Last night, on what would have been our son’s 23rd birthday, my husband and I went out for a quiet, pensive dinner and then stopped at The Dollar Tree Store to buy birthday balloons to tie at Zachary’s grave. We bought one striped balloon that said “Happy Birthday” and five more metallic stars in assorted colors.
As we paid the cashier, she smiled and cheerfully chirped, “Enjoy your birthday party!”
But there was no party. No cake and ice cream. No enthusiastic guests. No singing. And not a single present in sight.
How do you, actually, celebrate a birthday when the guest of honor is not present? How do you honor someone you dearly love when all you have left is the memory of the life they lived? It is a question our family has been trying to figure out for 6 1/2 years.
In lieu of cheerful festivities inside a warm, brightly-lit home, there were only gray skies and a cold, damp November wind at a small community cemetery. Overwhelmed with memories of happier times, my husband and I tied down a bouquet of cheap helium balloons that cost only $1.00 each. A few quiet moments spent kneeling in front of a cold headstone hardly seemed an appropriate birthday celebration for a child who would be happily turning 23.
Maybe it’s all we know to do on our son’s birthday. Maybe the intimate dinner allows us to quietly speak together of both our son’s wonderful life as well as his sad, tragic death. Possibly the colorful balloons are really for us and the moments at the cemetery a time to mourn our loss yet again. And perhaps until the day arrives that we come up with a better plan, we will continue to carry out this simple tradition that offers a measure of satisfaction and routine.
Birthdays can be difficult for anyone enduring a loss. Somehow we fumble through these special days, doing the best we can to find a way to soothe our own pain while at the same time honoring our loved one’s life. Always, we do the best we can. And perhaps along the way, we find comfort in the fact that our loved ones are safe and happy with God in the most wonderful place one could ever hope to celebrate a birthday.
I am challenged to replace sorrow with thankfulness as I reflect on how blessed I am to have known and enjoyed my wonderful son for 16 years. I am reminded to thank God for all the people in my life who I love and treasure — mindful that each day is a gift to be relished and enjoyed.
May you too, on each birthday celebration, add gratefulness to your mourning and hope to your sadness.