There is something incredibly special about birthdays. They mark our time here on earth in years, each one representing a specific set of memories that get stored in our hearts and minds, pulled out when something happens to trigger one. And, within those years, there are certain birthdays that are even more eventful. Some are recognized by society, such as 18 and becoming a legal adult. Others are only special to those with whom we share our lives and us. The candle we wish upon at the end of a trying time or the celebration of joy to mark the year ahead as we look forward to something big.
As children, we look forward to the day when everyone around us comes together to celebrate with cake, balloons and presents. We feel special and deeply loved. Teens view it as a milestone, one year closer to being adult and free to make decisions without the approval of surrounding adults. Then we hit adulthood and often develop a love/hate relationship with that one particular day. On one hand, it’s a reason to gather with friends for dinner and drinks; while, on the other, it’s a reminder that we are getting older. Each year we find ourselves taking stock of all the things we accomplished, often paying more attention to those goals we didn’t meet. For some this becomes the push we need to change, others fall into a depression and start to focus on the passage of time rather than the time of their journey. Regardless, we see the moment of death as the moment in which our birthdays stop being celebrated, and we will be forgotten.
Yet, this is not necessarily true. We live on in the memories of our loved ones and often our birthdays are remembered for several decades into the future. Those left behind share their memories of us and that keeps the person we were alive for others. How we view our birthdays while we’re here can often determine how we are remembered on our birthdays long after we’ve celebrated our last.
I am writing this on the anniversary of my mother’s birth. During her life she always acknowledged her birthday, but never enjoyed getting older, preferring to hang on to an image of herself as a young woman. For many years she claimed to be 39, until I, the youngest, turned 40. I don’t really know what changed for her but it’s as if having to acknowledge I was aging forced her to face her own mortality. We never discussed it; one day I realized my mother had gone from being terrified of death to having made peace with it. With that peace she was able to embrace her true age and, rather than worry about the future, she began living “in the moment”. When I was with her I noticed her energy seemed significantly lighter and her usual sense of humor came even more apparent. While I obviously loved my mother before, I really came to appreciate her as a friend and companion after this.
I have no doubt the death of my father became a part of this process, since he died shortly before I turned 40. The death of someone you’ve loved and lived with throws you into a tailspin of anger, depression, denial and acceptance. For some it results into a lifetime of bitterness and anger at the inevitability of death. For my mother it became a catalyst for coming to terms with the temporal nature of life. In the end, it not only made the rest of her life a time to enjoy what is here and now, it made her ability to slip away when it was her own time easier. She was ready, she had said her goodbyes, and she looked forward to finding out what was beyond this “mortal coil.” As a result, it also made it easier for me to cope with her loss.
So, on this day I can remember her. While there may be a certain amount of grieving involved, it is more a celebration of the life she led, the stories she shared with me, and the knowledge that I absorbed her lessons. The anger at the things left unresolved is gone, the depression and loneliness subsided, and I am left with gratitude. I hope I leave my own life and legacy in the same state.