When I was a child, the best day every year was my birthday. No matter how my mom was feeling, she made my birthday magical: big parties and special treats and lots of dancing to the Beatles “Birthday” song when we got home from school. It was a day when I always felt celebrated and special and adored. And so, I loved my birthday – at least, until my mom died.
I was 19 at the time, and once the shock wore off, one of my first thoughts was about my birthday. Who was going to celebrate it with me? How would it possibly be special without her in it? I don’t even remember what I did for my 20th birthday. I probably had too much to drink at some bar that let in underage kids. Who knows. Clearly, it wasn’t memorable. I’m sure I just wanted to get through it.
But time passed. It was four years later, in fact, that I celebrated my 24th birthday with Shawn. He threw me a surprise party, and I knew that night – or sometime around that night – that I was going to marry him. I also remember thinking how much had changed in four years. I’d gone from a grieving child to a woman who was ready to marry the love of her life.
I thought I had it all figured out, and of course I didn’t. But it was amazing how much my life had changed in those four years. How much I actually had pulled myself together and made a life for myself that was happy. Even without my mom.
For a decade and a half, I once again had great birthdays. Some were filled wild parties, complete with karaoke and hilarious nights that lasted until 3 am. Some were calmer, like the year we spent our first night at home with three kids, just a few days after Tommy’s birth. But they were all with Shawn.
Until, of course, he died.
I had about six weeks between Shawn’s death and my 39th birthday. The first few weeks were pure shock – I was heartbroken, but nothing seemed real. But as the reality of loss began to hit me, I found that I remained focused on one thing: my birthday.
What was I going to do for my birthday without Shawn?
I pondered this with friends. How could I mark this passage of time when Shawn wouldn’t be there next to me? It was like losing my mom, except about a hundred times worse. I was alone, and I was almost 40. I needed to do something.
I decided to start this blog.
And so, a few weeks before my 39th birthday, I started typing. I wrote the first five posts by the time my birthday rolled around. I was determined to mark the date. I was 39 and I was alone, but I had written five blog posts and maybe that meant something.
Ultimately, my two best friends from college, Kelly and Paige, flew in for the weekend and we had a night out with friends. That night became the sixth blog post, the one that actually ended up coming first on the blog. It’s called, appropriately, “My 39th Birthday” and here’s an excerpt:
Here’s the thing – it’s not that I feel insecure in the same way I did at age 21, worried about how my hair looked or whether I was wearing the right jeans or drinking the right beer. Those sorts of silly issues faded just by mere fact of growing older. It’s that when I was with him, I felt so secure in who I was. I felt so secure that he loved me. I felt so secure that we were a thing – Shawn and Marjorie, Marjorie and Shawn. I felt so secure in who I was as a person, as a partner.
Now, I don’t feel that.
It’s hard to read that post. I felt so lost on my birthday that year.
But I still hit publish on my first blog post on the day I turned 39. I made a goal to keep writing each week, even though I had few plans for other parts of my life. I was going to hold my family together and I was going to keep my teaching job and I was going to write this blog.
And now it is four years later.
A lot can happen in four years. It’s a time period that’s meaningful in many ways. High schoolers living at home become college graduates in the world. Helpless infants become rambunctious pre-K students. Presidents change. The Olympics comes around once again.
Four years is a long time.
In fact, when I think back to four years ago, it feels like a lifetime. And it also feels like yesterday. It feels like a lifetime because I am so much more healed and so changed in fundamental ways than I was four years ago. And yet I can remember almost every moment of what that night of my 39th birthday felt like, out with my friends, trying to celebrate and instead crying over my meal as I thought about being a widow. That memory feels like yesterday.
When I think forward four years, it’s hard to know exactly what my life will be like. But I can imagine a good future. That’s really different from how I felt four years ago when I could only see darkness.
Slowly over the past four years – and I mean, very slowly – I didn’t just see bad things in my future. It took more than a year, but there came a time when things in the future seemed like they could hold possibility, even if I didn’t know what that possibility was. And then more time passed, and I could see a bit of light. I didn’t know what that light meant, only that it was there.
And now I am here. And I can see a lot of possibility, some of it very clearly.
For the past few months, I’ve thought a lot about what I want my future to look like. I’ve made plans to figure out how to write more, plunge myself into my community more, take more trips and celebrate with my family more. I’ve done a lot of thinking about what I want to do with this blog. I’ve imagined there are other ways I might try new things in my life.
But maybe I had the right idea four years ago. Back then, I had only three goals: hold my family together, keep my teaching job, and write this blog. I wasn’t worried about much else because I couldn’t be worried about much else. Just doing those three things completely filled my days.
Now, much more fills my days. But for my birthday this year, I’m going to try and push myself a bit less. Yes, I have more space than I once did, places where I could slot in a million more things. But being a widow has taught me how easy it is to take for granted a life that’s filled with wonderful things. Four years ago, I would have done anything to go back to lazy Sunday mornings with three little babies crawling all over Shawn.
I don’t want to go back, anymore. I want to keep living here, in this moment, with the three little babies that are now so much bigger than they all once were. I want to watch them shuffle around the house in their pajamas and funny bed hair as I write this blog that I want to keep on writing for as long as I can. I want to watch my husband Chris turn around and smile at me as he pops a piece of toast in the toaster for me and I want to let the emotion wash over me. I want to notice that the sun is so beautiful streaming in through the windows on a weekend morning.
I want to remember this moment, this time, this birthday.
Image Credit: Sharyn Peavey Photography.