I had an aunt who was born on New Year’s Day. One day, my mother and I were talking about her birthday and my mother commented that she thought it was sad that my aunt’s birthday always got a bit lost in all the holiday hoopla. I replied that I thought it would be neat to be a New Year’s baby. My mother looked at me strangely and said, “You kind of were.”
“Huh? What do you mean?” I asked.
“Do the math,” she replied.
I was born on September 30, 1959. Apparently, my conception was the result of my parents’ private party to ring in the new year. Knowing this seems like too much information.
My birthday is pretty special to me. It is the one day of the year that I give myself license to let things be all about me. For people who see birthdays as a reminder that they are aging, I can see how it can be tempting to forget the whole thing. I psyche myself out of the birthday/aging correlation by scrambling my thinking. I’m celebrating my 30th anniversary of turning 29 this year. Anyway, I don’t really think birthdays are about marking the number of years in my life. They are about celebrating the unique (all right, weird) conglomeration of attributes, accomplishments, and activities that makes up the wonder that is me. After all, when we celebrate George Washington’s birthday, we aren’t celebrating how old he is. We are celebrating his existence and contribution. I may not be the founder of a nation, but I am the founder of my life. I’m pretty proud of that life.
Last year, my birthday was marked by disorientation and distraction. Coming a few short weeks after my mother’s death, I was still oversaturated with emotion. I was just starting to learn to live in a new world without my mother. I had not really even begun to craft a life that did not include being with her, caring for her, and being mothered by her. I was definitely living gingerly on the fringes of a life, trying to avoid the cracks in the landscape that fractured my old existence during her long illness. I had not begun to repair those cracks. I had not yet patched over the cracks so I could transverse them in the journey of my own life. I was just trying to stay away from the edges so I did not fall into them.
For the first time in my life, I dreaded my birthday last year. I was sure it was going to be a difficult reminder of the other person who was around when I was born 58 years earlier. Instead, it turned out to be a pretty good day. Max made it his mission to indulge me. Even though he always does what he can to make me happy, he made a concerted effort to kick it up a notch on my first birthday after my mother died. He took me to Disney Springs. We shopped and walked and enjoyed a beautiful day. As we wandered around, a beautiful pair of earrings caught my eye in a store window. Max bought them for me, as a spontaneous birthday surprise. “Spontaneous” and “surprise” are not words that typically describe Max, but he was trying everything he could think of to delight me. We had dinner at one of the restaurants specializing in comfort food. We didn’t forget my mother, certainly, but I have to say that the plan for the day was to distract myself from my grief. The plan was pretty successful, all in all.
My strategy of distraction didn’t end with my birthday. For months after my mother’s death, I seemed to be engaging in an endless stream of activity. I joined clubs, volunteered, published a book, began seeing friends regularly, and kept myself busy, busy, busy. Part of my busy-ness stemmed from a genuine desire to expand my life, but I’m sure that a lot of my motivation came from my need to fill the space in my heart that my mother left when she passed. It wasn’t necessarily intentional, but I know I was trying to not feel the ugly disorder of my grief.
My super-sized activity schedule was not necessarily satisfying at first. I was happy to fill my time with something other than sadness, but I didn’t feel particularly connected to the activities. I went through the motions and ticked off the time without grief. I felt pretty triumphant that I kept functioning and wasn’t falling apart. Some of the new endeavors felt successful and others did not. I purposely tried not to make any commitments beyond a few weeks because I felt so alien to everything I was doing and nothing felt momentum-producing. Everything was just something to do to occupy my brain for the moment.
At some point in the months that followed, I noticed that all the activities began to feel more cohesive. They were starting to feel like a part of my life, rather than some life I was just visiting to escape from reality. At some point, activity matured into meaning. I had built a bigger life without even realizing I was doing it. I was still sad, of course, but I could allow myself to feel sad without worrying that I was going to sink into a dark place from which I would not be able to recover. I felt less bereft of a mother and much more aware that I still had a mother living in me and encouraging me from Heaven to grow towards my joy.
I don’t know how it happened. I can’t describe the process or technique of learning to live with grief and joy simultaneously. I am pretty certain I have not yet mastered the skill completely, but I know that I feel calmer and more peaceful. My busyness did turn out to be an instrument of healing, although I was not the one using the instrument. God used my distraction to lead me to where I needed to be. It seems that the distractions I employed to deal with my disorientation primed some part of my personal mechanics to ignite my brain, open my heart, and send my soul searching for a more sumptuous sense of spirituality. All that disconnection and hollowness in my busyness of last year has ripened into a richer, fuller, life.
If my birthday last year was marked by distraction, I think the watchword this year is engagement. I’m reveling in all the new activities and situations I’ve experienced over the past year. I’m celebrating the journey of life instead of being afraid of it. I’m also doing something I’ve always wanted to do for my birthday this year. Max and I are going on a bus tour to New England. I’ve always wanted to go see that part of the country and peep at the autumn leaves.
So I think I’ve turned a corner in my grief. Well, maybe not anything as sharp and definitive as a corner…. But I have definitely made a “slight right turn,” as the GPS calls it when you are approaching a gentle fork in the road and need to veer one way or another. I do believe I am veering right. And I think my mother is happy about it.
What will you be celebrating on your next birthday? What life achievements, personal progress, or happy events will you remember with joy? Please share your perspective by leaving a comment. In the alternative, you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Have a joyful day!
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