He would be 45 today.
Wow, that seems so old.
Maybe it’s because he only made it just over the hump, to his 40th birthday, and then so quickly left this earth. Shawn and I talked a lot about what it would mean to be forty (40!) and how it was this whole new step in our lives. And yet, he fell ill just a few months later, and died so quickly that we never really had the chance to think through what our forties would be like.
I had to figure that out on my own.
The first year without Shawn, I wrote two blog posts about his birthday. The first one, which I wrote the morning of his birthday, was about how the kids were conceptualizing his death. I wrote about how much they misbehaved the night before and how Claire felt unsettled about visiting the cemetery, but ultimately decided she wanted to. I didn’t know if I was doing the right thing, as I wrote about in the post, Shawn’s Birthday:
And so, at lunch today, I’m picking Claire and Austin up from camp and we are going to drive out to the cemetery. I have no idea how it’s going to go. I told Claire that if she gets there and doesn’t want to get out of the car, she doesn’t have to.
Maybe we should have waited for a different day to go to the cemetery. But maybe not. As with everything I’m doing these days, I don’t know what the right answer is.
I do know that we’re getting in the car in just a few minutes, and going to a place where the air is still and the geese run wild and my husband’s name is etched on a stone in the ground. I hope we are also going to a place that will finally bring my daughter some peace.
After that day, which was filled with intense grief and some happiness too, I wrote the follow-up post, Shawn’s Birthday, Part 2, where I recounted Claire’s breakdown at the end of the night:
It’s just too damn much to ask a 9-year-old to do everything she did today. Maybe we could have skipped the cemetery or the party and it would have been easier but it wouldn’t really have mattered at the end of the day. What makes it so hard for her to get through days like her Dad’s birthday is just this simple fact: he’s not here.
Eventually, she seemed to calm down a bit, but she still had a lot on her mind. “Why did he have to die so young?” she asked me after we’d been talking for a while. “And why do people even get cancer?”
“I don’t know,” I said honestly.
She continued to pepper me with questions. “Why did our nice dad die instead of someone mean? Why did this happen to our family? Why do all the other kids have dads and I don’t? Why do you have to be alone and all the other moms get a husband?”
And then, in the midst of all of this, she paused and looked me straight in the eyes. “And mom,” she asked, “is Santa Claus real?”
She was so little, I realized as I re-read that blog post the other day. Almost the same age that Tommy is now.
The second time we celebrated Shawn’s birthday without him, we were in Europe. A family friend had sent us on a vacation and it was really hard but it had also been a huge turning point for me, emotionally. I realized I could do so much on my own. But damn, I still missed him so much, and the kids reminded me of him around every corner, as I wrote in Shawn’s Birthday, year 2:
As I tucked them in bed that night, they were all still talking about the magic trick. “Tell us a wonder story!” Tommy begged.
“Wonder stories” are just true stories from my life. I have no idea what made Tommy decide to call them “wonder stories” but I love the name he chose. As I sat back and thought about the story that I was going to tell them, Tommy held my hand and looked at me with anticipation.
It had been a day of wonder, I realized. Claire tasting a real croissant. Austin seeing incredible cars. Tommy in awe of the lanterns. And then a magic trick at the end. Everything was new and everything seemed to fill my kids with wonder.
And Shawn was missing it.
Tears fell down my face as I told them the wonder story that night. I recounted some of my travels with their dad and remembered all of the times we had when the world was filled with magic for the two of us.
How was he missing these moments of wonder for the kids?
It was hard to figure out the world without Shawn, even as I was doing it.
The next year, we were in quarantine with the rest of the world, in the early days of the pandemic. Things were hard, but Chris was in my life and the kids were happy, even though we never left the house. It made me feel such gratitude toward Shawn, as I wrote in the post, Shawn’s Birthday, Year 3:
I came back in the yard and the kids were getting ready to go back in the pool. Tommy had his goggles sideways on his head, and Austin’s uncut hair was sticking out everywhere. Claire was telling a story about something, commanding an audience from her brothers, when she yelled, “back to the pool!” at the top of her lungs. All three of them ran towards the pool and bounded in, screaming as they hit the cold water.
It took my breath away, in an unexpected way. It was just so beautiful.
I let the moment sink in. There I was, standing in the ugliest yard in the neighborhood. Most of the grass was dying, the mud pit had grown, and the dead appliances stood nearby. The trash from the basketball hoop was strewn around the yard, and a pile of granola bar wrappers lay on a heap of wet towels.
But all I could see and all I could feel was how lucky I was in that moment. Lucky that Shawn gave me these three kids who have his eyes, and lucky that he helped me build a life in this house. Lucky that he told me to find someone else once he was gone, so that when I did, I could do it with my whole heart.
I guess it’s me that got a present on Shawn’s birthday. This life – the one that’s so been so hard and so ugly at times – it is also one that still has so many beautiful moments. I am grateful for the gifts he left me, ones that I sometimes haven’t been able to see but have always been there.
And finally, there was last year. On Shawn’s Birthday, Year 4, I thought about how radically different my life was, about how much had changed:
I sometimes wonder what he’d think about this life I’m living now, and if he’d recognize the person I’ve become.
I think he would. I think that he’d be surprised that I now own things like proofing baskets and that I have a budding career as a writer. But I think he’d recognize me. I think he’d be happy that Chris and I found each other and I think he’d be proud of how the kids have grown. I also think he’d recognize those parts of me that have always been there, the ones that he saw and admired, pieces that were shattered when he died but that I put back together.
I am not the same, and yet, I am the same.
And now we are at the fifth birthday without Shawn. The one that seems so significant because it has now been five times that we have celebrated without him. But also the one that’s so powerful because I am married to Chris and because he has adopted our kids and because I can see how much has changed in the life of our family.
I had breakfast with two dear old friends this morning, and we talked a bit about Shawn. It was a good talk, and even though we all used to cry a lot when we talked about him, we all smiled at this breakfast remembering the way that he filled a room with joy. I talked about how much is different now, and how strange of a process it’s been to really let go of Shawn, without every totally letting him go.
One of my friends turned to me and smiled. “Shawn is happy,” she said, using the present tense. “He is happy for you and for the life you have.”
“I know,” I replied.