Today is my mother’s 71st birthday.
My mother’s birthday meant a great deal to her. Given her birthday’s proximity to July 4, her birthday became intertwined with the holiday festivities. My mother told me that, as a child, she believed Independence Day celebrations, the cookouts, and fireworks, were all for her birthday. “Yes,” she once admitted with girlish glee, “the fireworks were always for me.” It is an unsurprising coincidence that she became a social studies teacher, whose favorite subject was American history.
Four years ago (in 2014) I was annoyed with my mother. I was living with my parents at the time and I am sure my mother was being a smother at the time. On July 2, I got into my car, and raged myself all the way to Barnes and Noble where, silently fuming, I looked up a book title on their computer, trudged over to the shelf, retrieved the volume, marched to the register, and paid for the gift for the woman I wanted to throttle. I drove home, wrapped the book, got the card I had purchased earlier, and gave the package to my mother probably saying something like: “You’re a pain in my ass. Happy Birthday.” She probably responded: “You’ll get over it. Thank you!”
Today, and probably all of last and this week, she would have been saying something like: “I don’t look bad for my seventies, do I!” or “I don’t feel like I am in my 70s!” We would have found a favorite restaurant to go to for dinner. She would have gotten all dolled up and strutted her stuff. Over July 4th, we would have had a barbeque and hung out by the pool. She would have flirted with my dad in the water and giggled like a teenager. I would have yelled, “For God’s sake, I am right here!” She would have found more ways to explain that, because she was another year older, she could tell it like it was. (As though she ever needed an excuse like age to do that!)
There are a lot of things you wonder after you lose someone you love. One of my major wonders has been: What happens to birthdays once people die? For my family, birthdays are always a big deal. There are dinner (out usually), cake, and presents. My mother and I managed to stretch our birthdays into birthday weeks, with special events (manicures, movies, meals out, shopping) dotting the days before and after our birthday. There was a lot of love surrounding my parents’ and my birthdays, a lot of energy went into making things special and memorable for the celebrant.
It is a strange day, to be sure. I still have the energy of love that is seeking a home today…but I have no one to bestow it on. No presents to buy, no cake to find, no meal to get ready for…nothing to plan and no one to celebrate.
I realized during the first year that the pain I feel today (and in the few days before and after) is just love that has no place to land. Birthdays are about demonstrating love, presents symbolize the appreciation you feel for someone, efforts at dinners and parties demonstrate pride and gratitude that you have for this person in your life. When someone dies, the love doesn’t disappear but it also has nowhere to go. That creates pain. That love wants to go somewhere. It wants to land, it wants to be shown. Instead, the love just sort of meanders, searching for an outlet that no longer exists.
People assume that my mother’s date of death and Mother’s Day are the worst days of the year for me. Not even close. Those days come and go, and I barely register them. Today is the worst. My birthday is the second worst day. July 4th sucks too.
Instead of ignoring the day, I buy my mother a birthday card every year. I write out everything I would have liked to say to her and tell her all the things I wished she could be a part of. (I know she already sees everything, and I know she is already part of everything I’m doing, but it feels good to write it down.) Then I put the card in the purple box under my dresser, with the previous year’s cards and other memorabilia.
My advice for birthdays: don’t forget them and don’t act like they never happen. They do. Recognize the celebrant in some way: write a card, have a special meal or treat, take some quiet time for yourself, reminiscence. Do something that gives that painful love a way to leak out in gratitude for all you had with your loved one.
Happy Birthday to the woman who continues to annoy and inspire me. You’re still the biggest pain in my ass…and I don’t ever want to get over that. Love you.