Saturday, August 30, 2014
Advice for Parents: What to do on a dead child's birthday?
A living child asks for a birthday party. Or you, as the parent, ask him what he wants for his birthday. There’s dialogue. There’s a cake and candles and presents. The camera captures the smiles as he tears open his gifts. It’s easy. It’s tradition. Parents fall into bed at night, exhausted, but grateful. Their son or daughter seemed happy with her birthday. Moms and Dads rest-—they did it!
But what exactly is a parent supposed to do on the birthday of her child when he is gone? Not gone, as in out of town or at the beach, or out of the country. Gone as in-—no longer alive.
A dead child doesn’t want. A dead son asks for nothing.
What does a mom or dad do? Where’s the rule book for celebrating birthdays for a dead child?
Every year I hope to come up with something creative. Every year something comes forth-—a poem, an article, an idea, some gift to a charity in Daniel's memory. Each year I recall a little boy who told me that he wasn’t supposed to say "customer words" (cuss words). A little boy who celebrated his last birthday, his fourth, with the help of friends, family, and a big red fire truck that stopped by to give him and his guests plastic firemen hats. (Daniel didn’t seem too impressed, but he wore the hat over his bald head anyway.)
Today, Monday, is Daniel’s 22nd birthday. I want to go to Daniel’s Place, i.e., the cemetery. My three kids are busy with work and the first day of school.
How many years since Daniel’s death has the first day of school come on his birthday? Another reminder that he never got to go to real school, just Mother’s Morning Out at a church and a few sessions with the teacher at the hospital school.
My kids are remembering their brother. Liz, the youngest, who was born three months after he died, tells me she remembered at school today. But she isn't eager about going to Daniel's Place. What she wants is a nap after the first day of her senior year, a nap before she has to go to work.
I decide. I make a decision, those things that were so hard to do right after Daniel died. I’d made so many when he was alive undergoing treatments for his malignant tumor. When he died, I wanted to not have to decide anything.
But today I will go alone to Daniel’s Place. Because I am going to do what I need to do. This is my son’s birthday and he’s not here and I decide that it’s perfectly acceptable to be a bit selfish. Even though I’m a mom and moms are always doing for others and neglecting their own needs, I’m allowed. I will go alone to sit by his grave and not wait for others to find time to join me.
Carl says he’ll go with me. He never met Daniel either.
We stop at the Dollar Store and buy a Happy Birthday balloon with a butterfly. We indulge in a few snacks. Carl gets pork rinds even though the sound of them crunching annoys me. I pick out a bag called Party Mix because it has a birthday hat on the packaging.
“Really?” says Carl. “Party mix?”
I suppose he thinks a party is not what we parents of dead children have. Actually, I think, as I eat from the bag while the two of us are seated across from Daniel’s marker, I’m not feeling in the party mode. Last year the kids, Carl and I celebrated Daniel’s 21st year with a picnic. This year, I feel undone by a life that is relentlessly tough. My maternal inventory: I have an adult child with Borderline Personality Disorder who came back to live with us last summer and another who left home and did not graduate high school. The youngest is not allowed to screw up because mama is tired of dealing with disappointment and the law. And yes, I have a dead child I have not seen since he was four.
But today on this birthday without him. I want to remember a little boy who loved Toy Store, stickers, laughter, and watermelon. I want to recall when he said, “You’re pretty, mommy, can I kiss you?” and then when I said, “Yes,” he smiled and shouted, “Hot dog!”
The tears come; this year Daniel’s birthday hits me terribly hard.
I write out a message on a sheet of paper to attach to the butterfly balloon. In the distance a hawk soars over the tree tops. From a tote bag, I remove a Fisher Price airplane and a heart-shaped box Daniel painted and place them both on the grave. I take pictures.
I take pictures of the sky, hoping to get the hawk in one of them. Standing with Carl, we lift the balloon into the sky. It sails to the left. Never before in all the 18 birthdays since Daniel’s death has a balloon headed in this direction. Perhaps this is a reflection of why this day seems super hard to live. If it sailed right, maybe things would be going better.
Carl and I watch until the balloon makes its way safely over the electrical wires, over the tree tops, and over the Interstate. We watch until the balloon is no more.
When it comes to celebrating the birthday of a child no longer here, my advice to parents is do what you need to do. Take the day off if that's what you need. Who cares if no one else understands? Sit at the grave, take pictures of the sky. View the clouds, look for dragonflies. Write long messages and attach them to helium balloons. Drink a Corona or glass of chardonnay to your child’s life and try not to think of how unjustly short his time on earth was.
Take care of you. You, the one who lives with a hole in your heart. Be kind to you; you need to stay healthy. Surround yourself with those who get it, who encourage you, not belittle you, who let you tell the stories, who don't judge your tears. Hold on and drink deep from that well called hope.
Remember that your love for your child expands beyond the sky. Always.
On your child's birthday, give yourself that gift of remembering love.
~ First posted at The Patchwork Quilt Blog, Alice J. Wisler's blog.
Alice is an author, writer, speaker, and writing instructor. She'll be the speaker at the candle light service at the regional conference for The Compassionate Friends September 26-27, 2014, in Frankfort, KY.