It was urgent. My son needed to know something. It was about his sister.
"What is a half-sister?"
I braced myself. I tried to keep my face calm, my smile soft, but deep within, I cringed. My stomach knotted. My heart hurt. I knew this would come. I just hoped it would be further out on that sea of difficult questions. The new baby in our home was only a few months old, just enough time for all of us to fall deeply, madly in love with her delicious thighs and cheeks, her drooly kisses. Just enough time for her to begin lighting up and squealing every time her big brother walked into the room. I inhaled and then blurted it out as quickly as I could. Rapid-fire honesty.
"Some people say that a half-sibling is when brothers and sisters share one parent but not both."
His jaw dropped and big tears welled up in his pooly brown eyes.
"Does that mean — ?" but I interrupted him before he could finish that question neither of us wanted to hear completed.
"Why do you ask?" A diversion? Where did this come from? Why now?
"A boy at school," he explained. It was a boy who, from outside view, has a rough-around-the-edges family. I don't know them. I do know this kid walked himself to a parent-child dance at school in third grade. "He says Gracie is my half-sister."
Of course he did. This is a kid with this vocabulary.
"I guess, technically, you could..." I don't usually stumble through the responses to tough questions. But I know my boy. And I know words matter. I feel his deep investment in the family that still feels new. I get his vulnerability.
"WHAT?" He didn't let me finish this time.
"Well, some people believe that. You and Grace have different dads. But the same mom. And in our family, we are all just family. No halves about it. Just family." I meant that but it fell short. He nodded but I could see he was hurt.
"Look it up! What do other people say? I need to know," he pleaded, and I scrambled for my phone. Instead, I reminded him that the Not Boyfriend has a brother and sister who don't share the same biological parents but are still very much his siblings, who he loves fully. And that we love the Not Boyfriend with our whole hearts, too. And he has his own mom and dad. It still was not enough.
We were in his room an hour later when the tears came flooding and the Google search of half-siblings had become far more urgent.
"I just feel like...something is ruined. I feel like she's not my sister anymore...I feel like..."
Another interruption. I just couldn't let this unravel anymore. I tried to back-track, to talk up OUR definition of family but my words were drowned out by sniffles and a quivering lip and many more tears.
I searched and searched and searched. He checked in every 20 seconds.
"Anything yet?" I typed as fast as I could on my phone, scanned page by iffy page.
And then it appeared. On Wikipedia? Or maybe a sketchy site. Whatever it was, I would have never called on it as a source for an article or proof enough for myself. He was looking for science as reassurance. I read it aloud anyway.
"HONEY!," I had to hype this. I had to really sell it. His little shivering heart needed it. "This says that some communities of researchers say that, so long as children have the same mom, have shared the same womb, then they are technically considered FULL siblings."
He asked me to read it again. And then again. Then did his version of fact checking with an "Are you sure? Really sure? Honest? What site is that?"
I showed it to him, pushing my phone into his hands with as much paltry proof as I could offer. He exhaled. The sigh of relief let us both off the hook.
He told me he felt better. He said he just loved his little sister so much. I took his sweaty head into my arms, pushed his hair off his forehead and rubbed a circle around this boy's third eye.
"She's all yours. All ours. She is fully and completely your sister. Forever. And you are hers. I promise." I said it over and over until his eyes were dry and heavy.
When he finally slept soundly, my own tears began. I felt guilty for trumping up a site that said what I wanted it to, that I cursed a little kid who dared question my son's connection to his sister using words that maybe soothed him or seemed perfectly normal in his family, that I wasn't ready for this conversation. But it wasn't that kid's fault and it wasn't mine. It was just pre-printed labels slapped haphazardly on people, trying to organize us into bins where we don't belong, where we can't be where we really, truly know we fit.
I believe the site and science-ish, or at least the sentiment behind it. They are fully siblings. No halves about it. Different fathers, yes, but the same tender, beating heart at the center of our family.
Even later, when the house was still with soft, shallow breaths of my son and the Not Boyfriend, while I sat up in bed, nursing the drowsy baby, I went through it all again in my mind. I resolved to find or have made pendants for each child that read FULL. I swore I'd do something tangible to show them that we are all in this together, fully. I made a pact to follow up, to turn this into more of a moment, to commit.
Instead, I carried a baby heavy with sleep to her crib, pulled my own covers over my cold body and fell into a deep and too-short sleep. I woke up the next day and made breakfast, packed a lunch, piled on concealer, answered client emails, rushed to after-school pick-up and Tae Kwon Do and home to dinner and homework. Life sailed on into that sunset and another and another.
There hasn't been any further question or conversation about the halves and half-nots. Just cheers when Grace began babbling DADADADADADA MY DADA MY DADA and, weeks and weeks later, finally a MAMAMAMA. There has been sleep-training hell and the hilarity of watching her grimace with each new bite of pureed fruit. There has been school musical rehearsal for the big kid and erratic amounts of homework and visitation schedules and dusting off the bike to ride at the first sign of snow melting. Soon, there will be summer and road trips and a baby who will crawl and a boy who will venture out on that bike on his own — both before I am ready.
And there will be more questions. Eventually, another hard one will bubble up, maybe even this one again. But I hope, as I always do, that each challenging response builds on the one before and becomes just a bit easier. I pray that the words are as true as they can be, that I am calm and comforting and a trusted source.
I hold on — to these beautiful babies who have only begun to know each other, love each other, need one another — that they will never, ever doubt the fullness of their bond that began in my body and transcends other people's comments and has only the labels they choose for themselves. I will say it as many times as I need to, I will point to my phone or to people we love, I will whisper it in their ears as they fall asleep until they believe it beyond doubt: In our family, there are no halves. Only whole.