I Don’t Want My Birthday
By Rebecca Hensler
In the world of grief support, we talk all the time about those difficult days: The anniversary of our loved one’s death (which we at Grief Beyond Belief don’t euphemize as their “Angelversary”), their birthday, holidays, wedding anniversaries and back-to-school. But we rarely talk about how we feel about our own birthdays. And yet, here I am, celebrating my 50th birthday, after a week of intermittent tears: crying on my wife’s shoulder, crying in the bath, crying in the aisle at the hardware store. Waves of sudden, irresistible sobbing for my son. Crying because I don’t want a birthday — or anything else — that Jude never had.
Jude would have loved his birthday. He liked things that drew his eyes to them and raised his curiosity even while he lay, as he did his entire three months of life, in his Neonatal ICU bed. He would have enjoyed candles and balloons so much. We even tried to take Jude a balloon once, just so see if what he thought of it, but the nurses said no balloons. So he was denied one more mainstay of childhood. Like cake. Like friends. Like parties. Like turning one, or two, or nine.
He would be turning ten this year.
When I turned 40, before I learned I was pregnant with Jude, I had come to accept that I would never have a baby. And then I did. And then I didn’t.
I am far further from acceptance at 50. Today, the best I can do is face it. Barely.
But it isn’t just missing Jude that hurts. It’s that Jude is missing my birthday as well. My birthday, and his cousins’ birthdays and his grandparents’ birthdays and his Mama Andrea’s birthday too. This summer my wife and I will take a train ride halfway across the country to celebrate us both turning 50. I can imagine ten-year-old Jude with us, kneeling on a train seat, staring out the window at the nation passing by. A whole world of fields and mountains in the eyes of a boy who never once saw the sun. How Jude would have loved the wonder of it all. I can tell myself, “See it for him.” It helps a little. But it still isn’t okay that he won’t ever see it for himself. It isn’t fair.
Fair. That word that is at the center of a ten-year-old child’s moral world. “It’s not fair!” they say, imbuing the word with all the sense of justice and injustice that is paramount in those years between childhood and adolescence. Jude would have said it too. But he can’t; it’s one more thing I have to do for him.
It’s not fair.
I blew out my candles and didn’t wish for anything today. What would I wish for? That Jude could blow out candles too? That’s not the kind of wish that can come true, so what is the point of making it? That’s not what birthday wishes are for.
It isn’t fair that I have candles and songs and kisses and he never will. And that makes me all confused inside. Because part of me wants all those things like a normal person and part of me wants to hide all January. I do crazy things this time of year. I neglect to plan a party and then resent it when I don’t have one. I crave presents and cake and fancy meals yet find myself disappointed when nothing makes me happy. Because happy birthday is never perfectly happy without Jude.
I wonder if it will always be this way.
Will I turn 60 still fearing my birthday because Jude never had one? 70?
Will there be a year that I just say “Screw it, I’m not even mentioning it this year”?
Or will I reach a time when I stop aiming for a “perfectly happy” birthday and remember how lucky I am to be happy enough on most days, to be alive and loved? How lucky to have known and loved Jude for as long as we did.
I know I’m not alone. One thing I have learned in Grief Beyond Belief is that if there is a grief experience one person has had, no matter how strange, or awkward, or painful, someone else has been through something similar. Often, all you need to do is open your heart and tell your story and you find that the thing that feels wrong to you — like fearing your birthday more than the birthday of the one for whom you are grieving — is what you share with others. And that the telling of it helps.
I made it through my 50th, of course, with the usual cake-related mishaps and the waves of grief combining to make me a difficult birthday girl. The people around me were kind and generous and patient. There were many many moments of real joy.
Not perfect, but enough.