I still have the card. I open it on my birthday every year; a ritual of some sort that brings it all back for a bit. It has a photo of snowdrops and crocuses. Inside, my dad’s neat narrow letters, tilted just so… I always loved his handwriting. My mom’s written words followed his. They would write letters and cards together, each bringing their own thoughts as gifts.
My mom’s round letters remind me of her hands. I loved watching her cook and iron and I wanted my hands to be the same; they seemed to know so much of life. They were always warm.
The card, the last birthday card they ever sent brings it all back. Truth is, nothing really goes away. The pain of missing is like an old lifeless tree still standing by the side of road after life left its every branch but with roots still anchoring it to the ground. You want it there but it hurts every time you see it.
The pain of missing the ones who leave us clings to us. You cannot rush it. You let it sink in, and it reveals colours you think are too harsh to use, only to realize that those are the colours you can use to paint your world alive from now on, the only real ones you have. They help you know who you are and they trace the roots of who will become.
I did not look back for the longest time. Out of fear of pain, I didn’t. You’re never ready for that. You miss so much of what could never come back.
My birthdays at home, the smell of my parents’ kitchen with coffee and cake and warmth… I don’t remember the cakes or the presents, but the flavor of mornings I’d wake up knowing them there. My parents, both present, eyes happy to see me. I belonged to them and my birthday did too. This year is the first without them both.
One time my dad brought me a white cyclamen in a green pot. I was turning 12. I kept it in my room on the desk by the window, right next’ to my sister’s red one. Bright as the snow outside, it whispered happy birthday every time I’d look at it.
The next year I got a bouquet of freesia and the fragrance became mine forever. It is the smell of my birthday. I miss that. The smell of those snowy mornings, cold air and afternoon freesia. That’s when my dad would come back from work and we’d have cake.
I have been trying to make peace with it all. Not having them around. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. On my birthday it doesn’t. On the boys’ birthdays it doesn’t either. There is an emptiness that just sits there not sure what to do with itself, and I am not wise enough to say ‘now you go, there’s nothing for you to do here…’
‘Do you think she would’ve liked us, mama?’ Yes. Little boy never got to meet my mom. His brother did, yet all he has are bits of memory. They knows stories and miss her because I do. They see photos and try to paint their grandparents alive but that never works. They called it unfair a few times, the loss and the emptiness of my world and theirs, the smiles of times that could’ve been. There must be a better answer than shrugging…
The last chat I had with my mom… I remember it because I held onto that phone bill for a few years. I would stare at the date of that last chat, a line among many; like eavesdropping on the past, I could hear our laughter and silliness amidst the most serious things that life was throwing our way, her words ‘You take care of yourself, and of the boys…’ Like she knew, but she didn’t. In my darkest moments the pain of the most punishing thought there is ‘if I wouldn’t have hung up, she wouldn’t have gone to sleep and… ‘ grows so strong it’s unbearable.
I’d touch the date with the tip of my index finger, as if to take some memory dust and make that time mine again. Try again, do it better. It never works like that. It’s a one-time deal. Then came the realization that that piece of paper was heavier than the heaviest anchor and was tethering me to a place of pain that had no beginning or end. It was humbling and revealing. Two years ago I parted with the paper that was telling of a time that did not exist anymore, knowing that the door that opened just for my mom to leave could not have me knock on it to bring her back. Such doors are not for knocking.
Soon after, my dad’s long suffering came to an end and he too, opened the door and walked away. He had it rough and I knew he’d go. Still, the world without him was so much poorer and sadder. So much sunniness missing, memories of him returning in strong waves and trying me in new ways. My boys’ world without him and them both was turning grayer and all I could do was shrug, fighting back tears and knowing that I could not make this one right for them. Feeling powerless in the face of life becomes real in ways you cannot anticipate and you write the script of crawling out of that deep dark pit as you go; you see yourself slip downwards but keep on trying because of your children.
Mourning happens in waves. It comes and goes, it hurts, it stops; it transforms you. You grow into a better, braver version of yourself and then every now and then you wake up crying, dwarfed by pain and the missing of that place you grew so used to as a kid, the place where everything was good and safe and warm; inside your parents’ heart. Home.
Life seems cruel in how it peels layers off of us, leaving raw and hurting patches, yet the story is as it should be. How else would the inner layers show? We never are just who we are in this moment. We are who we become from what we once were, sheltered in our parents’ hearts until we learn how to make ours a shelter for our own children.
Yet, we’re never ready. We’re children playing house and giggling away, seeing the bright light shining through the branches of the tree we’re sheltered by, never minding the shadows, so spoiled in the comfort that grows with every time we touch the time-kissed bark.
We carve our names in it, blissfully unaware of the times to come when reading the very names in the bark of the tree that is no longer alive will bring around a sound we’ve never heard before. Mourning.
We honour pain the best we can, remembering that pain is only part of the song we will now sing to our children. Songs of people we loved so much, our parents, stories of times, of loss, of petals peeled away suddenly and buds revealed too soon but what choice is there anyway?…
Time rolls and drags you along, incomplete and prematurely exposed to suns too bright and winds too strong. But you grow, you grow kind and mindful of time, knowing that even the longest summer day will at some point become night and the darkness holds no threats of being lost from brightness, but the promise of at least one more day.
So you make the most of the one you have. And you help your children understand that though never the same, life without the ones who leave is not poorer, but that much richer because they were once in it. And you say the name you once carved with little child hands in the bark of the trees you love, you say it out loud, and the sound becomes a song.
You see the contours of every letter, you remember, and you become more. You ask your kids to close their eyes and you guide their fingers to feel your name, and in doing so they’ll discover that some are now in their names too. You help them belong and know that they are not fragments of worlds lost but pieces of the one that cannot be complete without them.
They’re safe from shrugging and emptiness now, and you are too for having learned that night comes with the promise of yet another new day; at least one more, which you will make the most of…