Guest Posts, Grief

Can You Have A Birthday If You Are Dead?

May 6, 2016

By Leah Sugarman

Do you still have a birthday if you are dead?

Facebook reminds me all day that today is my mother’s birthday. 

My youngest son has special needs and is obsessed with birthdays. When he asks this morning, as he does most days, if it is anyone’s birthday I consider lying and saying no.  But I am a bad liar and almost always get caught so I tell him it is grandma’s.  But then I remind him that she’s all gone.  He declares that we should sing happy birthday to her.  I wonder if he maybe understands things much better than the rest of us.

I am supposed to light a Yarzheit candle on the anniversary of her death but do not have a clue how to mark her birthday.

Later in the day, we have dropped his sister and friend at dance class and are driving home.  He casually comments from the back of the car that it is grandma’s birthday but she is dead.  And then tells me that my grandmother, Evelyn, her mother, will celebrate her birthday with her.  If only Jews had a heaven, my love.

My birthday was last month.  It was also the due date for my oldest son, a date I did not want to share with him when the midwife told me.  Then he was overdue by 15 days and every year, for 12 years, I comment on my birthday that the next 15 days are his overdue period. Overdue making me think of a library book.  But this year, my mother’s first post-death birthday, which comes 18 days after my son’s 12th birthday, hangs over me.

She would have been 77 today.  It is February, she died in September, in between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippor.  In the period when you are supposed to ask forgiveness from everyone you might have wronged.  I had not spoken to her in several months.  I can never ask for forgiveness.

Friends have asked carefully if I regret not speaking to her. It was not anything I had ever done, to anyone, and I do not know how to answer.I know the decision made me less miserable at the time.  That does not help.

People have asked if her death was expected.  She had been sick for a long time, different things, nothing life threatening.  She was scheduled to come home from the rehab facility in three days. My father had just had a chair lift installed in their house.  The only rides it ever gave were to my three children during her Shiva. Lamest amusement park ride ever.

Last week, friends asked why I was covered in a rash. Perhaps I am not dealing with my mother’s death as well as I thought, I answer, with a laugh.  The antihistamines I take at bedtime do nothing for it but do help me sleep.

She died on a Friday.  My father had spent every day with her at their house, at the different hospitals and at the several rehabilitation centers.  He was to go away for a short visit to see my brother in New York City before she was released home. Then he would not be able to get away, probably ever again.  He made me promise that I would visit her while he was gone or he would not go.  I said I would.  She died the morning he was supposed to leave. She died a few weeks before their 50th wedding anniversary.

Their wedding album is now at my house and I look at it with my children.  They are less than half my age in the photographs.  I always considered my mother was old but I was six years older than she when I had my first child.  If I live to the same age, how old will my children be? Will I have grandchildren? Will I be a better grandmother? I am surprised to realize that she had both her parents and grandparents at her wedding.  My son will not have any grandmothers at his Bar Mitzvah next year.

The day she died my cell phone rang around 5 am.  It was charging downstairs in the kitchen and I did not get up to answer it.  It was most likely a wrong number.  I was in the middle of getting kids ready for school when I remembered the call and checked for a message. It was my father calling from the hospital where she had been taken and died overnight.  I can not bear that he had to wait several hours for me to call him back.  That he was alone.  Because I did not get out of bed and walk down a flight of stairs.  I get the kids out of the house and he thanks me for calling him back.

I go through my whole day without telling anyone other than my husband about her death. I do not want my children to hear before we are all home together that afternoon.  I hope I never have to tell my older son anything that makes him sob like that again.  My father goes to embrace him and I almost break down.  In the end, I never cry for her.  Although I do end up hugging a lot of friends that weekend.  At least one comments they have never hugged me as much.  I am not a hugger.

My brother drives to our suburb of Boston, from New York city, immediately.  The kids do not even know she has died when they see him ring our doorbell and are excited to see him.  My mother was estranged from her family, my father’s siblings and children live in England, so there is no other family.  My husband’s extended family all show up for the service and the Shivas.

I have been told this is my year of firsts.  I have been told it is called complicated grief.  Mostly I feel stuck in a tacky cliche.

I take many things from their home as my father starts to clear things out. I bury my face in a scarf of hers before I put it into my washing machine and think that this is the corniest thing I have ever done.  I look through a box of beads that I remember from when my post-college handmade jewelry phase and pick out a few I like.  I think there is a lame analogy in this sifting through the past and choosing a few things to value.  My brother makes them into earrings for me while he is here.  He is the crafty and handy one, also my mother’s favorite.

I ask for the copy of the collected works of Jane Austen that I remember her re-reading each summer when I was young.  For many years now, she has only read trash on her kindle so there are not many books I want. I love it.  I remember feeling so grown up writing an essay about several of these novels for my favorite high school english teacher. Books have saved me and I know my love of reading is from her.  That is something to hold onto, like a pretty bead to belabor the bad metaphor.

One of her proudest stories from her childhood was that the local librarian did not believe that she was reading all the books she checked but she passed the woman’s test on each.  She used to say that when we travelled each summer as a family, they would have to stop at a bookstore in every town to buy me a new book.  I hope my taste in books lasts longer.  I hope many things about me last longer.

Growing up people always commented that I did not look anything like my mother.  But as every year goes by and every pound adds on, I look more and more like her.  My deepest fear is that I become like her.  My second deepest is that my daughter feels that way about me.  And maybe in my kind moments, I also fear that she knew that I felt that way.

For my birthday, my first without a mother, my father gives me a book called “A Short Guide to a Happy Life”.  My dad’s gifts are a bit of a family joke.  While he would do anything for you, he will not often spend money on you.  He might have found this book lying around the house, or on a bookstore’s clearance table, or in someone’s trash. But it is inscribed with “with much love Dad” and I realize this is the first time I have ever received a birthday gift that is not from the two of them.  He tucks in some bookmarks and a check but when I read the book, I think it is perfect.  A line goes right through me  – “I show up. I listen. I try to laugh.”

I am lucky to have the best of friends.  I am proud to be a friend to all of them.  Several groups of wonderful women who I treasure beyond words.  Underneath my feelings for them individually and as groups is always my fear of being alone.

I think of my friends who insisted on coming to my mother’s memorial service because they knew I was afraid the room would be empty, who googled “how to host a Shiva” and then ran to Costco in their funeral clothes to buy what we needed at my father’s house that evening, and then came to my home a week later to do it again.  They showed up, they listened and they tried to laugh. Those days and every day I needed them.

On my birthday, many of them stopped by with treats.  It actually takes me a while to realize the added attention was because it was my first birthday since she had died.  One friend who lives far away sends a scarf from the store where she works.  I wear it all day every day like a security blanket.  I never wear the scarves I took from my father’s house.

Just a few months before her death, many of these friends had been at my house with dinners, rides to the doctor’s office, coffee deliveries and carpools to my kids’ summer camps when I broke my ankle.  That broken ankle was an excellent excuse to not visit my mother. An excellent reminder about friends.  And how isolated and alone my mother was.  She had no visitors at the rehab center except my father. And I feared no one would be there for her service. I forgot that my father and I had circles of people. Many people at her service did not know my mother.

I finally clean out the extra fridge we have in the basement today.  Long forgotten vegetables from our CSA share live – and die – there.  I salvage a few things and cook something from the selection for dinner tonight.  They have been there since before my mother died.

While recuperating from the broken ankle over the summer, I felt brave enough to register for a writing and yoga retreat scheduled for the fall.  When October comes around, I force myself to go and end up loving the group of strangers who are in fact, amazing women.  I confide that I lost my mother and have not even cried about it.  They do not recoil from me.  They embrace me, literally and figuratively. I somehow survive the hugs.

We have to promise what we will do going forward, after this weekend and this retreat.  I declare that I will write and leave the house every day. My mother never left the house.  She died in many ways of a bedsore – from lying in bed – of staying at home with no friends. I am afraid of hiding from my life like she did.

I do neither of the things I promised for many months.  I sit on the couch – the very couch I hated sitting on with the broken ankle – watching hours upon hours of murder mysteries and coloring in stress-reducing adult coloring books.  My dog keeps me company loyally on the couch all day, the older of my two cats comes onto my bed every night when I am not falling asleep.

A month ago the vet called with worrisome test results for the older cat.  I tell myself she is only a cat.  I would be fine if anything happened to her. I can not look at her.  When the second  set of test results are better, I laugh.

I joke to my husband to imagine how stressed I would be if I was not coloring.  He kindly smiles and does not point out the piles of laundry, the dirty dishes, the frozen pizza dinner.  He does not mention the fact that I no longer walk my daughter to school but stay in my pajamas.  He kindly does not ask what I do all day or comment on the amount of things I have been taking from my father’s house.  There is no room for any of it at our house. I have started calling it my father’s house.

One of the items is an enormous envelope full of papers.  Report cards that my oldest son demands to compare our middle school grades.  Artwork, poetry and cards from a very young child that embarrass me.  And somehow letters I wrote to my mother from college – letters I would have sworn never existed – sharing everything – in my own handwriting – the relationship I thought I never had with her – staring up at me.  I went to the same university as her.  She in the 1950’s when women were forced to attend the women’s college, I in the 1980’s when “womyn” rarely chose that college.

I place the letters carefully back into the folder and push the folder far under the desk I use in the corner of our dining room.  And I go back to checking facebook.  And I swear that tomorrow I will try and write about her.leah1

Leah lives in Arlington, MA with her three children, two cats, dog and very understanding husband. She went on maternity leave with her first child who should now be starting his Bar Mitzvah tutoring.



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  • Reply Karen Dempsey May 6, 2016 at 7:07 am

    This is such a stunning piece. Thank you.

  • Reply Marins September 10, 2016 at 2:28 pm

    I lost my dad. I was with him every single day , never escaped. You write well. Having an heart, is another story. Hope your mum will forgive you.

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