Birthdays can suck. But not as much as Deathdays.
It was Dad’s birthday ten days ago, April 24. He would have been 78. As usual, his far-flung family and friends toasted him with a good wine (or organic lemonade at my house), and ate Indian, his favourite food. It’s become a bit of a ritual every year now, as the time passes without him.
This year my son was with me on his school holidays (hence the lemonade), so we went to visit Dad in the Adelaide Japanese Gardens where we had (sneakily) scattered some of his ashes into the lily pond in 2009.
I enjoy going there very much, ‘to sit with Dad’, along with the sadness that that inevitably brings. He and I had gone there together several times when he was visiting Adelaide the week before he died in 2008; we both enjoyed the peace, and the ordered beauty of the greenery.
Sometimes when I visit, I see couples lying on the grass, snatching a quiet intimacy in the middle of the city. I see new brides, posing in their big dresses, standing on the clichéd bridge across the pond between their old life and the new one they’re beginning- honestly, sometimes there is a queue of brides waiting to be photographed- my highest tally so far is four.
Occasionally there is a small picnic, with the glitter of birthday food being shared. I smile, but I’m envious too. For the rest of my life now, and my son’s life, there will be a Dad-shaped hollow. No phone call, no silly card, no even sillier gift. And his family all feels sad on his birthday, but enact our comforting rituals to honour him.
So birthdays can suck. We all know that. We’ve all had one that fell flat, whether we were 6 or 36. Hell, once I even missed one all together: camping for a week in a National Park on an island near Townsville, roughing it in tents, with no time-keepers or contact with the outside world… We just sort of missed my birthday Wednesday. Not a bad place to lose one though:
But Deathdays? They’re harder. I don’t know what else to call it: the anniversary of the day you lost your loved one. Is there another word for that day in our culture that I don’t know?
In Mexico (and other countries) there is The Day of the Dead, usually November 1 & 2, a National holiday, when “… families and friends gather building private altars to honor the deceased using marigolds and skulls, and the favorite foods and drinks of the departed, visiting graves with these as gifts.” (Wikepedia)
I would find great comfort in a day like that.
I could dress up and walk the streets with all the other people who are permanently mourning, yet also celebrating the loss of a loved one, while embodying the knowledge that we too will one day be celebrated in our turn by those we’ve left behind. I feel a lack of openness in my Western culture, where to refer to dying or death is almost taboo; corpses are hidden away, cremated behind curtains, buried in closed coffins. Grief is too much of a challenge if you feel it for too long; echoes of the British ‘stiff upper lip’ still permeate our social norms.
Even more poignant for me in terms of honouring the departed are the Japanese Jizo shrines, dedicated to lost, miscarried or aborted children.
Many women I know, myself included, have had miscarriages or abortions, and even, most terribly, lost a child at birth or soon afterwards. Yet it remains so often an unspoken loss, or covered over quickly by well-meaning neighbours: ‘Oh you’ll be fine as soon as you have another baby, just try again’. If only it were as simple as that.
I have a friend whose daughter’s birthday and deathday is the same day. I can’t imagine the profound sadness of that date. And I wish we had more meaningful public acknowledgement of the personal tragedies that can forever mark a person.
Perhaps if we all gathered, united in our physical experience of the ceaseless cycle of birth, life, and death, there would be greater social cohesion and empathy?
After all, everyone’s tears taste the same when we weep.
Still, I’m grateful that I enjoyed my Dad for over 42 years of my birthdays before I had to learn a new way to acknowledge loss on his deathday of October 30.
Thus even though April 24 is now forever bittersweet, it is still a day of celebration for many of us who knew and loved Lawrence…
Happy Birthday Dad xx