After I got married, I started getting mail addressed to Mrs. Michael Anderson. I hadn’t actually changed my last name from my maiden name, Dahlstrom, but elderly relatives and companies offering credit cards or discount oil changes seemed to assume I had.
That Halloween, I contemplated dressing up as Mrs. Michael Anderson. I imagined her as my alter ego: She sounded like someone who would be an amazing cook who also enjoyed polishing silver, I thought. She’d be organized and proper. Maybe she’d wear pearls while she baked cookies that weren’t burned. In short, she was not me at all.
At the time I got married, I felt that if I changed my name, I’d lose my identity. Linda Dahlstrom was the name I’d been known by my whole life and the name I’d written countless bylines under as a journalist. I didn’t want to take Mike’s name for the same reason he didn’t want to take mine — our names represent who we are. And we didn’t believe that we became different people because we were married.
We had our first child seven years later — a beautiful, sparkly, joyous little boy we named Phoenix Lind Anderson. Hyphenating our two long last names just seemed ridiculous, so we decided to give him my Swedish family’s matriarchal surname, Lind, as his middle name and Mike’s family name, Anderson, as his last name.
After he was born, we were lost in the delicious, maddening, all-consuming swirl of new babyhood. I spent hours cuddling him and drinking in his soft skin and hair and laughing with him as we blew raspberries at each other. Phoenix had mastered rolling over, much to his delight, and was on the brink of crawling when one July morning when he was 7 months and 4 days old, he woke with a fever. And then, within 12 hours, he was dead.
As the world fell away in those early days and weeks after he died of bacterial meningitis, a rare and deadly disease, I slept with his clothes. I sniffed his blankets. I greedily pressed to my cheek the silky lock of his hair the hospital had given us. I drank in any possible trace of him. I was raw and stripped down to my core — a creature operating almost purely on instinct.
When a child dies, too often people stop saying his name. Some people didn’t want to bring him up for fear it would remind me of his loss. But as with most bereaved parents, there is not a moment when I’m not aware. I feel the loss in my cells, even when I sleep. Saying my son’s name to me is one of the sweetest gifts anyone can give me. Phoenix Lind Anderson. It is the music of my heart.
And so, it became a name that I had a deep need to share. I wanted to claim everything I could about him. He was here. He was my son. He still is.
About a month after Phoenix died, I stood before a judge and asked him to make Anderson my legal last name and move Dahlstrom back to become my second middle name. That afternoon I became Linda Annette Dahlstrom Anderson.
In the end, I didn’t so much take my husband’s name as I did my son’s. Claiming Phoenix’s last name is my way of helping build a bridge. Whenever anyone says it, they are also saying his name again, even though most will never know it. Someday, my husband and I will be buried next to Phoenix. I need strangers who walk by and see my name on the marker to know that I belong with that little boy.
I still use Linda Dahlstrom professionally. But in my home life now, I’m Linda Anderson. We have another beautiful son, Gabriel Lind Anderson, who knows that I have two names and is not confused. Sometimes I am, though — I often can’t remember which last name I’ve used for various online accounts or at the hair salon or local book store. The bank even became confounded and sent me a debit card bearing the name “Linda A. Dahlstromanderso.” (Apparently they just ran out of room.) For stories, like this, that meld personal and professional, I have no idea what byline to use.
But life, lived fully, is messy. I have experienced the breadth of it — the greatest joys and soul crushing despair. I live with loss but also profound happiness and gratitude. Things aren’t as simple as I thought they were when I was younger. I am a woman with two names — neither one fully or exclusively defines me. Contained within them is room for all of who I am.
Linda Annette Dahlstrom Anderson is a writer and editor at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. She lives in Seattle with her husband, Mike and her son, Gabriel, and firmly believes that women should use whatever name feels right for them. Follow her on twitter: @Linda_Dahlstrom.
This post was first published on Oct. 22, 2014.