Happy Birthday to Me?

Dear Ruby,

Today is my birthday. I’m 33. Growing up, I loved my birthday. In recent years though, birthdays have felt different.

I don’t relish being the center of attention, but I do love the love I’ve always received on my birthday. Old friends, new friends, acquaintances, and family reach out to offer well wishes and lighthearted banter. How could you not feel special? As a kid, birthdays were all about presents and cake. They later evolved into dinner parties and an excuse to have a few too many cocktails. But birthdays in my 30’s haven’t been about any of that. They’ve been more reflective than celebratory.

I was 12 weeks pregnant with you when I turned 30 and filled with so much naïve joy about all the possibilities a new decade could bring.

By the next year, your loss sucked away any joy I may have had about turning 31. How could I celebrate a birthday when you didn’t get to?

When I turned 32, I was a new mom to six month old Nora – wonderful, beautiful, fussy, nonstop nursing, helmet-wearing Nora. I was settling into my new life as a stay at home mom, feeling lucky and so beyond exhausted. I was consumed with worrying about your sister and too distracted for birthdays.

Birthday BreakfastToday I’m 33. I got to take my time getting ready this morning, lingering in the shower for more than 5 minutes while your Daddy handled morning baby duty. We went out to breakfast with Nora followed by a walk around our beautiful neighborhood. I got to feel the warmth of an 85-degree November day on my skin. I got to hold a teething Nora for an hour and a half as she napped in my arms. I got to indulge in a Baskin Robbins milkshake as I opened cards and read messages from my loved ones. I got to FaceTime with my parents and in laws and nieces and friends. And yet, with all that goodness, today still felt heavy. Initially, I thought it may have something to do with the disappointing outcome of the presidential election, but as the day went on I could sense it had more to do with you.

Yes, I’m sad that you’re not here. Yes, I feel guilty that I continue to have birthdays as you continue to not to have them. But that’s not why today feels heavy.

You have taught me the true significance of a birthday. Because of you, I know the real gift of another year. With that lesson comes the pressure and responsibility to be truly grateful for this day. That knowing deepens my awareness that not everyone gets to be 33.

The gift of a birthday makes me think about fate. I’ve completed another chapter of my story, but the uncomfortable reality is that we don’t know when our story will end.

The heaviness of today isn’t about a fear of death though. It’s about a fear that I haven’t savored enough love along the way; that I haven’t been appreciative enough of my time. My fate so far has brought me ups and downs and my birthday shines a light on the question: have I always found the silver lining? Have I made the most of this gift? Am I too busy letting your loss define me or am I going forward with the lessons I’ve learned and love I’ve received in the days since?

Finding the good has been a crucial piece of my healing process. Since the day we lost you, I needed the pain to be for something. I wanted your legacy to be more than just my broken heart. But it’s not always easy. I’m guilty of complaining about life’s irritating yet insignificant minutia. There are times when I lose site of how lucky I am to be here and have what I have today.

So on my birthday, I went in search of something to help guide me back. I remembered Elizabeth Lesser and her new memoir, Marrow.

It’s a story that chronicles her journey with her sister, Maggie, who was in need of a bone marrow transplant to live. Lesser was the only family member who was a match.

Maggie had been diagnosed with cancer again and was dealing with the physical and mental exhaustion of gearing up for the transplant: a devastating ordeal. Yet, instead of letting this rule her life, Maggie focused on opening up her heart to others, strengthening her relationships with her family, and getting to know her true self. By the end, she described that year as the “best of her life” and Lesser marveled at how her sister “turned her crummy fate into something beautiful.”

Amor fati, she called it.

It is Latin for love of fate and is characterized by an acceptance of the events or situations that occur in one’s life. Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche suggested that if we could learn to love our fate and not just bear it, we would find beauty and meaning everywhere.

Love my fate? When I read this for the first time, I wasn’t sure I could.

Sometimes fate sucks. Sometimes it’s too painful. Sometimes it is tragically unfair. And sometimes it takes away your first-born child and it feels like the only thing to do is bear it.

But fate can’t be summed up in one moment and amor fati isn’t suggesting that I love every individual event of my life. So while losing you is the ugliest fate I could have ever imagined, in order to lose you, I had to first have you. And having you was a dream come true.

Therein lies the beauty and the meaning.

I don’t love what happened to you, but the slow journey to acceptance has allowed me to love the place I find myself in today. SunsetWithout you, I wouldn’t be here. Without the pain and suffering, I wouldn’t have renewed appreciation for life or for birthdays. Without the heartbreak, I wouldn’t know the critical importance of savoring love along the way. I wouldn’t often think to search for silver linings. Without the guilt, I wouldn’t have found forgiveness. Without the emptiness, I wouldn’t have found an abundance of love. Without Ruby, there would be no Nora.

Birthdays in my 30s are definitely different, but I feel heavy with gratitude for what the 33rd chapter uncovered. There is no greater gift than being your and Nora’s mom.

I may not know when my story will end, but I’ll continue to search for the beauty and meaning on every page. And I’ll always look for you baby girl.

I love you,
Mom

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