Claire should be turning 22 on December 17. Her friends are getting ready to come home for Christmas as they finish up their final year of college. I imagine if she were still here I would have to stand in line to spend some time with her. I suppose she would be stressing over finals and anxious for the break to see her friends, celebrate her birthday and Christmas, and play with her cats; especially Raja, but Bill, too. However all I can do is wonder. Wonder what it might be like. I will never know that reality. I only know the reality of painfully navigating my own emotions at this volatile time of year and making sure our family continues the ritual of honoring her birthday with “dinner and a movie,” her final request which we were not able to fulfill while she was still with us in body. Obviously she is always with us in spirit. Some days this provides comfort and other days it only brings frustration and sadness. This year I will be out of town on her birthday because Dan and I will be relaxing on our honeymoon. I have mixed emotions about being gone, but we will celebrate her birthday as a family after we get back and Ellen arrives home to spend Christmas with us. Funny how I can feel like I am abandoning her by going on vacation over her birthday even though she is not physically here and will be with me just as much on the beach (or perhaps more!) as she would home in this unseasonably warm Minnesota December.
I wrote a letter to Claire on her birthday last year which I posted on her Caring Bridge site. I just re-read it and aside from the age specific details it communicates exactly how I am feeling this year so I’d like to share it with you:
December 17, 2014
Another birthday without you here.
This year you would be turning 21. Is it weird that even though you died when you were 18 I still think of you as continuing to age and I now see you as 21? So many other parents who lose children refer to their loved one as “forever 18” (or 15 or 7 or 2 or however old they were when they passed). To me you don’t feel forever 18. In my mind I saw you turn 19 and 20 and now 21. Maybe it’s different for me because you became an adult before you left us. I got to see you as an adult – I don’t have to imagine it. For that I feel very fortunate. But it certainly doesn’t lessen the pain.
Around this time of year I feel my grief looming. It first shows up as anxiety –the familiar churning in my stomach, heart palpitations and shortness of breath, feeling like I’m going to crawl out of my skin, wanting to scream, run, hide and disappear all at once. As the anxiety increases it turns into anger. First an undertone of irritation, then culminating into rage with no place to go. The energy needed to keep the anxiety at bay and hold back the powerful waves of rage exhausts me and I finally give in to the overwhelming sadness, feeling powerless, distraught and left with only my tears and sobs. Broken, once again, crumbling under the intense weight of loss and the missing piece of my heart.
But even as I write this, in the midst of my pain and my tears, I see you and I hear you beckoning me to a place of joy. Wanting to show me how happy you are now and how beautiful and healthy and complete. I feel your love for me. I feel your spirit. Your presence is apparent. I see you with my heart and I touch you with my soul. Wonderful and yet horrible at the same time because my physical being aches for your physical form – impossible and the reason for my inexplicable grief.
Feeling crazy as I hold such contradictory emotions all at once. Utter devastation and peace. Uncontrollable chaos and calm. Absolute resistance and acceptance. How can these things coexist? I do not know but I experience it every single day.
I wonder how you would want to spend your birthday. Would you let us buy you your first “legal” drink? I’m guessing you might not even like it – unless it was a strawberry daiquiri or Riesling – definitely something sweet. I remember your irritated glares when you used to complain about my red wine at the dinner table, letting me know loudly and clearly, “it stinks!” But maybe by now your palate would have matured and you would have been able to enjoy the right of passage into adulthood by ordering that first drink and showing off your license to prove you are of age. But I guess we will never know. Instead we are left to toast your memory when we go out for dinner and a movie in our attempt to honor your (literally) dying wish which we failed to do while you were still here clinging to life.
Flashbacks of birthdays gone by flood my thoughts – from the day you were born (or even before that when I would play with your moving limbs, gently pushing against them while they would internally glide across my abdomen, making me feel like an alien had taken over my body) to your final birthday celebration 18 years later where so many friends and family gathered at Obb’s Bar, all of us privately knowing it would most likely be your last, but none of us wanting to admit entertaining such a horrific thought. You taught us to live in the moment and make the best of whatever time we had. You danced that day, showing off your Xbox Dance Central moves and less than a week later were unable to walk because of that damn cancer. I can still see your mysterious look as you pondered your wish before blowing out your candles and I wonder what you wished for, although I think I know….
So happy 21st birthday my dear Claire. Please leave signs and reveal yourself in some way to us on your special day. You will always have my heart and I will forever be your mom.