“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.
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.
There’s no air.
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.