Tomorrow marks my daughter’s 7th birthday. I call it her would be/should be birthday. People correct me, “No, it IS her birthday, it will always be her birthday.” Factually, sure, yes, that is an accurate statement. Donna’s date of birth will always be July 20. Seven years ago right this instant, I was in the midst of 54 hours of labor, at the end of which was Donna. Beautiful, crying Donna. We opted out of knowing her gender before delivery, but, yes, I was hoping for a girl, and there she was. Gorgeous. Perfect. Donna.
Donna’s birthday is now complicated. Very, very complicated. How do you recognize the birthday of a child who should be 7, would be 7, were she not buried in the ground? This is a question that is not so easily answered. We’re still working on it, Mary Tyler Dad and I. In years past, and there have been only two birthdays without our girl, we’ve taken the day and spent it as a family doing things Donna enjoyed. The zoo, a museum, a favorite restaurant. In 2010 I honestly entertained the idea of having a party at Donna’s graveside, inviting close friends and family. Then I thought about cutting a cake and singing “Happy Birthday” to a gravestone. Yeah. Nixed that idea pretty damn quickly.
Cancer can suck it.
Last year we went to Donna’s hospital and dropped off iPads that Donna’s Good Things donated to the Child Life staff. We went to dinner at a cute shop named Donna’s Cafe Chicago that happened to be just blocks from my Dad’s place. A baker gifted us the most beautiful cake with black birds on it. That was nice. We didn’t sing any songs in celebration, but Mary Tyler Dad and Mary Tyler Son and I sat and talked about Donna and ate a pretty cake.
Thoughts of Donna are with me every day, throughout the day. Sometimes they are heavy. Sometimes they are joyful. When July rolls around, the thoughts of Donna intensify. Her birthdays are much more difficult for me than her death anniversary, her “remembery’ as we call it. The thought of what should be is so much heavier to bear than what was. What was was Donna’s life. That is known territory. What should be is more painful to consider. So much was lost when Donna died. Things that we cannot even imagine.
And in the midst of all of this is life. Life that needs to be led. There is our boy, our beautiful boy, who is tending to his own life.
This afternoon I will leave the office, pick up Mary Tyler Son, and head to a pre-school meet and greet with him. I will celebrate his growth and all that will start for him in the fall. His new school is Donna’s old school. I will walk in that door and I will be ON. I will smile and make chit chat with other moms and dads and compliment their kids and forget their names instantly. I will be happy for my boy who will get to capitalize on his encyclopedic knowledge of dinosaurs and mammals. I will feel the joy of his learning and growing.
But at the same time, I will be grieving. I will look in the classroom that was Donna’s and remember what she wore on her first day of school. I will think about how as we walked into the building the first time, she exclaimed, “Wow, it’s a skyscraper!” I will remember the names of the children in her class and how they are in first and second grades now.
This happiness and sadness, this darkness and light, that is the yin and yang of life. It occurs for all of us, but somehow seems especially potent in mine. As Donna grew in my belly, I cared and grieved for my Mom. As Mary Tyler Son grew in my belly, I cared and feared for my daughter. In the intense sadness and sorrow that followed Donna’s death, there was the joy and light that a ten month old Mary Tyler Son brought to us. It seems that in my darkest moments there is always a light and in my brightest days there is always a shadow. Yin and yang.
Cancer has brought much wisdom into my life. Clarity. I welcome the sadness of my grief just as I do the joy of my happiness. There are chairs for both at my table. Mary Tyler Son deserves no less of a mom than Donna had. A wise Bosnian refugee hairdresser taught me that. And trust me when I say that Bosnian refugees know something about life. For me, the yin of my life is grief and loss and the yang of my life is joy and pleasure. I am grateful for both, but more than that, I am grateful that I am not afraid of either.
Happy birthday, girl. I miss you so.