I write because it reminds me of where I've been and gives light to my current path. I run because it keeps me moving forward. And I welcome you here because I believe it's through community that we truly find God's grace in the midst of our struggles.
I remember learning in my Spanish class in middle school that the verb "cumplir" means to fulfill or complete so that when we say Feliz Cumpleaños we are wishing a happy filling of our year, and that in some way we are also recognizing the completion of all of our years that have come so far. I've always loved thinking about my birthdays this way, but especially over the last 5 years - from the time of Joe's diagnosis on - there has been a particular drive behind completing the years with vigor.
Getting ready to blow out the candles on the red velvet cake!
Joe was 3 years older than me with a birthday that fell one month after mine. So for exactly 1 month, he would make fun that I was "catching up to him". He loved it and it was one of the things I missed the most when I started celebrating my birthday without him. No one to tell me "I can't believe you're only two years younger than me now, pretty soon you'll catch up to me." Most heartbreaking this year though is that on my birthday I did finally catch up to him and saw the birthday that he never got to see. This would have been Joe's year to turn 40 but instead it's my year to turn 37 - the age he never turned. It was bittersweet. Bitter for what is so obviously missing, but sweet for the unmistakeable blessings that are part of my life right now.
I woke up on my birthday to my excited son wishing me a Happy Birthday and insisting on a hunt around the house for me to find my gift. After some fun searching I found two gift bags in the corner of his room and opened them with Domani cuddled up next to me. He had gone shopping with his Grandma and Peepaw and picked out two pairs of earrings for me. He was so proud of his choices and I was more than happy to wear a pair to church that morning. I'll never forget his smile as he watched me put them on.
Earrings from Domani
Starting first thing in the morning and continuing into the evening, I had hundreds of Facebook posts, messages, and texts to read through wishing me a happy birthday. I was overwhelmed by the love and especially moved by the friends who took to wishing me a "Feliz Cumpleaños" even though I'm certain they didn't know how meaningful it was to me.
Then, for the first time since 2011, I had a gift to open from another important guy. Honestly, I was a little nervous about this one. After all, it's hard in moments like these not to think about Joe, who was the best gift giver I had ever known. So there I was staring at the gift bag that my boyfriend had left for me, wondering how this was going to go. I have no idea why I even hesitated because OF COURSE as it turned out he is quite the thoughtful gift giver himself. He was modest about it, but each thing showed to me that he already knows me well, cares about me, and can make me laugh even when he is not actually there with me.
You know, because nothing says "I get Anne" like a FunkoPop Spiderman that sits on top of your computer monitor and an armband safety light for running. Or an iTunes gift card without the same Afghan Whigs download restrictions that was put on the one she gave you for Valentines Day or the iPhone 6 case for the iPhone 6 which is still sitting in its box. Or the bath fizzes because it's been a month that has fully depleted Anne's previous stockpile.
The total mix was perfect and it so made me cry on the spot. Domani wanted to know what was wrong and I of course had to explain to him that we don't always cry because we are sad. Sometimes we cry because we are happy. And mommy was really happy.
There were plenty of other wonderful parts of the day - an unexpected gift from a special friend at church, dinner with my family at a favorite restaurant, the much ballyhooed red velvet cake, and a chance to FaceTime with my sister Naomi in Idaho. It was a full day that capped off a full year of life.
I have celebrated four birthdays now without Joe. After the first three I never imagined I would be in a place again to share it with someone who cares about me as deeply as my boyfriend and I was starting to find my peace with that. I have gone through some dark moments since Joe died, including plenty of times when I questioned whether I could continue on without him. During my most difficult times, I would go to the first two verses of Psalm 121. I had memorized the whole Psalm when I was young - I believe it was also while I was in middle school.
There were many times over the past three plus years that I went to this Scripture as a way to get me through.
"I lift up my eyes to the hills - from where will my help come? My help comes from The Lord, who made heaven and earth."
Wouldn't you know that on this, my 37th birthday, one that was both bitter and sweet - I felt the tears well up once again as I sat in church while the morning Scripture was read. It was, OF COURSE, Psalm 121. And the tears were a perfect mix of happy and sad.
Well, I survived today. After the conversation I had with my little guy this morning I have to admit that I wasn't completely sure that I would.
I had just come back into the house from clearing the ice off the car. He was cuddled up with his blankie on the floor next to the dining room table. He seemed sad.
He needed to get his boots on. He needed to put on his coat. We needed to get to the car. But first, I needed to find out what was wrong.
Me: What's bothering you, buddy?
Him: I'm afraid you're going to die today.
WAIT....WHAT? (Ok, that part was in my head, but REALLY?! My sweet, adorable 4 year old who has already seen enough sadness in his life to last him into adulthood is afraid I'm going to DIE TODAY? Can we please slow down this emotional freight train?)
Instead it was a quick "Psalm 121" moment followed by a deep breath and this...
Me: Come here. I love you so much. And even if something did happen to me you have so many other people who love you and will help take care of you. Aunt Karen and Uncle Chris. Meemaw and Peepaw. And so many other people. I love you and I promise I will be extra careful today.
Followed by what could only be described as the biggest hug in the history of hugs. And big, watery eyes from him. And choked back tears from me.
In the car, he still seemed upset so I asked him what made him think about that and he said he didn't know.
When I dropped him off with my Dad before going to work, he once again didn't want to let go from our embrace. We both knew why.
When the fire alarm went off in my building today, I barely threw my coat on before I was out the door. When I saw the car in front of me swerving on the way home, I backed way off until the driver finally pulled over to the side of the road. I'm not sure I've ever been more thankful to walk through the door of my house and hear the familiar "Mooooom....do you know where your son is?" while he hides under his blankie.
When I got home tonight and talked with him before bed I told him how happy I was to be home with him and to hear about his day and he quickly told me that he's going to be really sad when I do die. God, I think I have gotten my share of punches in the gut today.
Me: It's natural to be sad when someone dies, but I hope you will be really old and with gray hair when I die.
Him: (laughing and grabbing his chin) Like a Dad with a beard?
Me: Yes, buddy. Like a Dad with a beard.
This kid. This kid and how he teaches me to count my days and love the people around me as best I can.
I try to be as up front with my son as a 4 year old can handle. He has a pretty good B.S. meter for a toddler. I wasn't going to look into his brown eyes (which by the way look just like his Daddy's) and tell him that there's no way I was going to die today, that he was being silly or foolish. He's already had enough life to know that death doesn't only come to those who are old and gray. So I took what he was saying seriously and told him what I knew to be true while also trying to be as reassuring as possible.
Tonight, we cuddled and said our bedtime prayers and he fell asleep peacefully. Life is hard, but love can help get us through and I'm willing to double down all my love on that little guy.
The truth is that today could have been "my day". It could go that way for any of us. I can't predict that... but what I can predict is that if my little guy is somehow here on this earth without me he is going to have more love around him than he could ever handle. I have no fear when it comes to that.