I wake to see that it is 2 am and realize that February 8th has rolled into February 9th, officially making it Justin’s birthday. There’s a soft white glow in the room that I know is from his phone, which means he’s awake. I start to lean toward him to wish him a happy birthday, and I realize he is crying. The faint light from his phone shines on his tear-stained face, as he stares at the screen I am certain contains an image of Ara.
(I am certain because, after all, I know this scene well. I play out this scene several times a week, and twice on Sundays. The middle of the night sob-fest sparked by a song or a picture I innocently select on my phone when I should be trying to get back to sleep.)
He hasn’t noticed yet that I am awake, so I quickly close my eyes and pretend to still be asleep. Because there is no place for me in this moment. This is his moment… the very first waking moment of the very first birthday he will spend since losing his precious baby girl.
It isn’t that we keep these things from each other. We talk nearly every day about some aspect of our gerief, of our new reality. We share the “little” things- “I accidentally drove toward the daycare today” or “I saw a little girl at the store who reminded me of Ara”- and the giant things- “I can’t move today” and “why did this happen to us? What did we do to deserve this? What did she do?”- and everythng in between. But we also make space for each other to deal with our grief in the particluar ways we need. And that is what I know I need to do in this moment. Becasue it is a first… and the firsts are the worst.
Many of the bereaved parents I have met talk about the first year as the worst, because of all of the firsts. The first Christmas, the first birthday, the first major family event, and of course there is the first anniversay of their death. But there are about a million other firsts we never even conceived of…
The first warm day (they won’t spend outdoors)
The first snowfall (that will not include their snow angel)
The first Mother’s Day and Father’s Day (for obvious reasons)
The first family photo (do we hold up her picture?)
The first anniversary of their diagnosis (a.k.a. The day the world turned upside down)
The first anniversary of Adoption Day
My own first birthday after Ara’s death came one week to the day. I didn’t want to do anything. I didn’t want a cake or presents. I didn’t answer calls or messages. There was nothing to celebrate. I’m not sure why I thought it might be different for Justin, whose birthday was nearly ten months later. Sure, the days themselves are easier to get through than they were back then…but a birthday? That is not a day. A birthday rips the surface scab that had formed right off the wound, and exposes it as the deep cut it still is. The absence of a child who should be there shouting happy birthday in garbled toddler-speak (“Appy Birday Daddeeee!”) is a knife that cannot be dulled by the passage of time… at least not the first time.
As I lay here pretending to sleep, I think about another of Justin’s birthdays, long before there was an Ara, long before there was this heartache. There had been a big snowstorm. We still lived at the East Granby house, which had a ridiculously large driveway. Justin was fighting a cold that was bad enough to keep him in bed for a couple days. He barely had the energy to get up, let alone shovel and blow snow for an hour. I hadn’t been able to provide much help with those big jobs, even a year after my PE and surgery. So there he was, outside in the snow… sick, cold and miserable on his birthday. But what I think right now is that he would go back to that day… he would do that birthday over again. He would repeat what felt like the worst birthday ever, if it meant he didn’t have to do this one.
I squeeze my eyes tighter to stop the tears I feel welling up, so I won’t give myself away. I drift back to sleep thinking about how much I love this man next to me, how much I wish I could lift this burden from him (even as I bear it too), knowing I cannot.
When Julia wakes me up a few hours later, I see that Justin is sleeping soundly. We head downstairs to make his birthday breakfast- heart shaped and smiley face pancakes. We will do our best to give him as many happy moments as we can today. But it is his first birthday in his new reality, so we may just have to hold space for him to be sad, to let him know that we love him, that we wish we could and know we can’t make it better. I write out his birthday card and end it with a promise: I will do everything I can to make each birthday after this one as joyful as possible.
I intend to keep this promise for the man who gives me moments of joy every single day; who puts his entire heart and soul into being a father, husband, son, brother, and friend; who has seen his loved ones through incredible hardships and asks so little in return; who did not hesitate for even one second before making a life-changing decision to leave his job to be at Ara’s side each day, knowing that was the best option for our family; who understand my anxiety and reminds me I am still on earth when I feel as though I am lost in space; whose love can be seen in the thousands of photos he has taken, despite his face appearing in so few; whose children never have to wonder about the depth of his love. This man deserves a birthday, a Father’s Day, a Christmas filled with joy.