Sunday, July 20 marks my daughter’s would be 9th birthday. Those days are hard on me — those phantom birthdays of Donna’s. Given my druthers, I would curl up in a wee little ball in a dark room and not show myself until the morning of July 21. I always breathe easier the day after a milestone of Donna’s. The emotional burden of some specific date passes and I know, I feel, that I have 364 days until it makes its way back again.
I try to imagine what it might be like to parent a tween girl, my tween girl. I can’t. It’s just blank. I can’t imagine what Donna would be like at 9. I mean I can try, but my efforts are pretty useless. For one, am I imagining a nine year old Donna who never had cancer? One who sasses her Mom and wants to shop at Justice? A girl who plays Minecraft and still dances at recitals?
Oddly, it is somehow easier to imagine a 9 year old Donna who has survived her cancer diagnosis, but is living with the badges of honor her treatment left behind. She is sweet and has short tufts of hair that never quite grew back after chemo and radiation. She still reads a lot and wears black, too. We travel to the hospital, for regular visits with her oncologist, but the visits are much less frequent. We make a day of them, those hospital days in my imagination, having lunch at Water Tower or Eataly.
By 9, had Donna survived, some of the ramifications of brain radiation would have asserted themselves. Maybe her memory was impacted, or her comprehension. You see, you can’t irradiate a three year old brain and not cause lasting damage. No doubt she would be on synthetic growth hormones and acutely aware that other girls in her grade were developing in a way she never would.
That thought breaks my heart — knowing that because she died, Donna was spared the cruelty of unknowing folks.
Donna’s birthdays trip me up, too, because I never know what to do with them. It doesn’t feel right to celebrate them. It doesn’t feel right to ignore them. Like I said, my preference would be to hole up in a cave with only a fully charged iPad and a mainline of Coca Cola, but that really doesn’t work for my husband or sons. Indulging my wish to lick my maternal wounds isn’t, well, very maternal.
This year, in an ironic twist of fate only the Universe could provide (cruel, baiting Universe that she is) we have been invited to a 5th birthday party for a little girl we barely know. She is one of Mary Tyler Son’s future kindergarten classmates that he met at orientation last month. She is adorable and sweet and took an instant liking to our boy.
Were her birthday being celebrated on July 19 or July 21, this would be a non-issue and of course I would go. But this dear girl’s birthday is being celebrated on July 20. A 5th birthday party on July 20 with cake and pizza and presents and a room full of people singing happy birthday.
I don’t think I can do it.
I don’t think I can stand in a room full of strangers and sing happy birthday on July 20 to any girl that is not my girl. I am weak that way. Or bitter. Or both. Or just sad. So terribly, terribly sad. And to a certain degree, damaged. Broken. Changed.
It is what it is. I will send Mary Tyler Son with his Dad and we will figure something else out for the rest of the day. Sigh. The rest of the day. The rest of all of the days. Yes, we will figure something else out for the rest of all of the days.
I miss you, dear Donna. Every day. And every day I work to remember all the amazing things you taught me.
We’ll meet you there, girl. We’ll meet you there.