Birthday Girl Over Eons and Ages

By Emma Pearson

July 16, 2024

Main image by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

28 March 2024

Yesterday, 27th March, was my birthday.

Yes, I announce it far and wide. Even at the grand young-old age of 57. Rather like I have done since I was aged about five or six. I vividly remember when we still lived in Swansea, Wales (we left when I was six), proudly walking friends home from Terrace Road Primary School to our house for my birthday party – probably my last one there before we moved to Brussels. Google Maps tells me today it is an 8 minute walk. It wasn’t far, though it was quite steeply uphill on the way to school, and quite steeply downhill on the way back. I remember part of the walk being quite scary – down a dark and narrow lane – before the road melted into the brighter daylight of our street, Ffynone Drive – a road that had a cul-de-sac section nearby with lots of blackberry bushes that burst into fruit in the late summer. I can taste them still. And feel the thorn scratches on arms and hands as I burrowed deeply into the bushes.

One memory I have of that walk is accompanying school friends to my (fifth? sixth?) birthday party, and not wanting my friend, Jane G, to arrive and present my cat Tinker to everyone. Tinker was my cat and he was mine to show people. I remember, with more than a hint of embarrassment, a bit of a showdown on that walk home. Jane G said, “If you won’t let me show your cat, I am not coming to your party”, and me retorting, “Okay then, but then give me my present first”.  (I might have said “please”; and it’s entirely possible that I didn’t). I am not proud of my obnoxiously self-centred behaviour, and I hope we found a compromise. Perhaps I still got the present, and Jane G showed people my cat after all. I don’t remember dreadful consequences, though memory is a slippery, self-serving thing.

I hope I have grown up somewhat since the early 1970s, even if I still announce far and wide that it is my birthday. Not because I want presents, (I really don’t), but because I think birthdays are important. Worth honouring. Not everyone has them. They are not givens. Some people have very few of them. And I don’t just mean people born on 29th February in a Leap Year. I think the mums of people having birthdays should also be honoured on one’s birthdays. Oh, go on then – and dads too.

For it’s about life.

It’s about the sacredness of birth, and the ongoing gift of life.

It’s about the exquisite specialness of new life emerging, with all its potential.

It’s also about the marking of time, if not always the laying down of wisdom.

And it’s a connection to special and difficult events associated with certain times, even if we’d rather remember the jolly, jovial and joyous.

This period, this time of year, 20th March to 2nd May, is full – no – pregnant, with meaningful dates – many of which are so hard to carry, but all of which deserve to be honoured and held. The dates have seemed – many times these past years – to fall and detonate like a cluster bomb. Everything blowing up, everywhere, over everything that remains, all at once, all the time. Each date stinging as it comes by again.

20th March 2017 – the day Mike went into hospice.

27th March 2017 – my 50th birthday, spent at the hospice – not the 50th birthday people typically want, but at some level, I was so tenderly cared for.

30th March 2017 – Julia’s 13th birthday – also at the hospice – for why should she have gone to school, her last birthday in her dad’s lifetime?

8th April 2017 – Mike’s death day.

13th April 2017 – Mike’s funeral.

13th April 1996 – our wedding date. Owie owie and ouch – those two together, hand in heart, heart in hand, heart in the ground – still so hard. Always so hard.

17th April 2017 – Megan’s 16th birthday … somehow trying to do GCSE exams.

2nd May 2017 – Ben’s 18th birthday … somehow trying to do Baccalaureate exams.

I look at those dates and just gasp. How the heck…? Just how… to contain them without going under?

That date-rich period of six weeks – full of dates that I want to honour, celebrate and commemorate. Some dates becoming gently easier – like birthdays of people who are still alive. My own, for example. 51 was a horror. 52 too. 53 a fresh new horror, and not because of COVID. 54 too, though sweetened, maybe?, by extended COVID-times… 55… I was accompanied by my refugee Ukrainian family – lots of tenderness that day. 56… I have little memory other than some work I chose to do was cancelled last minute, so I just stayed at home. And now, 57… the easiest birthday in 7 years and 8 birthdays. And still… not easy. When I know what is still around the corner. Because other dates become harder and harder – like the birthdays of people who are dead.

This weekend, Saturday 30th March, Julia would be 20. Twenty. On the cusp of adulthood. I’d love to know her at 20 years of age. See what she’s like. Who she’s become. What she thinks of the state of the world. Trump. Putin. Climate breakdown. She’d have a thing or two to say, I am sure.

Truth be told, I’d love to know her at sixteen, seventeen, eighteen and nineteen too. I’d love to know her at fifteen and three quarters, fifteen and a half. Oh, and perhaps might I have just one more conversation with her from the day, the fleeting moment, when she was fifteen and a quarter? 30th June 2019, the day she took her life.

This weekend I have plans for self-care. And it still won’t be easy. Even if I will go so so so very gently.

Over the decades, I’ve wanted many different things for birthdays. Sports kit mostly. Perhaps some music scores. But more recently, just a note in a card is beautiful enough. A nice, heart-felt note.

Before my 50th birthday, well aware of how things were looking with Mike, I posted a note on Facebook a couple of weeks before my big day, asking friends for a “proper card” for my 50th birthday. I was not going to be content with a digital note on WhatsApp/ Facebook/ LinkedIn. I was doing an awful lot of heavy lifting, and perhaps I wanted others to put in a bit of effort too. To go out and buy a card, write in it, pop it in an envelope with my address and stamp on it, and post it to me.

Many people did. I have a shoe box full of cards and letters from that time – birthday cards, condolence cards – all kinds of cards overlapping in the post – I never knew what I was opening – birthday card or condolence card. In the end I tipped them all into a box together, then took them away with me to Grimentz, after Mike had died, and sat down with them and cried as I read them all.

There is so much love in a proper birthday card – so much love in carefully chosen words. I’d rather get one “proper” card than 100 digital messages – just because I know written cards take planning, effort, thought, and intention for connection. I got four heartfelt cards this year (*)– thank you Medjool, thank you Mike’s sisters, and thank you Cathy (Cathy – you ALWAYS remember, and pen love into every letter and syllable. Thank you). I also got some very heartfelt messages, even if digital. It’s okay. I am no longer demanding proper cards. There is the carbon footprint element to take account of after all. But something to mark the day still feels important to me. I want to be remembered while I am alive, not just when I am dead. (*) And two more cards received after posting this – making six. From Amaryllis and Victoria. Big big thanks.

And who better to honour me than me, myself, I?  Which I do. I take my birthday off – take a personal day of leave. I have done so since I was 27 years old, with two exceptions – so this is now a 30-year practice. When employed, I took a personal day’s leave; and more recently, I just block out the time and say No to client work. Simple choices.

Yesterday Medjool joined me in my day of self-honouring, which felt very special. We’d had a plan for a long cycle ride (to “get my arse in gear” for some longer bike rides he has planned for us). But rain – and cold rain at that – meant that it was not possible. Instead, we had an early morning swim, a cinema visit (in daylight hours!!), and a lovely meal at my favourite restaurant around the corner in my village. The place where Mike and I celebrated special events. I realised last night that it is now “Okay. Good. Right” that Medjool also likes that restaurant. I struggled for so long – both wanting him to like it, but also wanting to keep it special for me and Mike. I’ve learned that it can be special for us all. The restaurant owners remember Mike. They also remember Edward, and the commemorative dinner we had for him in January 2016, the day of his “non-funeral”. They remember and hold the whole story of their neighbour, who lives just 50 metres away, who comes as often to their restaurant to celebrate birthdays as she does to honour death days.

So yes, for me, birthdays matter.

Honouring life matters.

Remembering mothers on their children’s birthdays matter. (And yes – dads too).

Yes, it’s just another day. But by golly – what a day!

The day a whole new unique being entered the world.

Yes – I still love birthdays. Such an honour and privilege to have one a year for as long as I live.

Oh and – far from an afterthought…just remembering this now….

Late afternoon yesterday, I mused, “Hmm – I haven’t heard from Megan or Ben….” I wasn’t expecting a call or a physical card, but at least a digital message with a few emojis would have been nice. Suddenly the home phone rang. The home phone line which I rarely pick up. But thinking, “You never know…” I went to look at the number displayed, and seeing +31 6 (Dutch mobile) figured, “Megan!” She started telling me that she’d already tried on my mobile but I hadn’t picked up (indeed – it is always on silent). I walked over to the kitchen table and found my mobile ringing away silently with Ben’s lovely face on it… So I picked that one up too. Megan’s voice in my left ear, Ben’s in my right. I even had them talk phone to phone for a moment by putting home line and mobile phones together, so they could share a little news too, but of course eventually Ben simply looped Megan in on the WhatsApp. Duh! Not that I had realised we could do that.

It was a joyous moment. Truly precious.

Of course no Julia in the conversation. No Mike either.

Their absence so present – all the more present – any time I have both surviving kids in the “same space”.

But preciously bittersweet nonetheless.

It was a good birthday. My easiest in 8 birthdays.

About Emma Pearson

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