In my country on our birthdays, we receive presents from the people we love. In the country where my son was born they celebrate birthdays in a different way. His cousins and grandmother and neighbors take food to the temple to offer to the monks so that the people they love who have died will be able to enjoy it in their own realm.
I never know what to do on Chan’s birthday.
Twenty years ago today, he was born at home in our bed. He was so loved. And then, when he was six and a half, when he was the center of our family, when we were trying with everything we had to make him well, to keep him with us, to cure him of the disease inside his bones that was spreading through his body, he died.
That was a long time ago. I was still a young mother, thirty-seven. Some people would say “a part of me died then too,” but I won’t say that. Instead, I will say a part of me was born. The part of me that had to learn to integrate grief into the life of our family, that part of me that learned that love and pain are inextricable.
I only survived the pain because I somehow knew I had to feel it, not push it down. Of course, I pushed it down most of the time. But each day, when I could not smile at my children, or each night, when I could not sleep, I walked myself away from them or my warm bed and stood on the earth under the sky and let myself fall into the pain. Just for a minute at first, then more, letting myself miss my boy so much I could hardly breathe between sobs. I walked into the heart of loss and stayed there while a little of the sadness burned away each time.
Today I think about his birthday. He would be twenty today. But I don’t think about him big. I only think about him small, forever six in my mind. I wonder, as I do each year, how to mark the day he arrived in our lives. Now I am so far from that pain. I have sobbed and raged and written his story almost all the way out of my heart and mind and body.
And now I am giving it away. I am giving the story of his struggle to the world for his birthday. Yesterday the book went to print. Everything is finished. Now You See the Sky, the story I have wanted to tell for over a decade, is going to be released to the world in a few months.
When it comes out, I will travel, talking, reading about his life with us, about his death. I will meet other mothers who are grieving, and I will try to offer them a hand on the climb out of the pit of their desolation. I will give Chan’s story to them as they begin to open to their own stories of loss. Rather than taking food to the monks for our children to eat, maybe we will feed the ones we love who have died in a different way. Maybe in that other realm where our children play, they will feast on our offerings of emotional expression and story and connection and determination to live through hard loss. This vision is how I will celebrate my son’s birthday.