As time began to pass since the last time I heard your voice, I slowly learned how to get back into the rhythm of things again. I thought I had finally started to handle your passing, to cope, to be normal and whole again. Then, before I know it, your birthday is here again. Just like that, it looms over me. Like those storm clouds you see in cartoons that just hover above a single character raining havoc down on them. I can feel the darkness, the sadness, and the pain coming. I’ve been trying to deny that it’s coming, trying to suppress these complex emotions until the day comes, but like always, they begin to emerge from their hidey-hole.
Birthdays are weird in general, but when it comes to celebrating a lost loved one's birthday it becomes even weirder and more complex. Our society’s social scripts have taught us to hold so much significance in a birthday, but they never taught us what to do for someone that’s already passed.
And you can’t just forget someone’s birthday. Especially someone that meant, and does mean, so much to you.
Still, I feel weird talking about your birthday with people, taking it off from work, trying to do something special for you. How do you explain to someone that has never experienced losing a loved one about how hard, but necessary, celebrating their birthday is? To those that have been yet untouched by grief I must sound like a crazy person, a person that can’t just learn to let things go, that can’t move on.
But you can’t just forget someone’s birthday.
As the days inch closer and closer to your special day, I become increasingly aware of what is coming, what is missing, what I have lost. I become aware of the sadness that is coming, the mess I will most likely be that day. I take that day off from work or school whenever possible because I know I just won’t be mentally fit enough to function as my usual human self. But I am human after all, with emotions, everyone has difficult days. I won’t apologize for how hard this day will always be for me, even though I know most people will never understand.
During the days leading up to your special day, everything seems to remind me of you more than usual. I’m more sensitive to topics surrounding death and passing, to topics about you and birthdays. I sit here and try and think of how I should spend your birthday. I’ve heard of people doing lots of different things to commemorate their lost loved ones, like writing you a letter or sending you a lantern or sharing my favorite memories of you with our loved ones. But they all seem to be inadequate. How do you celebrate someone’s birthday for someone that’s no longer alive? Is there a social protocol for this? Because I’ve never learned how to properly handle this. We’re taught from young ages that when it’s your birthday, someone sings to you and gives you a cake. But no one ever told me what to do when you’re not here to celebrate with.
The worst is when I’m at a store and see something you like, and want to buy it on instinct because my subconscious is so used to buying you presents around this time, it’s like it’s programmed to know your birthday is approaching… and then I realize what my brain has mistakenly done; that there is no way to ship a present to the afterlife.
But if there was, I’d do it in a heartbeat.
I’d send you all my love, all the laughter and tears you’ve missed since you’ve been gone. The big moments, my achievements, my downfalls. I’d send you your favorite flowers, your favorite meals. I’d send you anything to make it feel like you were here again, like you were whole and human. Anything and everything to make you happy and loved, as if you never left at all.
Usually, on someone’s birthday, they remark on what the past year of their life has been like, and what they plan for the next year. But without you here to do that it’s like I’m sitting here left to do it for you. Left to remark on what the past year has been like without you, what you have missed, all the things I wanted you here for. I imagine how the past year’s events would have been different if you were there. It makes me wonder what you’d look like now and what you would be doing. What goals you would have set for yourself, what you would have accomplished in the last year.
But then I just feel guilty for remarking on all the absences, all the things you never got to do, all the things you missed. Birthdays are supposed to be celebrations of life, and here I am sulking about the absence of one.
I try and remember all the good birthdays we’ve had together in the past, try to focus on the good times, the laughs. But I don’t want to just be stuck in the past either because then I feel like I’m not being fair to the life currently sitting in front of me, the life you lost.
You were my mom, you were supposed to be here to keep celebrating my birthdays with me well into adulthood. And yet here I am, stuck here, having to accept that you never even made it “over the hill” into adulthood, because you passed at 39. You didn’t even make it to see my 21st birthday, to see my college graduation, to see my sister’s wedding, or my youngest sister go to high school.
It makes me sad, and some days it makes me bitter, about the fact that you’ll never grow a year older; that my family and I are stuck with this day that has held so much significance in our lives. Yet, now we are no longer able to celebrate it with you.
It’s only been one and a half years since you left so I assume this day will get easier with time. I’ll become more adjusted with the fact that you’re not here to sing to anymore, that your birthday will be a solemn quiet day instead of a joyous one filled with your laughter and you singing to yourself in the kitchen. But in some ways, I think it may get harder. As more years pass, as I grow older, as I live more, and realize how many years you missed out on, how many opportunities and experiences you won’t ever be able to have, how much time has passed since you had a real birthday.
Maybe this lost feeling will subside with time, maybe I’ll begin to understand and know how your birthday should be treated, how to properly celebrate it, how to handle these emotions. Maybe I’ll start feeling like letters and lanterns are appropriate and enough for me. I don’t know.
What I do know is, for now, I am sad and confused and miss you dearly. I would do anything and everything just to have one more birthday with you. I am bitter at the world for not letting me have another year with you, another birthday. For now, I am guilty that I can keep celebrating birthdays while you cannot.
I am still learning to cope with this pain, with this absence.
I am learning that you will forever be 39, and your birthdays will no longer be like mine.