On March 7, 2008 when you turned 67, cancer was winning. We feared it would be your last birthday.
At dawn, I heard muffled banging of wood against metal as you loaded the wood stove. Upstairs, I roused myself, washed my face, prayed for your health, and meditated.
I walked down the steep wooden steps and looked through your office door. As usual, you sat at your computer, drinking coffee and eating oatmeal. You wore a t-shirt, sweats, and a heavy fleece dusted with firewood flakes. I stood beside you. You wrapped your right arm around my waist and leaned into me. You smelled of coffee and cinnamon with a trace of wood stove smoke. I inhaled you and put my arm across your shoulders.
“Happy Birthday,” I whispered in your right ear. You pulled me closer.
I tousled your short dark hair and noticed new streaks of white. You caressed my buttocks with the ease of a lifetime lover. I massaged the knots in your neck. You reached up to pet my gray hair in long soft strokes.
“How did you sleep?” I asked. “How do you feel? Did you save me any oatmeal?”
“It’s your day. What do you want to do?”
“Just be with you.”
“I’ll make pasta with marinara sauce. I bought a vegan chocolate cake and soy ice cream.” After more than forty years, I knew what he liked.
“Sounds great, Sweet Pie,” you said.
You returned to reading and writing. I heated my oatmeal in the microwave, got a book, and sat near the wood stove. Firewood crackled. Computer keys clicked in the next room. The dog snored on the hearthstone. Juncos and chickadees jostled at the bird feeder. An ordinary quiet morning, the kind of birthday you preferred.
Before lunch, we pulled on snow pants and winter coats. We walked through the fields as quickly as your tired body allowed. In the forest, we slowed down, sheltered from March wind. You pointed out the skimpy crowns of unhealthy maples destined to be firewood. I led you toward the stream to see the spring thaw. We visited the red oak knoll and leaned into the biggest trees. You’d made it clear you wanted your ashes buried here, but we didn’t mention that. We celebrated life. You were still here. We were gentle with each other the way we were those last years. Everything felt temporary, a sense of ticking time.
You would have been 73 this year. I would have bought a vegan cake or made an apple crisp. I would have lit one candle or ten and waited for you to blow them out. Instead, I’ll visit the red oak knoll with an iris bouquet and Rumi poems.
How I loved being your favorite birthday gift.
How do you honor the birthday of someone you love who has died? Do you cook their special foods, visit the cemetery, or write a story? If you like this post, you’ll enjoy Until It’s Time for You to Go: 1967 or Creating a Grief Ritual.