Tag Archives: birthdays

The Button and the Balloon

“Hey, Mama, look! I used the Germ-X trick and now it’s ready.”

I glanced up from my lesson planner, smiling at her excitement and curious to see what “trick” worked this time. She was so proud of herself, I don’t think she noticed when the smile froze and didn’t quite reach my eyes.

She dangled it in front of me, and the weak winter sun, shining through the window, reflected off a shiny button and all I could see were blue letters spelling “Daddy” in her mini-Kev handwriting. I knew what button she had, though. The one I got at Disney World, on my last birthday. A brightly-colored birthday cake and big, bouncy letters “Happy Birthday!” trying to inject a little joy on that desolate day. The cast member at the resort had written my name on to the button, but in a little trick I picked up from my days as a substitute teacher, we’d swiped Germ-X across the Sharpie letters to clear the space and printed Bear’s name on her birthday last month.

And now it’s Kevin’s turn.

She’d been planning this from the moment I got the button in December. First it would be mine, then hers, then finally…Daddy’s. Three months, right in a row. Three birthdays, right in a row. Three names, right in a row. Mama, Beary. Daddy.

She chattered on.

“And here’s a balloon, Mama, to tie to the button. And then we’ll let it go, and it will float up to Daddy and he’ll have the button for his birthday!”

She handed me a limp blue balloon.

I took it.

I looked at her face, as shiny with happiness as the light blue-Sharpie scrawled birthday button she still clutched in her hand. I could almost see the birthday candles flickering in her sparkling eyes.

I looked at the balloon in my hand.

Limp.

Airless.

Deflated.

I know.

The waves of grief keep coming. Christmas, New Year’s, Little Bear’s birthday, Valentine’s Day. There’s been no break and the grief won’t let go. And I can’t stand up. I can’t even drop to my knees and crawl like I’m supposed to do. What you do when you can’t run from the waves fast enough is get on your knees and crawl.” But the ground keeps shifting under me and I can’t find anything solid to crawl on and I’m dragged under. There’s no air and there’s no Kevin and he was my air and it’s so hard to breathe without him.

My heart is not filled with light and joy. I’m limp. Airless. I can’t float.

My lungs swell to bursting with grief and I sink.

The next wave heaves the flotsam of my heart onto the calendar and it lies there, desperately gasping for breath, on the day, inked with appointments, stuffed with busy-ness, and a little heart doodled around the date.

Kevin’s birthday.

There’s no air.

I can’t.

But she can.

The name he loved most is scrawled across the button.

A rush of air fills my lungs.

She planned a feast for him. Pepperoni pizza and Dr. Pepper.

I inhale hope.

“And ice cream, Mama. Mint chocolate chip. And French silk pie, too…even though I only like the French silk part. Not the pie.”

The air is light and it is love and I gulp it in because I’m empty and heart-heavy and I need it to live.

“Daddy will LOVE this party SO MUCH, Mama!”

I take a breath. It still hurts. My throat is raw from screaming and my lungs tender to the gentle wisps of promise slowly swirling inside.

But she surrounds me with her air, her beautiful air, and all the particles of happy and hope and life and silly and love and squeals and giggles and…yes, joy – and it’s the sweetest air I’ve breathed in so long. Her Daddy’s spirit in her, breathing out to me.

Filling and floating and healing.

She planned a party because it’s what we always do, that hasn’t changed, and a button of love floats to her Daddy. I hear his voice, rumbling in my ear, “You don’t have to get me anything, Baby Doll. Who needs more than I’ve got right here?”

I can breathe.

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The Gift

Before I raised the camera to snap another photo, I glanced over to see Bear. There she was. On the outside of the circle of squirming kids, far enough back that she didn’t feel squeezed in, in a perfect position to slip away when the noisy cries of excitement grew too overwhelming. I smiled at her; she gave a tiny wave back. I raised the camera again. Click. Paper ripping away from a gift. Click. Broad grin of happiness at the toy within. Click. Click. Kids screaming. Birthday party fun.

I moved back, settled onto my knees and positioned the camera again. Then I felt her at my elbow.

“Mama?”

Her voice trembled a little. I lowered the camera and looked into her blue eyes, filled with distress.

“Hey, Beary, what’s wrong, little girl?” Putting the camera down, I shifted and drew her down onto my lap, pulling us back behind some chairs, farther away from the party.

She threw her arms around my neck, squeezing tightly in response. I wrapped my arms around her and rocked us back and forth a little. Maybe we shouldn’t be here, I thought. Maybe it’s too soon to be around this much laughter. I know I’m a little on edge here.

Then she pulled back and gazed intently into my eyes. Her words rushed out.
“Mama, I don’t know how I’m going to give you a birthday present this year. Daddy always takes me to get the present, but he’s not here now and I can’t drive. And…and you have to have a present on your birthday!”

Her eyes filled with tears.

I pulled her back into a hug, and murmured into her hair, my mind racing, trying to find words to comfort her. “Oh, Beary, it’s okay. We’ll figure something out. I bet Aunt Marcy will take you shopping.”

She snuffled and nodded into my shoulder. Oh, sweet girl, you are breaking my heart. You’re not supposed to be worrying about stuff like that.

We stayed huddled behind the chairs, my camera forgotten on the floor, the party swirling merrily around us. Seconds passed. A few minutes. I knew she was turning my words over in her mind, forming a plan, figuring it out…even though it was the middle of summer and my birthday wouldn’t be coming for months.

She squeezed my neck; I kissed her cheek. And she was ready to join the party again, ready to worry about typical birthday party stuff: Do you want chocolate or vanilla cake? Ice cream with that?

But a lump of sadness lodged in my throat and no amount of cake or ice cream could push it away. Still stumbling in this life without Kevin, there were so many things I hadn’t even thought about yet. All our routines, our family rituals and traditions. All the little things we did to cement our connection, create our own special little family. How do I keep it all together? Can I? Should I?

And the answer is, of course, I should. Because memories began slipping cautiously around the remnants of my broken heart. Memories traveling faster, flooding my mind with images of my two goofballs, scurrying around the house after a trip to the dollar store. Kevin took her there on my birthday (and I took her on his) and gave her five dollars to spend on whatever she wanted to buy for me. I loved the combination of whimsy and practicality she displayed with her choices: a plastic orange because I’d told her the one we had was spoiled; this one would stay “fresh” forever, she declared. A miniature stick horse, “so I can ride mine and you ride yours and we’ll have fun together!” A bottle of Mountain Dew, because my girl knows her Mama so well. Kevin said he laughed and laughed, trailing her around the store, so seriously considering her choices.

Then they’d come home and the real fun would begin. Wrapping paper crinkling, cries of “Oh, no! It ripped!” because neither of them could wrap a gift. Whispered retreats to the hall closet for a gift bag – “No, Daddy! That’s a Christmas bag, not birthday!” – and tissue paper. Thumping loud tiptoes back to the bedroom, then he’d send her back out for an ink pen or tape and I would putter in the kitchen, acting like I didn’t know what was going on. And even though I knew I’d be getting the necklace I picked from an Etsy site or a book I’d selected, purchased, and given to Kevin to give back to me – even then, those two managed to surprise me with a present I hadn’t expected. Some fancy chocolates, a pretty bookmark, a charming photo frame, hidden in lumpy, bumpy layers of tissue paper, stuck together with ridiculously long strips of tape. Beary standing over me, flapping her hands with excitement, “Here, Mama! I’ll get it open for you!”

Of course I’ll do it. I’ll figure out a way to let her go birthday shopping this year, though celebrating seems impossible without Kevin. But we will, because he would want us to and she inherited his determination to make birthdays special. She loves to surprise me. I’ll make it happen because weaving new memories with her Daddy memories is the surest way to create a rich and strong tapestry of our little family and our crazy rituals.

And I’ll make it happen because I can’t stand the idea that instead of enjoying a birthday party, my girl sat and worried that she wouldn’t be able to give me a gift. Her tender heart worried about my broken one and she wanted me to be happy on my birthday.

What she doesn’t know – and won’t understand for a long time – is this: She is my gift. She and her Daddy already gave me the best gift ever: the two of them, my two goofy peas in a pod, my perfect little family. They gave me joy and laughter and blue eyes sparkling with glee at surprising me. They gave me bear hugs and butterfly kisses and lopsided cupcakes.

They gave me – they GIVE me – love.

This life we have now is lumpy and bumpy and full of ragged rips barely held together with strips of tape and threads of hope. But somewhere in the middle, beneath the layers of sad and hurt and grief, is the gift we will always have inside us, because we will always be a family.

Love.

And here’s my beautiful girl, standing beside me, “Here, Mama! I’ll get it open for you!”

There are three things that will endure – faith, hope, and love – and the greatest of these is love. I Corinthians 13: 13