When I Was Your Favorite Birthday Gift

Vic's birthday 1970

Vic’s birthday 1970

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.

DSC03528You turned from the computer and beamed love through your soft brown eyes. I was your morning ray of sunshine. You let me know that every day, especially after lymphoma joined our life.

“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?”

DSC01794“I hardly slept and I’m tired, but I saved you 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.

Vic & Elaine 1996

Vic & Elaine 1996

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.

  1. Elaine, you know how I feel about your writing. It takes me in with all the beautiful prose it still makes me sad for your loss. So beautiful yet melancholy. xo

    • Debby, I feel deep longing and much gratitude. I’m grateful for my marriage and grateful for the life I have now. Living with someone who loved me even on my worst days was a blessing.

      • Yes it is a true blessing, Brings to mind the old adage, ‘Tis better to loved and lost than to never have loved at all.’ xo

        • Debby, I agree 100%–and still I grieve in a gentle aching way rather. No longer the sharp jagged wounds of 2008 and 2009.

  2. I have never read anything as poignant and simple as this. The delicacy of your prose is remarkable and leaves me breathing slowly, tearful and somewhat lonely. The blessing you had remains with you.

    • Thank you for your beautiful encouraging response, Dennis. Yes, the loneliness and the blessing and gratitude that remain. I am grateful to have been loved despite every irritating imperfection (I won’t burden you with those right now). Lucky woman. Lucky man. Can’t ask for more, even if part of us wants more. The last years, we valued a quiet ordinary day with no doctor’s appointments.

  3. Your attention to detail is awesome: “You pointed out the skimpy crowns of unhealthy maples destined to be firewood.” And then go on to describe your gentleness toward one another as you celebrate life.

    You are creating quite a body of work here and leaving such a legacy for the next generations. Brava to you, Elaine!

    • Thank you, Marian. It was Vic’s “woodsman” habit to look up and choose sick trees for firewood. It kep the woods healthy. I knew the trees would be cut and he, too, would be felled. The best of both of us flowered in those last two years. I’m grateful for the rich memories and journals I kept that include grocery lists, dreams, events of the day (sometimes only a list during a crisis), small stories, emotional venting, doctor’s reports and schedules, and my prayers, grief, and fears. I so appreciate your encouraging words, Elaine

  4. Silent tears stream down my face. Happy Birthday Vic!

  5. I miss him as well. He was such a loving creature, leaving many wonderful times to remember from our youth. I will think of him today, as I go through my day.

    • Thank you, Evelyn. Vic’s birthday is on Friday, but time doesn’t matter. He was always loving, but especially after becoming ill. He was also feisty, jarringly honest, adventurous, and fun. I miss the laughter as well as the sweet companionship, but I get to keep the love. Sending love all the way to Maui.

  6. Elaine,

    I will remember Vic’s birthday this Friday, March 7th. Your writing always pulls me smack into the time and place.

    This line stood out for me and reminded me of the title of your forthcoming book: “You wrapped your right arm around my waist and leaned into me.”

    Your write with such grace and clarity.


    • Thank you, Kathleen. There was lots of leaning into each other in our marriage and I’m glad you noticed that line. Pages of leaning in my book–into each other, community, our sons, and nature before and after Vic’s death. Thank you for celebrating with me.
      Looking forward to your new book. Release date? I hope the world is greening in Texas. Warmly, Elaine

  7. Such beautiful writing, Elaine ~ a reflection of your beautiful soul. Thank you for warming my heart all over again ~ and Happy Birthday to your beloved. ♥

    • Thank you, Marty. It’s so good to remember and plan a quiet day at home and a small personal ritual. I hope the florist has Vic’s favorite purple iris, but if they don’t, I’m the only one who’ll mind. Thanks for your constant support. We’re working on book cover, permissions, and small manuscript details even though the book won’t be out until October. Exciting time. Important not to push myself too hard, but let it unfold with faith. Love, Elaine

  8. Your words carry the exquisite soothing love you had — you have. Thanks Elaine and a gentle Vic’
    s Birthday to you.

    • Peggy, thank you. I hope for a gentle day on Friday. I’ve told the world, so I won’t have to grieve alone. I hope for a day of gratitude and kindness–the gifts of Vic’s last years. With love to you.

  9. This was written so well, Elaine. I was drawn in by your use of all the senses. I’m sending birthday wishes to your Vic and hoping your Friday is filled with beautiful memoriesThank you for sharing another milestone story. xo

    • Patti, you know how loaded these milestones can be. I arranged a quiet day so I can spend time in the woods and breathe easy. If Vic were here, he’d choose to spend the day just like that. I’ll take Vic’s mother flowers the day before his birthday since she gave birth to him and, poor woman, still has to carry her undigested grief. So much better to face our losses head on and move through them rather than repressing. Thanks for your loving feedback.

      • Thank you Elaine for all your writing….I read it all even though I don’t leave remarks as frequently. Bill and I treasure Vic’s memory and so appreciated his wonderful words at our wedding in 1990. My Dad passed away at 67 (almost 68) and sadly never met Bill. I hope Bill lives much longer….we shall see. He only turns 60 this summer….which seems so young compared to so many of us….

        • Your dad died at the same age as Vic, Lisa. I’m also sad he didn’t meet your sweet Bill. Take away message for me is to love and appreciate every day. I try to practice the find art of gratitude, and often fail. But then practice some more. Sending you love and gratitude that you and Bill have each other every day.

  10. Beautiful, measured prose. And honoring those who’ve passed such an important ritual–for everyone on both sides. I light a candle and play Mozart’s clarinet concerto for my mom’s birthday. Sometimes play Mariachi music and drink a margarita–never as good as hers. Thank you for this lovely piece of writing.

    • Thank you, Kirsten. It took a long time to write this piece–to strip it down and make it simple. To just remember how we’d spent a day and let the actions speak for themselves. Yes candles. I loved the Mozart Clarinet Quintet (can’t remember the concerto), but music doesn’t work for me now. I will try hard not to eat a whole birthday cake–even if it’s tiny. Thank you for your encouraging words and loving reflections.

  11. Elaine, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if you had a visit from a spirit messenger (I suggest watching for a winged or four-legged friend) on Vic’s birthday while you’re at the red oak. What a beautiful expression of love and celebration. Much love this Friday, Jenna

    • Ah, Jenna, my dream sister. Last night I dreamed I had to get across a chasm from a stone wall to a wooden platform. Vic was there, clear, vital, and strong the way he was before he got sick in late 2005. He stood on the platform, ready to help. He says, “You can do it. Put your left foot on the rafter and swing your right leg over.” He grabs my hand to steady and help me get across. A sense of vulnerable swinging through air while being held solidly and safely. (You can tell by my sensory details that I’ve done much dream work with Robert Bosnak.) Then I’m on the platform next to Vic in a solid, empty loft space with an A-frame roof. Made it….

      I’ll watch for animal messengers. A red cardinal male has been at the bird feeder this week. There are coyote tracks on the snowy trails in the woods. I am filled with as much gratitude as grief. That’s the balance we hope for. Thank you, Jenna.

  12. This is so beautiful, Elaine. You brought tears to my eyes. You and Vic were truly gifts to each other.

    I think of Adrian’s sons on his birthday, and how they tried to make it special for him, how I tried to help them do that. We often failed, but we sure gave it our best try! 😉

    • That’s all we can do, Lynne. Give it our best shot. Vic was easy to please on his birthday, Father’s Day, or Christmas. He didn’t want anything except pasta and maybe a dessert. Many of the pieces I write are from the last two years when the small irritations of a marriage dropped away in the face of mortality and our relationship was tender and gentle. I know your last years with Adrian were very difficult. Alzheimer’s robs us of so much. Thank you for your loving response.

  13. It’s beautiful, Elaine. I’m thinking of you on this bright sunny day that is Vic’s Birthday. This is the same way I celebrate my daughter on her birthdays and her deathdays: by enjoying her favorite things and being good to myself. I took her friend out for sushi dinner. I wore her scarf and walked with her dog and sang our old songs to the moon. thank you so much for sharing this.

    • Thank you, Robin. You almost have a blog post written about all the things you did to mark Marika’s birthday. I’d love to read and see the details of that scarf, those songs, that dog and moon. I know her birthday was challenging, but so many nice things happened in response. Sending you love, Elaine

  14. Dear Elaine,
    Your willingness to open your heart and to share your deepest feelings and cherished memories help me release my grief today–emembering my poet-lover-best friend and all the simple ways we, too, cherished the last few months. Leonard was diagnosed in January and given six months. He died March 9th.

    Thank you for reaching out to all of us in your simple, kind, generous, loving way.

    No wonder Vic adored you!

    Some of my tears today are for you, as well. So “NOT FAIR” to have lost him too soon.

    Love, Ava

    • All hard, all too soon. Always hard to give up love, and you didn’t have much time to say goodbye. I’ve been reading the most recent books by widows, mostly women under 35. Makes me grateful I had all the years I did. I thought of you and Leonard today and the haunting painting you shared. Two years is a very short time, or it was for me. Grief remains. Love, too. Edges not so harsh now, but I miss the immediacy of Vic in my dreams. He’s still a night visitor, but not as strong a presence as before. We have to let go of every changing thing, don’t we? Sending you love and sweet dreams, Elaine

      • thank you, Elaine. Last night, I took your advice and talked to him. It helped!

        • Vic is my inner helpful male animus just as he used to be an outer helpful animus. I talk to him in a personal interior way, interacting with the him in me (I know you know this). I know how he would respond to my longing and struggles. I don’t have a sense that he’s actually around–he was a fast mover and would be on to the next possibility. Still, I feel his inner supportive presence. (This doesn’t mean I wouldn’t love his hug or smile, but not possible, so glad for the inner love.) Sending you love and lightness, E

  15. It never ceases to amaze me how your words make me feel as though I’m right there. Although I didn’t know Vic, and you and I have only known each other a short time via our “digital” connection, I can tell that the two of you had a unique love that – quite honestly – I think very few people achieve in life. So bittersweet, I’m sure, but I’m glad you have a wealth of beautiful memories of your years together.


    • Ann, I was blessed with great good fortune. Looking back, it seems like blind luck to meet someone when I was barely 21 and actually have it work out. I always knew my good fortune. Lucky we could love. Lucky we could trust each other enough to disagree and argue and get through hard times. I see grief as just another phase of love–we long for what we no longer have. But he couldn’t stay in that ravaged body, just as our mothers couldn’t. It was time to move out. It was clear. I hope I get to meet you sometime. I imagine meeting some of my closest online friends when I’m on the road with my book next year. But maybe everything will still happen from this desk in this office overlooking the lake valley.

  16. I love your dream, Elaine! What a blessing to share that safe place with Vic in your dream. Cardinals are one of the spirit messengers of the dead in my iconology. I had a visit from cardinal when my best friend Linda died, the day they unplugged her from the machines that were keeping her barely alive. And another the day my friend Selina died. If this were my waking dream, I would figure that my animal messenger has already stopped by! Yes, a good balance of gratitude and grief…that is what emerges over time. Hugs

    • I love dreams, Jenna, and miss how present Vic was in the first years after he died. In a dream this week, I was inching my way across precarious rocks to get to a solid platform. Vic was there. He points out the best way to go, holds my hand, and says, “I’ll help you.” Nice to have a positive inner animus. I still haven’t read your recent post, but I did finish manuscript corrections this weekend. That pushed everything else aside. Hugs back to you and many helpers.

  17. Elaine, I think you mentioned blue iris in one of your facebook posts recently. This was posted on my Facebook tonight (actually early morning time is now 1:21am).. maybe it has meaning for you.. PEACE, LOVE, LIGHT & LAUGHTER, Randi


    It doesn’t have to be
    the blue iris, it could be
    weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
    small stones; just
    pay attention, then patch

    a few words together and don’t try
    to make them elaborate, this isn’t
    a contest but the doorway

    into thanks, and a silence in which
    another voice may speak.

    –Mary Oliver, “Thirst,” (Beacon Press, 2006).

    • Beautiful, Randi. I posted a photo of iris I bought the day before Vic’s birthday–some I took to the place where his ashes are buried and some sit on my desk while I work. I love this poem and hadn’t seen or heard it before. Especially, “this isn’t a contest, but a doorway into thanks, and a silence in which another voice may speak.” I’ll find a way to quote this one. Much appreciation for your late night gift. Elaine

  18. I have enjoyed all your posted articles but this one really spoke to me. Tomorrow would be my mother’s birthday and the 2nd anniversary of her passing. She died on her 77th birthday two years ago. So I have double meaning and double ritual around March 19th and while the loss is still feeling very fresh, I feel it shifting from what you described as “jagged” to more “gentle”. We loved Neil Sedaka together, mother and I. I’ll play his music and do some journaling on the beach tomorrow enjoying California sun. Next week I’ll visit her ashes in Minnesota but tomorrow will be about our shared love of sunshine and music.

    • Charlotte, it sounds like you have a perfect personal ritual to give you time to remember your mom. I’m sorry you lost her and glad you shared such loving experiences together. For me, giving grief space releases a little more of the pain while accentuating the love and gratitude. March 19 is a loaded day for you, but it sounds like you know how to support yourself. May your day at the beach and your day in Minnesota be times of remembrance steeped in love. I can’t imagine they could be anything else. Thanks for your encouraging words–and for reading my blogs. Warmly, Elaine

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