This past week was my birthday. I turned 34. It might be the first time in my life I don’t really seem to have any particular feeling about turning an age. Usually I have a feeling of either excitement or resentment towards a new age. When I hit 30, I was so gloriously ready to leave my 20’s behind because they were, with the exception of meeting Drew, quite hard years. I had an abusive boyfriend, two jobs, and too many classes to count in my early twenties. I had a fear of relationships and complete breakdown and entered therapy in my mid twenties. Not to mention an alcoholic dad creating occasional chaos throughout all of that. I spent the better half of that decade fighting so hard to survive… with the odds of a dysfunctional childhood rearing at every turn. My twenties were filled with many adventures, but also much pain. Particularly when Drew died, just 3 months shy of my 30th birthday.
The best years, were from 26 to 29. My years with Drew. They were the first carefree years of my life. The first years where I finally understood what it felt like to exhale fully. Those were the birthdays I didn’t want to end. The celebrations that would span a whole week, just because this one person enjoyed celebrating me that much. Both of my parents were dead already, but his overflowing love combined with that of our amazing friends made it much harder to feel the pain. I remember in fact just enjoying my birthdays, fully, without the bittersweet feelings. Instead with only a passing thought to my parents.
Since he died, birthdays have yet again returned to that sort of “hurry up and get it over with” feeling. And I hate it. I hate that I fought so hard for so long in my twenties to finally have peaceful, joyful birthdays only to have them stolen away again. And it isn’t like I don’t try. It certainly isn’t like Mike doesn’t try. Having someone new in your life doesn’t take away the pain or the longing for your other person though. And I’ve learned over time that some years are just harder than others.
Despite Mike showering me with love and beautiful fall colored flowers this week, taking me to dinner and making me the most cake entirely from scratch, still the grief has been there. Despite Shelby meeting me each morning for days leading up to my birthday with special birthday hugs. Despite her melting my heart in ways I never knew possible before I knew her… the grief could not be hushed.
Sometimes there is only so much you can do. Sometimes all the love in the world cannot overshadow the pain of grief or make it go away. Not even a beautiful new life can prevent you from feeling sadness for a life that got taken away.
Sometimes, no matter how badly you just want it to be a good and wonderful experience, the best you’re going to get is joy intermixed with pain. I may very well need to accept that a little better, and perhaps stop trying so hard to fight it. Life isn’t perfect. It isn’t joyful all the time. And I’m lucky just to have a birthday that was even as good as being joyful and painful. I’m lucky to have people I loved so much that it still brings me sadness they aren’t here. I should remember that more. And in hindsight, I am able to see just how fortunate I am that - despite all the people I have lost (and because of it) - my life is still so full of love. Despite it being a damn hard week, and how much I focused on the painful stuff, I did still manage to enjoy my birthday and appreciate everyone in my life. Despite how difficult it all was, my new person was here, not just to celebrate me, but to wipe my tears away as I grieved. And I can tell you, to be able to be with someone new, and not feel like I have to hide away my sadness for missing Drew on special days might just be one of the best gifts I’ve ever been given.
I think sometimes I get caught up in trying to show the world what they want to see, without realizing it. I think it gets in my head. I have a new partner, my life is happy, and so I have some responsibility to show this insanely joyful birthday experience to the world. Um, wrong!
So what if it wasn’t 95% happy and 5% sad? So what if this year it was more like 50/50? So what if my friends and family would hate to hear just how tough my birthday really was this year? So what if it makes them uncomfortable or confused? For christ’s sake, I remember being overjoyed that I survived my first birthday after his death without jumping off a cliff (and quite literally, as I was sitting on the edge of the Grand Canyon for that birthday!).
I think, as I reflect back, the important thing is that I was able to appreciate all the good still. I want to choose to let a 50/50 birthday be just fine. To remember how amazing it is to have that - and how far I’ve come to be able to even be halfway joyful. I get to decide that after all. So that’s what I’m doing. To hell with the unrealistic expectations. Forget about trying to show people the kind of happy they want to see, the false kind that society constructs, saying that once we widows find someone new or hit 5 years or whatever other criteria, that life is just awesome again.
This is real life, life with grief, and in that world… I’ve decided, 50/50 is a fucking victory. I am taking my victory lap today, in these words, with all of you… and hopefully reminding someone else out there that it’s not only okay to have a 50/50 kind of birthday, or anniversary, or Christmas… but it’s also damn okay to have a 95/5 one too, being 95% sad. And not just when you’re a year out. But when you’re 5 years out, or ten, or whenever the hell you need to. The important part is that we get to decide what our victories are now, and what we need, and no one else.