Posted on November 29, 2022 by Caleb Webster
How your mom showed me I had really messed something up was the same way she showed me I had done something remarkably well: she cried. This was also how she showed embarrassment, fear, anxiety, joy, or any of a cluster of emotions that would often bubble up throughout the day. A barbed comment from a supervisor; a TV advertisement for baby diapers featuring a soft melody and an infant wriggling around in slow motion; a well-timed hug from you. Any of these and her tear ducts were apt to spring a sudden leak.
So, when your mom stepped into the courtyard at the pizzeria and the crowd of friends waiting there yelled out, “SURPRISE!!!” I was not shocked to see the tears stream forth. I was nervous, though. What if these were not tears of surprised joy, but tears of anger or anxiety or one of the other emotions I hadn’t anticipated?
To my relief, your mom began laughing and smiling through her tears, and our friends made their way up to give her hugs and wish her a happy birthday. You found a couple of your friends who had made it to the party and began playing with them as your mom and I settled in with some of the people who had gathered from across the bay area to celebrate her that night.
It was your mom’s first birthday since being diagnosed with cancer. The diagnosis made this birthday an especially significant one, which is why I had decided to set up this surprise party, which all of our friends who lived nearby were more than happy to attend. We had also recently received good news of an MRI with no signs of cancer–an early birthday present indeed–though your mom was still enduring her second round of chemotherapy and radiation loomed in the near future.
As you and the other children played arcade games and crawled across play structures, your mom and I ate and drank and laughed. Your mom, I am quite sure, also shed a few more tears as she told everyone that the celebration had caught her completely off guard.
I kept stealing glances in her direction, at first to check how she was doing and then, once I had finally convinced myself that the surprise party was the right call, just to admire her. With her rosy cheeks shining under her black chemo cap that evening, she was resplendent, and I marveled and basked in her beauty.
When it came time to blow out birthday candles, you and I posed to take a picture with her. One of your friends insisted on sitting on her lap, too, so quite a few of the pictures from that night look like she gained another son. Later, as she began to open presents, you started to feel left out, so one of our kind friends jogged over to a nearby Target to get you a toy. He was so thoughtful that he even grabbed one for the new brother you had acquired that night.
There was much to be thankful for, friends to make us laugh and memories that brought pure joy. And there was plenty more, known and unknown, left to fear.
In short, there were a lot of reasons to cry.
When someone turns a year older, we try to remember to wish that person a happy birthday, perhaps even to get him or her a card or a gift. We don’t really pause, though, to consider the occasion as a remembrance of their coming into being in the world. Most of the time, the people we meet in life enter our worlds fully formed and corporeal, and we don’t need to think about the process of their entering existence.
But I recall the day you were born, how your mom’s resilient, bright smile began to fade as the delivery dragged on. She was shedding plenty of tears then: ones of pain and fear and frustration and exhaustion.
You don’t need to know the details, and I’m guessing you probably don’t want to, but suffice it to say that at one point as the process wore on I thought something had gone terribly wrong and we had lost you. Fearing the worst, I focused on comforting your mom to make sure she got through the delivery safely. With noticeable shame, she said she didn’t think she could do it. I squeezed her hand and tried to give her encouragement and reassurance, willing myself to convey confidence and strength I didn’t think I possessed.
But then suddenly there you were, dangling by your ankles from the doctor’s sure grip, trying out your new lungs. Breathing. Crying. Here and now. In this world. Existing.
I cried uncontrollably, realizing you were alive and that your mom had done it and that everything was going to be okay. My mom, who had been in the room as well for the birth, gently chastised me. “You’re supposed to be happy!” she said.
“I am!” I sobbed in reply.
I, of course, was not present the day your mom was born, so I can only guess how your Grammy and Poppy must feel on your mom’s birthdays now that she is gone. The day when celebrating her presence makes her absence even clearer.
It hurts to think about, especially when I reminisce on your birth and when I picture what it would feel like to live in a world without you physically present in it. Even trying to remember a life before the day you were born. It’s impossible to imagine, really.
All you can really do is cry. For your mom. For Grammy and Poppy and Aunt Al. For you. For me. For all her friends and family. For the world.
Your mom’s birthday has been on your mind a lot these past few weeks. You have asked a few questions about it. My favorite, which you have posed a few times, has been, “Mom turns 46 this year, right?”
“That’s right,” I answer. “She turns 46 this year.”
And this, I think, is your present to her this year: this use of (if you’ll pardon the pun) the present tense. Your mom turns 46 today. It’s not that she “would be 46 if she was still alive.” It’s that she is 46. Because, while she died a few years ago, it’s hard to say that she doesn’t exist.
After all, she’s everywhere we turn.
She’s here in your smile and your love of making lists and the way you see the best in people.
She’s standing behind the messy chair in our living room, telling me I need to do something about the clutter. And she’s there when my busy mind settles, telling me that I’m doing a good job raising you and that she’s proud of me.
She’s sitting down next to her sister watching reality TV and laughing at their inside jokes.
She’s smiling at her nieces and nephews as they grow up, wondering where all the time went.
She’s shaking her head lovingly at her dad as he ventures back out to shovel the afternoon’s fresh snow from the driveway.
She’s saying, “Oh, mother!” when her mom looks at her picture for the umpteenth time today and sets down the frame just so.
She’s beaming at the young women who are attending nursing school in India thanks to a scholarship set up in her name through the non-profit she helped found.
And you, amazing little guy that you are, somehow seem to recognize all this even if you can’t articulate it. It’s your birthday gift to her this year: the gift of continued existence.
And as for me, my birthday gift to her this year, once again, is you.
I know, I know. It’s a copout. Just like when I would take her out to a fancy dinner on her birthday and I got to feast on the delicious food, too. She knew my tricks back then, and I’m sure she knows now that my caring for you is not just about her. It’s what I want to do, too.
That’s alright, though. She always lets me get away with it. And if I’m not much mistaken, she’s probably having a good cry about my gift to her on this, her 46th birthday.
Category: Letters to Our SonTags: birthday, crying, grief, grieving parent, joy, Loss of Parent, love, parenthood, remembering, remembrance, tears
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SO beautiful…there are very special birthdays in my life this time of year so your gift of writing really resonates…again. Thank you. I have no doubt Jaime is smiling through happy tears.
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Thanks Kathy. Sending you love through the special birthdays in your life.
Thank you for being strong enough to share
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