Celebrating Birthdays Without Her

Baking cupcakes with her AG doll.

Baking cupcakes with her AG doll.

She would have been 9 on March 9th.  Two weeks from today, actually.   Right now I should be sending out an Evite for the group of girls who she would call her best friends.  I should be reserving an art studio or a horse farm so she can do something she loves with the people she loves.  My husband and I should be picking out the perfect gift that we have been having trouble putting off buying her for weeks.

Instead I am trying to plan a day around celebrating her short life.  It was just two years ago that we celebrated her last birthday with us.  So many of her birthdays were spent holding our breaths, praying this would not be her last, making our own wish as she blew out the candles.  There were ones where we didn’t even feel cancer breathing on the back of our necks.  Those usually ended up biting us in the end with a call from a doctor the next day saying she was riddled with cancer.  We would tell them they must have the wrong results because just the day before she laughed and played in a swimming pool with her friends.  How are these normal child birthdays for a parent?

Her birthdays are full of mixed emotions and memories for me.  And now that she is gone, I find that I’m once again unsure of how to feel on her day.  How do you properly pay tribute to a lost child on their birthday?  Last year I thought that surrounding myself with her loved ones and doing something to honor her was the perfect answer.  We hosted a blood drive complete with balloons and birthday cake.  Give a life in honor of her life.  What a great idea, right?  But looking at a cake that was decorated with “Happy Birthday Isabella” written on it in purple icing and having to hear everyone sing as someone blew out her candles made me just sick.  I remember thinking this was the worst way for me to spend my day.  I wanted to just crawl in my bed and pull the covers over my head and mourn her in my own way.  Instead I had to give hugs and wear a smile as I sipped my spiked coffee that somehow stopped my hands from shaking.  By the end of the day I just disappeared…exhausted as I crawled into her bed to sob.

As this next year approaches I have learned to protect my heart more.  We booked a local art studio that she loved and decided to offer painting sessions for kids to raise money for Neuroblastoma research.  Bright colored paintings and purple cupcakes.  No candles.  No singing.  Perhaps not even my face at the event.  In fact, my husband and I would like for the day to pass quickly.  But she has a brother and sister who are already asking what we are going to do to celebrate her birthday.  So even in private I can’t escape it.

The only people I can try to please on this day would be the people that still trip over her shoes in our home.  My two other children will always know this day and we will try to teach them about remembering her how she would want to be remembered.  We will go to one of her favorite places to eat and pick out pretty flowers to bring to her site.  I will wrestle with the feelings in my head all day of how this all came to be.  How I felt her kick in my belly and now can only place my hand on an inscription of her name.

What I find after losing a child is that things I do in her honor are so very private to me.  I’m always amazed at the advice that is given around what we do to remember her.  Even when you work hard year round on a foundation in her name that gives back to things that were important to her such as Neuroblastoma research, the Make a Wish Foundation and the Ronald McDonald House, you still hear whispers of what people think is right or wrong.  I can never understand the thought of this after all we have been through as a family.

If it is one thing that should be done without criticism it should be how a family decides to honor a lost child; what we raise money for, how often we visit her remains, how public we want to be on special days, etc.  I can’t begin to imagine having opinions on how others grieve, but oddly our society has an opinion about everything.

These opinions make days like her birthday feel stolen from me.  While I know she may have meant a ton to so many people, I feel selfish and think her birthday is my day with her.  For just one day I try to quiet the voices in my head of what others think is right and wrong and allow myself to relive every memory of her in my own private way.  I like to think of how her birthday would be in my perfect world.  The dress she would wear, the nail color we would pick out together, and even the new doll outfits and accessories we would select for the American Girl doll she loved at the time.

When a loved one passes away, all the things that once brought you joy such as birthdays, Christmas mornings and seeing fireworks… they all leave you with a bitter taste in your mouth.  As hard as you try to smile, the heartbreak inside you boils up like a volcano.  It’s hard to learn how to manage your pain on these days because you want to show you are strong and you want to start to live life in a positive way.  I know in time they will be less painful.

So this year there will be no singing and no gifts to open.  My heart only asks for one thing.  The only gift I want is to close my eyes and have the most vivid dream of her that I can.  It’s a dream where she wears a birthday hat and a smile and blows out flickering candles as a happy and healthy little girl and runs into my arms.  The reality is there is no way to be happy celebrating a birthday without her.  Unfortunately, I have many years ahead of me to figure out how to celebrate in a way that allows her into my heart without breaking it time and time again.