The Un-Birthday

Today marks the second birthday that we will be remembering Tricia without the joy of her physical presence.

I’m discovering that moving on from a loss doesn’t mean we erase the significant days of those people we love who most shaped and shared our lives from our calendars. It may just mean that we change the context in which we commemorate them. Just because I change the context of something doesn’t change the significance of it.

I have decided that on this side of things I am going to take a different approach to the way I observe Tricia’s birthday. Frankly, I am clueless how to celebrate something as personal as a birthday without the one I’m celebrating being present anyway. So this year I am choosing to look at it like the scene in Alice in Wonderland where the rabbit and the hatter are throwing themselves a “un-birthday” party. Alice, of course has no concept of what a un-birthday is but she soon learns it is the other 364 days of the year that aren’t her birthday that are worthy of celebration.

This year I am celebrating Tricia’s birthday by moving toward celebrating her “un-birthdays” – those moments we have over the other 364 days of the year that remind us of a beautiful life. I will celebrate her when I talk to our daughter and see glimpses of her in Lauren. Lauren’s laugh, her strong sense of principles, a certain determination, the way she waves her hand to make a point, and the sparkle in her blue eyes that she inherited. These are the daily joys that come on the “un-birthdays” which I can celebrate repeatedly.

I celebrate Tricia as I remember something she would say to me in the form of encouragement when I am feeling like I’m swinging in the wind at things that don’t come to fruition fast enough to suit me.

Sometimes when I drive in to Nashville from being out of town and see the skyline on the horizon I remember how fearful I was of moving here over twenty-five years ago and I quietly mumble to myself, “Thanks, Sweet Pea,” for her believing in me more than I did.

I can even celebrate her in the fact that she had our deck built with the stairs going down the wrong side of the house (in my opinion) and I laugh at that disagreement with every trip down those steps.

There won’t be a cake with Tricia’s name on it today. We aren’t going to get together and ceremoniously blow out her candles. Those are beautiful expressions but those aren’t ours to do now. What I will do is continue to celebrate her “un-birthday” tomorrow and each day when I see the glimpses of what she left here – a beautiful, bright daughter, a host of friends, the lasting impressions of her generosity, a circle of people she impacted and empowered, and a laugh that will stay in my mind as long as I remember her.

And occasionally, when I trudge up and down those blasted deck stairs that honestly should have been on the opposite side of the house.

The Ghosts of Christmases Past

I am fortunate enough to have known my great-grandparents. My great grandmother lived to be ninety-six and was even at my wedding. Beyond that generation however, I have no real information about my ancestors. I don’t know who came to this country in what generation or who migrated from where to get to Illinois where my relatives are all from. We have very few pictures of distant family and even the living relatives can’t agree on who these really are.

I have been going through my parents’ home movies from when we were kids. Everyone looks like they are on the set of Mad Men. It is fun, funny, and heartwarming to watch as my relatives that have now passed away joked, hammed it up, or even shunned the camera. I know who they all are. I know their stories. I know the occasion and setting of each frame of footage.

I had these fluttery films put to DVD so that we could archive them lest they be lost to the ever-rolling wave of technological progress. It occurred to me that generation after generation would be able to know these distant relatives even if they don’t know all of the stories. My grandchildren will see my great-grandmother playing croquet in the garden behind her big old house and my great-grandfather smoking his pipe in the very chair he died in.

While many of the people in our movies are no longer with us and many of the places no longer exist (and the ones that do don’t live up to the memories we hold), they are still very much a part of us. They are woven into who we are and who we became. They existed and they mattered. They shaped us. They moved us forward. They inspired and they sacrificed. They failed and they succeeded. There is a reality about them that will be in our hearts as long as we continue to tell their stories. They are not just ghosts of Christmases past.

My daughter Lauren (who is now twenty-three years old) watched some of our own home movies together from her childhood recently. She came in one day and simply said, “I want to remember mom. I only remember her as being sick and I want to remember her from before.”

As we watched she saw her mom in ways she hadn’t remembered. She saw her mother giving her advice about how to wear makeup as she got Lauren ready for a dance recital. She saw her mom telling her funny stories as we opened our own Christmas gifts. She saw Tricia serving cookies at her preschool program and teaching her to run a vacuum.

Finally, Lauren tearfully said, “I didn’t remember any of that. I only remember her as sick and removed and withdrawn. She was normal. We were normal. She really engaged me and wanted to teach me to say please and thank-you.”

There was a softening that happened that night. Suddenly Tricia was a little more human and not just a ghost. Lauren saw some glimpses of her own reality that had been there all along – she’d just forgotten.

These time capsules we watch together are powerful things. It is more than visiting the ghosts of Christmases past. It may even be less about remembering them and more about remembering ourselves.