Once Upon a Time I Had a Daughter

It’s that time of year again.  Tomorrow is my daughter’s birthday.  She would be 13.  Should be 13, except she hasn’t celebrated a birthday for nine years, since she died from a rat bastard aggressive brain tumor at four years old.  Donna has been gone for over two of her lifetimes, but here I still am, her mother.

This is my annual typing through tears birthday entry for my girl.  It’s almost 11 a.m. and I’m sitting here in my pajamas.  I mother two boys now and this time of year they tend to enjoy a disproportionate amount of screen time as their mama struggles with the reality that once upon a time they had a sister.

Once upon a time . . .

I still grapple with the reality that I used to have a daughter.  It has never not felt surreal to me, like, impossible.  Every year that passes takes Donna further away from me.  Some of my religious friends might reframe that as me getting closer to Donna with each passing year, but, well, I just don’t know.  It’s a lovely thought, that possibility, but that, too, feels surreal to me, impossible, improbable.

Mothering Donna, my happy girl. What a glorious Donna Day this was.
Mothering Donna, my happy girl.

What is real is that thirteen years ago I was in labor for the first time.  Me, the gal who never had a maternal bone in my body, would labor for 54 hours until Donna entered this world, swhooshed from between my legs.  We didn’t know, boy or girl, and there she was, a girl, our girl, Donna.  She was a gorgeous, beautiful, healing balm to us after my Mom’s death.

Donna’s birthdays have always been hard for me.  On her first, I had a migraine and by her second, she had cancer.  On her third she had just relapsed after a stem cell transplant seven months earlier and would have surgery the next day.  Her fourth birthday would be her last and we knew that all too well because the doctors told us so a few weeks before.  And yet there were always candles and cake and presents.  Donna never asked for anything, just flowers.  She was so sweet that way.

Thirteen is hitting me hard this year.  Donna would be a teenager, which means I would be the mother of a teenager.  That, too, seems surreal, impossible, improbable.  With each passing year, with this realization that Donna has been gone more than twice the short time she was with us, I sometimes feel a sense of imposter syndrome come on.  I know that once upon a time I had a daughter, I am the mother of a teenager.

My invisible daughter, my phantom girl.  I ache for her.  This grief I have gets to grow up when my daughter does not.  This grief has been with me so much longer than my girl.  How is that possible?  One of the cruelest aspects of grief is that you learn to live with it.  It seems impossible to go on without these people you love so much, and yet, we do, we keep moving forward, but always keep a part of ourselves in the past, when we were whole.

Tomorrow I will get a cake, probably, and buy something for the boys and wrap it up, probably.  A gift in honor of the sister they never knew.  A gift for them because there will be no gifts for her.  She would like that, I think.  Donna loved parties.  Happy birthday, girl.  You are so missed, so loved, so cherished.

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