Today is my friend, Jaza’s, birthday. And it’s his first since his beloved mother died almost two months ago. And much like I did with my dad and Parkinson’s Disease, Jaza watched his mother morph from a lively, active parent to a mere shell of who she was, robbed of her mind and then her body by the monster that is Alzheimer’s. While his support system-a great wife, two grown children and a little girl-will do all that they can to make this day a happy birthday for him, inside it’s just not the same when one of the people who gave you life has just left it.
I can’t believe it’s been over two years and three birthdays that Gussie has not been on earth. And since posting in 2015 about my birthday not being the same, my feelings have not changed. I still feel like part of me is missing when my birthday rolls around. This year was particularly hard because on my actual birthday my oldest (and now working long hours) daughter was not with me- that was a first. Though we celebrated two days earlier, the realization that morning that I wouldn’t get to see her on that day for the first time in 22 years and my dad would again not be calling me that morning to sing to me darkened my mood as soon as I opened my eyes. That, and remembering that this was my last year with a forty in my age. I went to work that day, grateful to be surrounded by students who didn’t know what day it was and who distracted me.
Will birthdays bring me such sadness for the rest of my life? Probably not as much as time passes. I’m sure I’ll become more wistful on that day and less mopey at some point. Will this be my friend’s worst one? Most certainly. But will we and everyone else who lost a parent they were extremely close to feel empty every year? I think that space in our hearts where our parents lived will always remain hollow- how could it not? In Jaza’s case, that place in his heart had 92 years of occupancy-and while some unfeeling people say we should be grateful for having someone for so long-I, and others who lost elderly parents, could argue that the longer we had them, the deeper the bond and the worse the pain is.
Not everyone has a close relationship with a parent as an adult- the kind where you want to bounce ideas and questions off of them because you value their wisdom. The kind that makes you realize in adulthood and have your own children that unconditional love exists and makes you grateful that you are in the middle of a sort of an unconditional love sandwich. The kind that, as your parent gets older, makes you think “What would I do without my dad/mom?” And then you shake your head to try to erase that terrible thought as if your head were an Etch-a-Sketch. Not having such a close relationship, or worse, an estranged relationship, with a parent brings with it lots of other layers of pain, none of them mitigated by death. Among those layers is guilt. Thankfully, I don’t have guilt to wrestle with over what kind of daughter I was to my father. I also never have to wonder when the last time I told him I loved him was (the night before he died) or to scratch my head thinking about if I showed him how much I loved him. I know I did- through my entire life. That brings me peace. It’s the same peace that my friend can draw from in his grief, knowing that his mother cherished the almost 53 years she had with her son loving her and caring for and about her. In the absence of guilt to complicate matters, the pain felt is pure loss.
So, I am never in a position to tell someone how to handle their grief, and certainly can’t give any advice, not only because everyone’s grief and grief timetable is different, but because I have no answers. All I can offer to Jaza and anyone else whose world has come crashing down around them by the death of a parent, is that sometimes when we are in the throes of this tremendous grief, it’s the pain that reminds us that we are indeed alive, when we just seem to be going through the motions of living while we’re mourning. So maybe the purpose of such profound sadness on our birthdays every year is not to just remember that our parent is gone, but to not forget that we are still alive.
Happy birthday, Jaza.