`Yesterday, the 26th, was Sarah’s mother’s birthday. Part of a tradition that she has done over the years is to have a small cake, and a bouquet of flowers, as a way of celebrating her, though she’s no longer here. It’s a simple gesture that means so much. She lost her mother when she was only nine years old. While her siblings were much older, and had much more time with her, Sarah had to “make do” with memories she only had as a little girl, and recollections of her older siblings.
Shelby, too, lost her mother at a young age. She was only seven when Megan died. She remembers quite a bit, but again, she was nowhere near adulthood when any memories she could form ceased. She relies heavily on myself, grandparents, and her uncle for the stories that she may have been a part of, but still too young to realize they were something to remember.
As we sat down to partake in the yearly birthday cake, I (somewhat in jest) asked Shelby if she remembered Megan’s birthday. She did not, other than she knew it was in summer (her guess was a month off). I wasn’t disappointed, for she’s still just a little girl. It is not like she has a date planner or had any part in actually NEEDING to remember the exact date of her mother’s birth.
After some good natured ribbing, and finishing our cake, Shelby asked a question to Sarah.
“Did you ever forget your mom’s birthday?”
Sarah’s response was honest and poignant. “When I was in my early twenties, I never did anything on this day. It was just another day, and I didn’t think it made sense. Like I wasn’t allowed to celebrate the birthday of someone who wasn’t here. But then I realized that I can still get to have that connection with her, even if only for myself. I can celebrate her birthday like I want to celebrate her birthday.”
Shelby listened. I could see it on her face that she was truly interested in the response to the question, and wasn’t asking it as a sarcastic little girl, but as a young woman who also lost her mother. She took Sarah’s response to heart and there was certainly a sense of deeper thought about it.
As Shelby nears 4 years since Megan’s death, there are flashes of this growing maturity developing. It’s something I both relish and feel uncomfortable about. I want her to have this growth towards adulthood. I am beyond happy that she isn’t “stuck” in her seven year old self. In fact, she just kept plugging along upon Megan’s departure, still getting her straight A’s and reading ever more complex books. Making new friends and participating in new activities. She was a normal little girl that happened to lose her mother, rather than someone that lost her mother, that happened to be a normal little girl.
She has never given me the sense that Megan’s death was anything more than an event in her life. She doesn’t identify as a motherless child. But the wheels are beginning to turn. She’s asking meaningful questions, and she’s conscious of the meaning, rather than “accidentally” asking an important question. This is the beginning of the phase in her life that I have some uncomfortableness about.
Just as with her birth, when she began walking, talking, reading, or went to school, I have no experience with this. I’m unsure, as a father, how I should respond to questions about her mother that are more than “what day is her birthday?” or “what was her middle name?”. Questions that are more abstract and come with somewhat opinionated responses. Questions that, if responded to incorrectly, could warp her own thoughts about Megan.
I don’t want Shelby to put Megan on a huge pedestal for the rest of her life. I want her to love, respect, and admire her mother for who she was, but to realize that she was a human being just the same, not a deity. Megan was a doting, loving, hard-working mother that got a crap deal in the end, but she wasn’t infallible either. She may have been a little overbearing with the princess stuff (Shelby has never been truly interested in barbies or the color pink, but Megan sure tried to force it). She might have been a tad on the overprotective side, which has had long standing imprints on Shelby’s willingness to jump in a pool. I like to take her fishing and have her help me change the oil in my truck.
Megan and I had different interests and styles of parenting, but we always compromised on those differences, and realized that it made Shelby a more-rounded person. It made her a more complex human being. She’s a girl that loves pigs to no end, and would happily cuddle with one in bed, waking up the next morning to a plate of bacon, which she also loves. She still likes going to Disney on Ice, watching princesses float around on skates, then coming home and playing Call of Duty. She will play with minnows in a bait bucket, giving them cute names and giggling like a 3 year old, then throw a hook through them and catch a bass, again, giggling like a 3 year old as she reels it in.
So far, Shelby hasn’t given any indications that she feels Megan “could do no wrong”. She doesn’t feel that my own words are gospel either. She’s got a healthy interest in forming her own opinions on what she likes and dislikes, on what she wants to do with her time, who she wants to be friends with, and subconsciously, how she wants to remember her mother.
Her question to Sarah was the first time that her subconscious became conscious. It was fleeting, and only lasted a few moments, but it surfaced nonetheless. She’s eleven now...an official preteen. I’m sure opinions will become ever more prevalent in the coming years, and I’m looking forward to it with slight fear and bewilderment.
I want Shelby to have these opinions. I want to encourage her to have healthy questions about Megan, and true interest in whatever the answers may be. I am encouraging her to have that inner mindfulness and deeper thoughts that are a hallmark of true maturity. It’s just beginning to develop. There are going to be many times where we still have to guide her, or remind her that it’s Megan’s birthday, provide a swimming pool for her to jump into, or rides to a friend’s house. We’ll still need to tell her to do chores, go to bed, or do her homework. She hasn’t yet learned for herself the importance of some things, but she’s starting to learn the importance of learning itself on a deeper level.
Mostly, I want her to feel free to celebrate Megan’s birthday, in the way she wants to do so without regret, because she has made an important decision for herself, without someone telling her it’s important.