben and Andy aren’t enough, but I think about you. I think about the additional chaos you would add, the costs, the worry for one more life to shepherd. I think of the possibilities we tamped down because we sought to eliminate our biggest fears and to control the vapors that seep from this life we have worked so hard to build.

Even though we made the best decision we could have made, I wish we had given ourselves more time. More time to process our fear, to learn how much we love the relationship that has unfolded between your brothers, to get to the place where parenting becomes fun. Maybe we would have landed where we are anyway, but we wouldn’t have let that blinding fear reign so heavily over us. Maybe we weren’t so certain, after all.

We bought a new car last month and when we were on the highway yesterday, I thought about how the boys would sit in it differently if there was one more. It’s Christmastime, and I think of how you would extend our years of its magic, your belief bringing all four of us joy. Ben used to say, “I know that you’re just not telling me that you’re having another baby because you want me to be surprised when it comes.” I explained to him many times that I was positive there wasn’t another baby coming. When this conversation would make a hard ball of tears grow in the back of my throat, I told him that our family was perfectly complete. “Two brothers is just exactly what our family is supposed to be.”

Later, in the precious moments before falling asleep, when Andy wondered if he would ever be a big brother, I told him that he finished our family and made us whole. Nobody ever told me that when you reassure your children, you’re also reassuring yourself. You’re okay. It’s okay. We’re okay.

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About the Author

Tiffany Graham Charkosky lives with her family in Lakewood, Ohio. Since 2003, she has worked with artists, designers, and community members to implement public art and public space projects throughout Cleveland as a project director for LAND studio.

Tiffany spends her early mornings writing and her weekends cheering for her sons on various sports fields and courts throughout Northeast Ohio, or visiting Lake Erie.

In addition to writing essays, she is currently seeking a publisher for her memoir, The Calm and the Storm, which explores how her own family history was reshaped upon learning that life-changing losses were caused by a cancer-causing genetic mutation.

Tiffany can be found on Instagram under the handle carrot_tiff.

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