This weekend, Matt would be turning (stops to count on fingers…) 47.
He is not 47. He is, always and forever, 3 months from his 40th birthday.
That phrase – “three months from his 40th birthday” – is one I’ve used over and over in talks and workshops. There’s a cadence to it, a rhythm, that is so familiar to me, I say it the same way every time.
Matt was not big on birthdays. He didn’t like to be the center of attention. I, however, love birthdays. I love other peoples’ birthdays especially. I kept a file on my computer back then titled, “MP’s presents.” It was an ongoing document of things he’d said, things I’d noticed him looking at or expressing interest in. It had gift ideas based on who I knew him to be, and who I saw him becoming. I still have that list. Three computers and seven years later, it’s still there.
I never got to give him the presents I had planned for his 40th birthday.
Each year, or at least most years, I try to do something new or unusual in the time between his birthday and mine (we were born 350 days apart). That first year, I went on a 15 mile hike, summiting 3 peaks in one day. This, after not having really eaten since he died. It was intense and brutal. The following year, I made him a cake and brought it to the new farm where I had just started to work. It was awkward and gentle and sweet.
Each year, one challenge. Sometimes huge, sometimes quiet. It wasn’t for him, it was for me.
I needed to do something, do anything, to mark the season of our entrance to this world, and his exit from it. The finality of it. His life extended to 39 years and 9 months. Three months from his 40th birthday. The concrete reality. He was here. He is not here now.
I’d like to think my heading to a four day dance festival this weekend is a gift from me to him, but really – it’s a gift from me to me. So much of what I love in my life now wouldn’t have happened in life Before. It’s not better, not worse, it just is. I am not the same person he loved. Living through his death changed me, just as his birth changed the world 47 years ago – in ways both big and small.
I no longer do something intentionally specific for his birthday. He is stitched into me in more subtle ways. But while I’m at the festival, there will be at least one moment where I catch my breath, remember what is lost, and who is gone. There will be at least one moment where I close my eyes, still standing on the dance floor, and offer a quiet and subtle nod to my love: you were here. I loved you. I love you still.
Happy birthday, Matthew P. You were here, and you were loved.
How do you mark birthdays – yours and theirs – in the years since their death? Leave a comment and let us know.
Laramee Dean says
Those phrases stick in our mind. My husband was “out of cell range.” That’s what sticks in my mind. I understand how that feels. It is a kind of marker that either prevents or hinders us from getting them to some destination that can not be reached. I’m so sorry that your son didn’t reach his 40th birthday. That has to be so very hard for you. I have children that age. The 40th birthday is a big one. He was so very young. I am truly sorry for your loss.
mari small says
It was hard to celebrate my own birthday this year because last year that day started a medical runaway train that ended in my husband’s death 6 days later on October 14. While I say I can’t imagine grieving a child, I can imagine and remember my parents grieve for my brother who died of leukemia at 19, 3 weeks shy of 20. Today he would be turning 60 and my own son is in his 40’s. I can’t express how sorry I am for the loss of your precious son knowing nothing compares to the loss of a child. And I celebrate the fact that he was here, that my brother was here and until last October 14 – my husband was here, 68 years and 5 months. And they were all and will always be – loved.
On what would have been my fiance Chip’s 31st birthday I baked a 3 tier red velvet cake (it was his favorite, I don’t like it at all), and brought it with me to another friend’s birthday party on December 11th. At midnight (December 12th, his actual birthday), myself, my sister and my best friend all had a beer and a shot for him (also his favorite). It was a bittersweet moment, but mixed with celebration and above all else, love.
This year (birthday #2) Chip’s birthday falls on a Monday and on the Sunday before there’s a performance tribute to David Bowie. The oddly coincidental thing about it is that it’s a performance of all the songs sang in Wes Anderson’s ‘A Life Aquatic’, which was one of Chip’s all time favorite movies. I even bought him the CD one year. So this year for his birthday I’m going to go. I don’t think the timing could be any more perfect.
Every year on my sister’s birthday, I mark it by writing some sort of commemorative essay for her. It’s my way of letting the world know I still grieve. When we lose a sibling, our identities come into question. Are we still a sister? A brother? Now that they’re gone. I came to think of it as a “club” that no one wanted to be part of and yet there I was. Stuck in that big shit puddle of grief. Not moving one way or another. For more years than I probably should have. Until I finally felt it was okay to go on without her. I don’t imagine we ever truly get over losing someone we love. Especially someone whose life was cut short. That is the kind of hole that never gets filled. But we can chose to put our game faces back on and celebrate their lives with grace. If we let it.
The first anniversary of his death, we set the table and had a sparse meal of rice and beans, filling his plate as well. After we finished our food, we ate his. It’s an Indian tradition: in case the soul has been hanging around all year, confused, it tells the soul “You’re free now.”
My husband is Indian so it was his idea, not mine. I’ve always been afraid that my dear’s soul has been out there somewhere lonely and afraid. So now I bake homeday cakes. Every year, a cake on the day we brought him home. In case we didn’t evict his soul with that ritual, I am telling him “I am glad you are here. I love you more than anything else.”
My sister would have been 40 tomorrow, and I’m struggling as to what to do. She was 39 years and 6 months old when she died. I’m also not in the country currently, so I can’t spend it with my parents or her family, which is so hard. She loved birthdays – we were going to celebrate her 40th by going away to the beach to celebrate the fact that she had beat the evil breast cancer beast…then, after she died, we were going to spread her ashes on that day, but now…we have spread the ashes earlier (too hard to wait longer) and no beach trip and I feel completely lost. I know it’s different when a spouse dies, but losing my only sibling has altered and broken me in unimaginable ways. Grateful for your site – thank you for all you do for those of us in this horrible and exclusive club that no one wants to be a part of.