DEBORAH SALOMON: The Child Is Gone, but Death Lingers On
After five years, the numbers engraved on the granite headstone look weathered, softened: July 30, 1964, the day my son Danny was born. And Sept. 23, 2004, the day he died.
How does a mother commemorate the birthday of a deceased child?
Elizabeth Edwards told Oprah that "once you've put a child in the ground," nothing is the same. She made this comment in the context of her own mortality. But it applies to breakfast, lunch, dinner, summer, winter, Thanksgiving, Halloween, everything.
Especially birthdays. Danny was a nine-pound hulk with a fullback's shoulders. After two little girls, knowing this would be my last child, we were happy to welcome a boy. He was blonde, blue-eyed, with cheeks like peaches -- an easy baby, peaceful sleeper, never cranky unless meals were late, happy to entertain himself with simple toys, thrilled later on with the mischief he perpetrated.
For the preschool years, we had a joint party with his sister Wendy, whose birthday was eight days later. In the 1960s, birthday parties were a big deal, especially in the summertime when they could be held outside or in the garage which had been cleaned and decorated for this purpose.
I usually rented a long, low table and kiddie chairs. I nearly passed out blowing up balloons. All the kids -- but especially Danny -- wanted professionally made party sandwiches in pinwheels, triple layers, triangles and other shapes. They cost a fortune. One year I spent hours cutting off crusts, preparing the fillings and assembling them myself.
What a disaster. The children sniffed out the difference like a mama dog sniffs out her pups. Same with the cake. The kids insisted on a sickeningly sweet sheet cake covered with garish roses, which they fought over but never ate. I tried baking and decorating cupcakes. That went over no better than the homemade party sandwiches.
I ordered boxes and boxes of party sandwiches for the reception following Danny's funeral. I will never eat them again.
Dan and I were alike in many ways. We shared the same temperament, the same tastes, the same wicked sense of humor. When he had a bad hay-fever day, so did I.
He knew how to use me ("Mom, drop whatever you're doing and ...) and to please me, also. The greatest compliment I have ever received was when Danny told his two little boys (who were pestering him with questions), "Go ask Nanny. She knows everything."
The last words Danny spoke to me, with a hug, were "I love you, Mom." Three days later, suffering secretly from bipolar illness, he took his life.
I never know what to do on his birthday. He is buried 1,000 miles away in a grave blanketed with begonias in the summer, snow in the winter. Wendy, who died in 1991 the same way, of the same illness, lies in a quiet little cemetery near Chapel Hill -- a clearing in the woods surrounded by tall pine trees and deer tracks.
She was a naturalist, a vegetarian, a greenie and animal rescuer. She had long, honey-colored hair and played the guitar. This is her place. I will go there on Aug. 7 and remember the last little girl to leave the low table, her birthday hat askew, her party dress and black patent leather shoes smeared with pink frosting, her eyes sparkling as she ripped the gift-wrapping paper.
Is this right? Should I resurrect memories or leave them alone? How do other parents mark the day? Mental-health professionals say losing a child is the worst trauma a person can endure. What they fail to add is that although the child is gone, death lives on. Death is the phone that does not ring, the Mother's Day card that does not arrive, the pictures fading in their frames. Both death and life appear in a grandson's smile, so like his father's.
I cannot be entirely sad on Danny's birthday and then, a few days later, on Wendy's. I would rather have loved and lost than never have loved them at all. But to look at their birthdates chiseled in stone instead of written on a party invitation, to see their names on a grave marker instead of printed on a school bag, takes my breath away.
Believe me, time does not heal all wounds. "Move on" is just an expression. Like Happy Birthday.
Contact Deborah Salomon at email@example.com.
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