Part One: Messed Up
Parenthood is full of firsts: birthdays, words, steps, bus rides, etc. These moments are anticipated and special.
If your child dies, there is a whole new set of firsts, and they are not welcome. You anticipate them still, but with dread.
How, for example, does a parent celebrate (and make no mistake, it needs to be celebrated) their child’s birthday when they are gone?
For me, the answer started with anger.
A few weeks after Julianna died, the funeral home called to tell me that her ashes were ready. The woman on the phone was perfectly nice and professional. Following the usual rules of phone etiquette, I thanked her.
As soon as I hung up, I was mad.
My (lightly edited) first thought: What kind of a crap world do we live in where a parent has to get a phone call like this? This is so messed up.
My second thought/call to action: We’re going on a trip. I’m buying the tickets today.
And I did. And we did.
Part II: Wanderlust No More
From the time I was a young adult, travel was a huge part of my identity. It was one of the things I missed most after Julianna’s disease declared itself to be a joy-sucking beast.
At first, I was resentful. I felt like my wings were clipped and I envied others who could come and go with such ease. (Ease — even if your flight has been delayed or there is traffic. These are healthy people problems.)
Later, when things were into more proper focus, I didn’t care if I ever travelled again. Please, let my frequent flier miles expire. I didn’t want to “get away.” Everything that mattered was in our house. Often, it was contained in a single pink and purple room filled with toys and stories and love.
I knew that the freedom to travel again would come one day, but I wished that it wouldn’t. I didn’t want it. The cost would be unbearable.
Part III: California Playing
The call about the ashes was a catalyst. I had to do something to counteract the horribleness of it all, so I took the plunge and planned a trip.
We decided to spend Julianna’s birthday week in southern California. We needed sunsets (I’ve always been partial to the Pacific variety), friends – and amusement parks. Lots of them.
We skipped Disney. This is, of course, the most iconic of amusement parks, but I wasn’t sure that I could face it without Julianna. Maybe one day, maybe not.
Part IV: Julianna’s Birthday.
On Julianna’s birthday, we dressed to impress (Julianna, that is. We all wore pink) and drove to Santa Barbara. It’s one of the most beautiful cities I’ve seen, and the drive includes some stunning ocean-hugging stretches of the Pacific Coast Highway. We needed beauty on that day.
We went to the Santa Barbara Mission. More beauty — and peace.
And some levity.
At lunch, our server noticed all the pink and asked if we were celebrating a special occasion. There was a moment of awkwardness as I debated myself: how do I answer this? Do I tell the truth? It’s like dropping a bomb sometimes…
Sweetly and simply, Alex answered. “It’s my sister’s birthday. She’s in heaven.”
The server nodded in understanding, and instead of distress, there was a free birthday sundae. (Ice cream was also needed on this day).
We ended the day watching the sun disappear over the Pacific.
The ocean can make a poet out of anyone. It’s all been said before, and by better writers than me.
I’ll add only this: she was there, and she was free.
“Happiness can be found, even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.” — Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.