This post mentions my living son.
It starts with the discounts and the gifts. Even before the month turns, along with the Cyber Monday promotions, birthday offers start trickling into my mailbox. An email reads, “Happy birthday gorgeous! Come, celebrate with us! Get $10 off your purchase,” while a natural beauty product store offers a 5-minute scalp and shoulder massage in their store. They call it a “ritual.” A ritual to celebrate my birth, which I am sure they would call an “event.”
Such magnificent words to describe something so insignificant to me these days. The celebration continues in a virtual world where greetings from “friends” come on the cue of notifications of my birthday in their social media accounts. Those who have not noticed that I have not “posted,” or “commented on,” or even “liked” a post in two and a half years, including not thanking anyone for wishes on two birthdays, continue to casually and ritualistically wish me. If stores want to retain my loyalty as a customer, human beings want to check a box. So the maddening dance of rituals whirls around me, from social media to the telephone, across multiple time zones, from midnight in India to midnight in the US. “Happy birthday!” There’s chirpiness in everyone’s voices, and it is reflected in the exclamation marks, sometimes multiple ones, when they write.
I do not exclaim anymore. Since my life came to a screeching halt two and a half years back, and a permanent hole was punctured into my heart, I have seldom felt the need for punctuations. There is forever a “period” in my thoughts, like my daughter’s permanent and absolute absence. There is no question, no exclamation, no thoughtful pausing by the roadside with a comma. Thank you. Period. Good to hear from you. Period. I appreciate your wishes. Period.
Even to this day, two birthdays later, I feel amazed how in celebrating my birth, no one acknowledges Raahi’s death. This year, I am even wished “life’s very best” by one of my oldest friends. I cannot help but smile at the screen, since life’s best is indeed the opposite of death's worst, and the cynic in me wonders if the former can be wished when the latter has happened. The wise 39-year-old in me knows that good and bad can coexist, and the timeless battered soul in me knows how cruelly and inextricably life and death can hold hands, but can worst and best be in the same place together, too? I stare in disbelief at more emails from family and close friends, not one of whom mentions Raahi’s absence, even as a dependent clause preceding the wish. There is no “I know, but,” and absolutely no wish begins with an “Although.” They are whole, linear, unequivocally happy messages. Which is probably why they feel so empty, jagged, and unequivocally sad.
A couple of people grant me the weight and maturity of age, and although they are close friends, they write more formal notes, merely saying “thinking of you, and sending warm birthday greetings.” The weight of the impersonal, the soft and the quiet in these messages, seem to be more befitting, as if they recognize the immeasurable distance and difference between us. Somehow I feel closer to and comforted by these more solemn thoughts than the cheerful ones full of joy and excitement, neither of which I feel on this day.
My birthday used to be sacred. I used to be giddily excited by it, well into my thirties, feeling like the day was mine, and I was this earth’s. No matter how tired, overworked, anxious or alone I was, I always allowed myself to become a little girl on this special day. From a very young age, when birthdays were all about new clothes, my mother’s special cooking, and celebrating with friends, I was also introspective on this day, feeling one with the world, and being strangely aware of a meaning, a purpose, a soul. I felt connected, I felt alive. I remember thinking how it was the day I came into being, and somehow that day, it all made sense. All year my existence would be measured and realized in terms of what I said, or did. Life was about actions, opinions, beliefs, questions, challenges, plans, even dreams. But every year, in this moment on this day, it was about my being, about who I am. Long before I became a mother, or took care of a baby, I would think of myself as an infant, born a mere ten minutes past midnight, on a cold December night, to a 26-year-old woman, and a 35-year-old man. Somehow this day was about history, about creation, about a moment, and about eternity. I never spoke to anyone about this, but I would smile more that day, have a spring in my feet, and yet be more rooted.
I was born at 12.10 AM, and every year, ignoring the calls at midnight, I would creep into bed with my sleeping mother, hug her, and tell her she just had a daughter. She would hug me back, half asleep, hold me tight, and we would relive our moments, the moments I first came to her, and made her a mother. From the time I started living away from home, I would always call her at 12.10 AM her time, although it was still the day before my birthday where I was. She would go to bed with her cellphone next to her, and we would hug and hold each other across thousands of miles on the one day they somehow didn't matter.
I had my son at the beginning of the year, and therefore had almost eleven months with him before my birthday came around. Eleven months when my life was all about being a mother. And yet, on my birthday that year, I remember thinking and writing that today was all about having a mother. My mother teared up when I called her and said that I now truly knew how she felt on this day, many years ago.
If having my son made me aware of the meaning and worth of being a mother, losing my daughter stripped me of feeling even human. I lost my connection to the world, quivering on my foothold upon an earth that no longer felt like home. I draw a blank after the pressure of stocking up on the year’s worth of health, hygiene and lifestyle products on the Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales starts to wane. I no longer feel any anticipation for December as the world merrily eases into the season to be jolly. At dinner, my son calculates various combinations of my age, and its relation to other important milestones – the age I met his father, the age we got married, the age his grandma was when she had me, the age I was when I had him, and his sister. I nod at him, thinking of these as more personal math problems, and nothing more. My husband asks me what I want for my birthday, and I don’t want anything. I no longer want anything. Just the two of them to be alive and well.
My mom now calls me at 12.10 AM her time in India. I don’t feel anything as she cheerfully wishes me health and happiness forever. I pause after she utters “forever.” I then ask for her blessing, congratulate her on becoming a mother, rattle off a few plans for the day, and tell her gently to go to bed. She knows I love her, but I don’t know if she can tell the difference in my voice or the change in my sacred birthday ritual with her for more than thirty years. We don’t talk about it. I spend the day feeling as blank and as broken as the rest of the year.
I am glad I was born. I am glad I made my parents happy. I am glad I met the love of my life and got to spend my life with him. I feel immensely blessed for giving birth to two beautiful children. I feel immeasurably fortunate to be able to raise one of them. And even on my birthday, and maybe more that day, I am dead for having lost the other one.
Share your own birthday stories with us. How were they celebrated before your loss(es)? How has the day, and its meaning and significance to you, changed since you lost your baby(ies)? Do your friends and family recognize this change? If you could say something to those who don’t, what would it be?