Bittersweet Birthdays

What to do on a day assigned to joy and celebration when you feel darkness creeping in and wrapping it’s tentacles around your heart?

This was my dilemma yesterday.

It was my son’s tenth birthday. I wanted to feel nothing but happiness but a lot has happened in the first decade of his life. It has been full of bittersweet moments.  When a birthday happens it is inevitable to remember previous years.

My path to pregnancy was not easy. My son’s birth was not easy. When he was born healthy and strong I was relieved. I held him close as he first suckled and gazed at him with reverence and solemnity. I was now a mother. What an awesome responsibilty. What would his life be like? How would it unfold?

My husband, Mick, was elated to be a father. He had dreamed of having a son and now it was a reality. I watched him excitedly pace the hospital room as we waited for our families to arrive so we could introduce our son. It would be wonderful watching Mick rise to the challenges of parenthood in the years to come. Sharing his passions and interests.

We celebrated our son’s first birthday in our new family home. Mick seized every opportunity he could to play and bond together with him. By then, he was walking and talking a little. We were glad that our new home had a garden where Mick and the kids could play throw and catch, wrestle and run.

A few weeks later Mick became unwell with nauseating headaches and a limp.

A few weeks after that Mick was diagnosed with incurable terminal brain cancer. A prognosis of six months to a few years.

Our dreams shattered.

We celebrated our son’s second and third birthday with an enormous group of friends and family. They showed up in force to every event that we held. Everyone knew of Mick’s grim prognosis and hence wanted to pour their love and support into him and our family.

I found their presence strengthened me and it also strained me. I smiled and maintained a positive persona. Internally I was angry at our circumstances. I longed for the relative simplicity of our friends lives. They too were starting young families. I watched each set of parents working together as a team, chatting with friends while also keeping an eye on their young kids. Their family units would most likely stay intact for decades. In contrast it was highly probable that Mick would not live another twelve months for our son’s next birthday.

My parents and my in laws helped me ensure that my son and infant daughter were well cared for so that I could host the birthday parties and so that Mick could socialise and enjoy the precious moments. Occasionally we would share knowing glances with each other.  Acknowledging how hard and heartbreaking it was balancing the celebrations with our fears of what the future would hold.

My son’s fourth birthday was our last with Mick. His cancer had recently returned. He would try one last treatment option to try to prolong his life for a few more months.  Again, everyone turned up to celebrate. Somehow we made it through another successful party with small talk, laughter and hugs but all day my stomach churned with trying emotions. I envied everyone as they went home to their children’s bedtime routines and then perhaps a relaxing wine on the couch. Their lives were similar and yet so different.

Four months after Mick died we celebrated my son’s fifth birthday. My incredible in laws ensured that my son still had a fabulous and fun pirate party. They provided decorations, dress ups and even a pirate wench dress for me. Everyone rallied together yet again. This time enthusiastically wearing eye patches, swords and pirate hats. A good time was had by all. It was a very hard day but we were showered with love.

The sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth birthdays were smaller events. A few of Mick’s closest friends joined us to mark my son’s birthday. Their presence was comforting and essential. They represent and remind us of many wonderful aspects of Mick. They are a connection for my son and daughter to their father. As they chat I can feel Mick’s presence. Internally I shake my head wondering how it can be that they are still here yet Mick is not.

I’m keenly aware of my emotions, my in laws emotions, my children’s emotions and my parents emotions as we celebrate. I can see that we are all being brave. That sometimes we need to step aside, to breathe and regroup before returning to the chatter and banter.

When my son turned nine, my Dad had just moved into high level dementia care.  It was not possible for him to join our celebrations. Another loved one to dearly miss. My son was frustrated that we were unable to care for his grandfather ourselves and that he would not be able to come to his party. He grudgingly respected our decision.

Then yesterday my son turned ten. We started the day with a big hug. I reminded him of all the little things that I love about him and how proud I am of him for embracing new opportunities in the past year. It was a beautiful sunny day and my heart felt full.

After he went to school, little by little, tension crept through me. Dark tentacles of memories twisted with emotions began wrapping around my heart squeezing out the light. We had an early evening dinner planned at a restaurant with our immediate family. I wondered would I be able to attend with smile?

From experience I knew that there was no way to stop the tentacles. Each one would stay until it had squeezed tears from my heart. I gently wept for what might have been. I wept for my son whose father died when he was so young. I wept for Mick and his unrealised dreams of a long life as a father and grandfather. I wept for me. I wept for my in laws.

I refused to curl into a ball as I wept. I walked by the water, soaking up the sun, admiring flowering gardens and the clouds in the sky. I sought solitude and refuge at a friends place to quietly meditate and drink tea.

By the time that evening came, most of the tentacles had released their grip. Dinner was fun. I laughed. I smiled. My son happily danced in his chair enjoying the company of our small family. We marvelled at how lucky we were to dine at a pub on the edge of the harbour watching ferries come and go, yachts sailing and people paddling and playing on the water.

As each year passes by there will be more birthdays and more joyful moments to remember. Less darkness and more light. The darkness will always be there but the light will always be brighter.

“The happiest moments will also be a little sad.” From the TV show This is Us


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