Today is my birthday. This was not the post I had planned to share.
I have a draft with a tiara topped teenage memory bedazzled with poems and cake and confetti. Then my father-in-law died and I went to a funeral instead.
His death was not unexpected. He was in his eighties and had been declining. We were grateful that he did not linger bedridden and in pain. His funeral was a celebration of a life lived fully, a big, robust presence who knew, and was loved by, many people. He would have been pleased by the crowd who turned out, who chatted and hugged and laughed on his behalf. He would have popped popcorn and made us eat second and third helpings.
This is the closest family member I have lost. My parents moved away from extended family and we were disconnected from the social rituals of life and death. I did not go to my first funeral until I was 29 years old. I saw the body of my husband’s grandmother and was undone. I had to be led away to the parking lot. Since then, I have attended the funerals of two grandparents and several strangers. My father-in-law was a man I have known, kissed on the cheek, been irritated by, joked with, and been deeply connected to for thirty-six years. My husband, like his stoic pioneer mother, is peaceful; his father was ready and the timing was merciful. I know this, but also feel raw and uncertain.
Typically my January birthday is my own New Year’s celebration. It is the threshold between who I was and who I want to be. I have always loved this holiday for me alone, a day to be self indulgent and preening without guilt. But more than the “sing to me” center of attention, I revel in the fresh start. Personally and professionally, I plot continuous improvement, iteration, and the systematic practice of performing better tomorrow than today. Tracing my steps, I can see how I determined a path, moved, repeated, made mistakes, recovered, and inched forward as a human being, each year an increment more productive and insightful than the year before. People say … “are you 29 again? (wink wink) ” and I think, how absurd, why would I want to go backwards?
But the proximity of days between my father-in-law’s passing and my birthday has cast a contemplative pall on these annual musings. My usual pride in measuring progress is tempered by the awareness of mortality that comes when an elderly parent dies. The generation standing in front of the veil is thinning, exposing the next in line. I look at my list of goals for the new year. Lose ten pounds? Make another quilt? Work more/less/smarter? Who cares.
Traveling home from this weekend, I think of my nieces and nephews, some children, some adults. Between obligations, I was styling hair, adjusting collars, playing games, inviting conversation, refilling glasses of water, smiling at sad faces, embracing and reassuring – cataloging present tense validations of life. I offered affirming responses to their unspoken voices echoing like in Horton Hears a Who: “we are here, we are here, we are here.” We are alive, sharing these moments together. Surrounded by grief and need, my senses were attuned. But what about today, home in my world? Will I hear and act beyond the obvious context of a family gathering in loss? Will I be there for my family, for my friends, for my community in a way that assumes that everyone requires comfort, all the time? Will I change my capacity for caretaking and loving others, or just log checkmarks for self improvement?
I am not a believing woman. So if the celestial narrative is true, I will be lucky to be serving punch. If it is not true, I might be floating energy or compost or a cockroach. Whatever my ultimate destination, I left my father-in-law’s funeral feeling an urgency to focus on who and what is in my view, in my earshot, right in front of me. This resolve is trite, perhaps not sustainable, but I want to live differently.
This is not the post I meant to write. But I am thankful for my birthday this year. I will not inventory the past twelve months or plan too far into the future. I will sit quietly and appreciate a deep breath, my frizzy hair, and flex my wrinkled hands, listening intently for what I can do, now.