Selam had a lovely birthday. She was celebrated at school with singing and every child drawing a cupcake for her. She got many lovely gifts. She spoke on the phone with her grandparents and cousin. She picked out her very own birthday balloon at the store. She had pizza to eat–and cake and ice cream, and candles to blow out. She got to share her dinner with her buddy W and his mama. Before bed, we read her new books and snuggled, and she fell asleep while I whispered in the dark to her. “A you are awesome, B you are beautiful, C you’re courageous and D a great dancer….” It’s our alphabet of awesomeness.
But she was a little “off” all day–not sick, not tired, not anything I could put my finger on. Just off.
I wasn’t sure what it was.
But always, always, she tells me in her good time.
She woke up crying this morning. At first she couldn’t tell me why, and then she said, “why didn’t you tell my class about the day that I was born?” In her class, a parent can come to morning meeting on a birthday and tell about the day the child was born or read a story. The teacher made it sound like something only a few parents did, mostly those that had wanted to bring cupcakes. I did not know that this year, all the other kids who had birthdays so far had had a “mommy tells the birth story” experience.
“Is it because you had to go to work, or because I was adopted?” she said.
“I wasn’t there on the day that you were born, Selam. M was. I bet you were beautiful. What I know is this: you were born after the rainy season. You were born during the pretty time of year, when there are Meskel daisies everywhere. Your mama probably felt you kicking and squirming around inside her belly during the New Year’s celebrations and during Meskel day. You were swimming around there while they lit off bon fires and sang and danced and ate the yummiest food. You were born right after all the wonderful parties when everyone is really happy and hopeful.”
She smiled a little bit and then said.
“Why did M die after I was born? Why didn’t she stay alive to be with me?”
“Nobody knows why sad things happen. I bet she wanted to stay with you. How could she not? You’re awesome.”
“I want two mommies. Like P (her friend).
“You have two mommies, Selam. Just because M is not alive doesn’t mean that she’s not your mommy still”
“I want you to be there when I’m born.”
“I know you do.”
“I love you.”
“More than ice cream.”
“More than coca”
“More than the moon”
“More than birthday cake.”
I wish I could make this all go away, honestly. But that’s not what I signed on for. Birthdays are hard when the one who gave you life is no longer here. This is true if you are 75 or if you are 5. Though I love her more than I can begin to say, I would give anything for her mother to be alive, for this precious soul to have had the gift of a relationship that began in utero. I tear up just writing those words, because my heart would split in two if I had to give her up, but if it were possible, I would do it. Because I love her more than ice cream.
I would like to think that after a while birthdays won’t be tinged with this memory void, with this empty spot where a connection should be. But I would be wrong. That can’t happen. To lose the hurt is to dishonor the memory.
I hope heaven is like Our Town. I hope M is up there somehow hearing all the stories, seeing her baby grow up, and knowing that I am not filling that hole up with something new and better, but rather maybe stretching the heart out, packing it full of extra love, so that the hole that is there is supported by a stronger, wider piece of wood. I think I just mixed about 20 metaphors. I think that’s probably the best I can do.
It’s the morning after her birthday. I am grateful for her life, and for the one who gave it to her, and doing the best I can to hear the hard worries and hold her tight while she gives them voice.
I love her so much.