At the end of this month, on February 27, Luke would have turned eight years old. We celebrated just one birthday together. Seven—and counting—without him.
When Luke turned one, we took him to Johnny Rockets on a cold and lonely Monday night. We were having a small party with friends and family at the end of the week to celebrate. But Monday was his birthday—maybe the only one he’d ever have, we knew—so we wanted to mark the actual date. There would be no photos of him cramming cake into his frosting-covered face, since he was getting most of his nutrition via feeding tube by then. There would be no memories of him gleefully clawing open brightly-wrapped gifts, since he was unable to control his hands or arms. This little celebration was for us more than him. His brain knew no wants beyond the most primal: a full belly, a warm body, a loving touch.
Few others had felt compelled to venture out into the wintry weather, so our little family of four had the restaurant almost all to ourselves. We sat in a red vinyl and chrome booth and placed our orders: burgers, fries, a chocolate milkshake for Hannah. For Luke, we ordered a dish of whipped cream, a favorite treat that didn’t require hefty swallowing skills.
“Just whipped cream?” asked the waitress, but when she glanced at Luke, who was at the tail end of a small seizure, she just scratched the order onto her pad and hurried away. She returned with a little cloud of whipped cream piled high on a saucer, a thin candle wobbling amidst the sugary billows. We sang a hushed “Happy Birthday” and spooned tiny dollops of whipped cream into Luke’s eagerly gaping mouth while The Drifters doo-wopped through the overhead speakers of the near-empty diner. Years later, I’d hear chef Anthony Bourdain describe a Johnny Rockets meal as the saddest one he’d ever eaten and half-wonder if he was there in the restaurant that night.
The first birthday after Luke died, I left a bottle of pumped breast milk and two-week-old Eve at home with a sitter and drove out to the cemetery alone. It is a 47-minute drive to Bestgate Memorial Park. I cried the entire way. I was angry and hurt that Josh had chosen to go to work, feeling as lonely as our dead child lying under the snow.
Around that time, Hannah had taken to painting small, smooth rocks with her favorite nail polish. Before she left for preschool that morning, she pressed one into my palm and asked me to give it to Luke. At the cemetery, I knelt on the icy ground and placed her shiny pink stone on top of the plate-sized river rock engraved with her brother’s name. I traced the letters with my ungloved fingers until the numbness set in and I could no longer feel the boundary between my hand and the stone that bore his name. Under the barren trees, my breasts heavy with milk for a sister Luke would never know, I whispered in the winter wind to my son, telling him I loved him, asking forgiveness for letting him go, and for continuing to go on without him.
The next year, Hannah and Josh came with me. This time Hannah placed her pink-and-purple stone on Luke’s gravestone herself. We stood side-by-side, looking down at the two stones—one gray and cold, another pink and vibrant, as woeful a metaphor as ever was.
“So, Luke’s body is under this dirt?” she asked, looking at the leaves spread like a brown blanket on the earth around us.
“Yes, it’s in a coffin under this dirt,” I answered, remembering the simple pine box we had chosen for a green burial. When the carpenter had received the measurements and realized the coffin was for a child, he carved a hand-sized teddy bear into the soft, fragrant wood.
“But it’s probably just bones and stuff there now?” Hannah persisted, a little puff of steam escaping her mouth into the frigid air.
“Probably.” In fact, I had a pretty good idea of what was in that little pine box. I had a shameful preoccupation with the state of Luke’s body under that frozen ground. In the way a nosy mother might slyly scrutinize her teenager for peach fuzz or underarm hair, I would Google the states of decomposition and try to imagine how my son’s body was changing, what secrets it held. This habit frightened me. I worried that the shock Luke’s death had unleashed some latent psychopathy in my fractured mind. When I finally confessed it to a therapist, he mercifully didn’t recoil. I was stoking my pain, he said, keeping it alive because it helped me feel closer to Luke. Now, whenever my fingers hover above the keyboard, about to start down that ignominious path, I am able to forgive myself. At least a little.
Hannah tugged at my hand, and I looked down into her sweet, open face. “Why are you crying?” she asked.
“I’m sad. I miss Luke.”
Now, after seven birthdays without him, the sharp edge of pain has dulled. Of course, it still doubles me over sometimes. Grief is a cunning hunter; it favors the element of surprise. It’s as likely to pounce on a random Tuesday as on the anniversary of one of his few milestones. And so, while I and others might expect February 27 to be an especially difficult day, it often is not. But the 28th might be, or September 6, or any other day of any other year.
This will be the first year I don’t take off work for Luke’s birthday. I have a new job, new co-workers, many of whom don’t even know I had a son. It is hard to find a point of entry into such a divulgence—a dilemma not unique to work. Disclosure can feel like a blunt weapon that wounds on both the giving and receiving ends. The pity it elicits gives me an upper hand I would trade anything not to have.
In the morning over cereal, Josh or I will mention that it is Luke’s birthday. Hannah will pause and stare quietly into her cereal, hoping I don’t cry. I will. Josh will gently remind our girls, “It’s okay to be sad. It’s okay to cry.” Eve will suggest a celebration. I won’t know if the request reflects an honest desire to commemorate her brother or just a longing for cupcakes. I will inwardly cringe at the idea of singing “Happy Birthday” to my dead child, so I will instead suggest that we look at pictures of Luke later, after school. But after school is homework and dinner, baths and bedtime. By the time the sun has gone down, my children will have forgotten the significance of the date, and I won’t have the fortitude to bring it up again. That morning, in the milky winter light of the kitchen, is the last time Luke’s name will be said aloud that day.
A day or two before, a card will have arrived in the mailbox from my brother-in-law and his wife, a birthday tradition they have clung to every year, before and after Luke’s death. I will open it after my daughters have gone to bed so I can cry freely, fierce tears of gratitude to these two brave and generous souls and their unwavering determination to remember Luke to us, for us. I will read their loving words and press the card to my heart, knowing there is no way I can ever articulate how much their remembrance means to me. After some time, my husband, tears shining in his eyes, will gently slide it from my grasp, as if he’s easing a sleeping baby from my arms.
3 replies on “Happy Birthday”
Oh, Jennifer, your honesty is so moving. And I’m cheering for the brother-in-law-and-wife who so tenderly remember, and then act on their caring. Brave souls indeed! It’s so easy to shrink from loss and pain, especially if it’s someone else’s.
Your writing simply takes my breath away. How I loved being surprised by the detail of whipped cream–perfect! And the visual of your husband easing the card from your grasp like a sleeping baby made me tear up. I can feel all this. Thank you!
Thank you for having the courage to write and share this with us. Among the many elements that make this piece so powerful, I’m impressed at how Jennifer weaves the dialogue into the narrative, giving a vivid portrait of her family and the individual approaches to grief and loss. I’ll be thinking about this for quite some time.
This was perfectly, heart-rendingly written. Thank you for sharing it.