I never made a big deal about my birthday in my 20’s. In fact, I had a bit of distaste for people I knew who insisted on being fawned all over on their special day. Sure, your birthday is a time for people to celebrate you coming into this world, but do you really need everyone to kiss your feet and carry you around on a palanquin, as if you are a king or queen? I spent several of my birthdays in my 20’s comfortably alone. One year I spent that day solo in Florence – contemplating the majesty of The David and musing over the never ending frescos. Another year I was holed by myself up in a 5 star hotel in Delhi, avoiding the pestering vendors and rickshaw drivers after 6 straight weeks of constantly being harassed. When I turned 29, just 9 days before my wedding, I was in Paris with my best friend from college Rob, who was to wear a tux and carry a bouquet when he would be my Maid of Honor the following week. We celebrated my upcoming nuptials but my birthday wasn’t a thing.
For some reason, when I turned 30, for the first time I hoped for a bit more fanfare. I was a new mom – still recovering from a C-section 3 months beforehand, still breastfeeding my little Isabella. I was in frumpy mom clothes – red sweat pants, an open pink cotton button down shirt, and a nursing tank top smudged with damp milk. John made home made pizza, didn’t cook a vegetable or salad, and then after dinner went to the garage to get stoned with his friend while I stayed in and soberly nursed a hungry baby Isabella. Later that night he made no sexual advances towards me and instead went out with a friend while I went to sleep. When a woman is getting older, she wants to feel attractive and physically wanted on her birthday. My 30th was an epic failure, and after the fact John figured it out and felt terrible.
Here’s the thing about marriage – your success as life partners isn’t so much about the conflicts that you have, but about how you repair and recover. John and I didn’t always communicate well during times of conflict, but we always knew how to come back together. We loved and respected each other dearly and, once one of us realized the other was unhappy, we did what we could to make things better. We didn’t hold grudges and we didn’t try to punish each other. I was always able to let go of frustrations with him (and vice versa) by simply meditating for a few moments on all the wonderful things he did for me – all the nights when Isabella was crying and he lovingly took her from my arms so I could sleep, the way he waited on me hand and foot after I was cut open – bringing me meals on a tray and delicately taking the steri-strips off my incision. John was a wonderful husband, and any missteps were but brief moments in time during a marriage that was filled with wonder and joy.
After the debacle of my 30th birthday, John proceeded to throw me the most elaborate and wonderful birthday dinners every year. He would invite 20 of our best friends, spend 10-12 hours cooking an enormous multi course meal, and would always make sweet love to me later that evening. For my 39th birthday he made 11 Spanish dishes including seafood paella, clams cataplana, ham lollipops, mushrooms with garlic and white wine, and more. In fact, he went to so much effort, eventually I had to tell him to cook simpler banquets so that he would actually have time to spend with me during the meal, rather than being chained to the kitchen.
After my 39th birthday I posted the following note to my friends –
Thank you for all of the birthday wishes! I have to say this is by far the loveliest birthday I have had in years. I’ve been trying to figure out exactly what made it so incredibly wonderful. Perhaps it was the AMAZING 11 dish Spanish feast John cooked on Saturday for us and a number of our best friends, the 4 bouquets of flowers I was given and the super fancy multi layer cake that ex-pastry chef Sean made. Perhaps, though, it was so wonderful simply because I felt so loved. At this time in my life, I feel more total love coming to me (from many sources) than I have ever before in my life. In fact, I think that most of this love has already been there, but now I am finally able to fully receive it. I have come to realize that my heart has been covered in armor for years due to some past trauma that I hadn’t let go of. It has been painful to reach inside and allow myself to really feel the pain that is there such that I can finally let it go. As I often tell my yoga students – “We are all human beings, all of us feeling pain, all of us seeking joy.”. The pain I have allowed myself to feel has helped me to let go of my hard outer shell such that I can open more full to love and joy. Thank you to everyone who has been part of this process. Thank you for loving me, and thank you for being patient enough to wait around until I was ready to receive this love fully. I feel more loved than ever before, and I am filled with incredible gratitude for this gift.
John and I spoke at times, after my 39th, about what I might like to do for my 40th. He was determined to do something extra fantastic and special. He suggested maybe he send me on an exciting climb of Kilimanjaro in Africa while he stayed home with the kids, or perhaps we get childcare and take a luxurious week long vacation together. Because we had Isabella so quickly after getting married, we hadn’t taken a week together just us since our honeymoon. We didn’t settle on any one idea, but it didn’t matter – John would have made it amazing. I told him many times how happy I was to turn 40. Of course, 40 is the stereotypical age when a woman is “over the hill”, but I wasn’t worried about that. I told John that turning 40 was wonderful, because I was in the best shape of my life, had 2 beautiful children, a lovely home, and the most amazing husband I could ever ask for. I loved my life in just about every way, so why would I be unhappy about growing older? If growing older meant more of the amazing life that I had, then I couldn’t be anything but thrilled.
Now, John is dead and I’m not happy to turn 40.
Now, I’m an almost-40 year old broken widow who is a single mom to 2 traumatized girls.
Now, I’m single and I have to contemplate entering the dating scene as an “over the hill” 40 year old woman.
A widow friend of mine told me of her own recent first birthday after the loss of her partner. She said “It was horrible. I wish the day had never happened. For your birthday I’m going to make you a card that says “I hope your birthday doesn’t suck too badly.””
You see, my birthday is a reminder that, even though John is dead, life keeps moving forward. I am getting older, but John stays the same age. My friends will be holding a birthday dinner for me, but John won’t be there. John won’t be cooking me any special dishes, and after dinner, I will be going to bed alone. I have been wishing, for months, that my birthday would just disappear. I don’t want to celebrate a birthday without John by my side. I don’t want to become a stereotypical over the hill 40 year old single mom. I just want to disappear into the mountains and pretend I’m still 39.
None of you can fix this for me. Sure, you can make me dinner, hug me, tell me you love me, and pamper me on that day. All of those things help to soften the edges so that, perhaps, I won’t lay on the floor that day and drown in a pool of the blood that flows from my broken heart. But still, you can’t fix it. Things are going to get worse before they get better. Shortly after my birthday will be the first wedding anniversary that I celebrate without John, and shortly after that will be the 1 year anniversary of his death. Very dark times lay ahead.
I can feel how painful it is for many of you to watch me gasp for air as I fight the dark undercurrents in my ocean of grief. You all want me to get better, but that’s not in the cards right now. The way out is through – I will never get better unless I allow myself to feel and process the excruciating pain that is the loss of my wonderful John. Sit with me, hold me, but most importantly – be ok with me not being ok. I bring myself back to the words that I wrote after my 39th – “We are all just human beings, all of us feeling pain, all of us seeking joy.” Thank you to those of you who can sit with my pain, while also helping me to remember that there is joy to reach towards. I reach for it, but the journey through is long and exhausting. In some ways I have never been more alone, but at the same time – I don’t believe I have ever been more loved. John still loves me, and so do all of you. Thank you.