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Happy birthday – please don’t die

Submitted by on Monday, 11 April 2011 2 Comments

I’ve never paid much attention to birthdays – not since I turned 18, at least, and was old enough to drink. Yes, I am that old. Being old doesn’t especially bother me most of the time. It’s just a number.

It turns out that it’s a number that bothers the guys. They look around, they see all the younger mommies and daddies – even the younger grandparents – and they do the math.

“It’s not fair!” Big Guy fumed yesterday afternoon. “Mawmaw was 24 when you were born. You were 39 when you had me. Why did you wait so long to get babies? It means I have less time with you.”

“Mommy, will you take some pictures of you?” Boots asked moments later. “We have lots of Daddy but none of you. I want to remember you when you’re in heaven.”

Sure, babes.

“That’s a good Mommy,” he said, patting my arm. “Can I have your camera when you die?”

I should have clued in as to how distressed Big Guy was when he didn’t bicker over post-mortem possession of the Rebel. I reassured them that I didn’t plan to depart anytime soon, and I thought that was the end of it.

A few hours later, it came around again at bedtime, reminding me of the night when Big Guy had wept for hours because his heart was “empty without a dog.”

“Mommy,” he said softly as he knocked on my bedroom door, his face already wet. “I just can’t stop crying. I’m going to miss you soooooooooooooooo much.” He threw himself into my arms, and the tears began to flow in earnest.

When I was Big Guy’s age, I remember being preoccupied with not wanting to grow up because I thought adults must have really awful lives. They can’t even play with Barbies, I thought. Booooooooooor-ing!

But I don’t recall ever being so concerned with mortality that I was up for hours crying. On the other hand, none of my parents everĀ  left for a year to fight a war.

I do recall being excoriated when I was in second grade after I asked who was going to take me to a Brownie meeting while my mom was briefly hospitalized. “Your mother might die, and all you can worry about is your stupid little party?” someone asked. “You’re such a selfish child!”

For one, while my mother did have a chronic health condition, it was not life-threatening. For another, to this day I wonder what kind of kook mentality conjures up the idea that it’s better to frighten the wits out of 7-year-olds than to try to reassure them that everything will be all right.

Believe me, I’d rather have the guys worrying about a party than fretting over being alone in this world when their Dad and I pass on.

“When you and Daddy go, there will be no one … No one but Boots and me. Sure, I have cousins, but they won’t know what it was like to be in this house with just the four of us. The five of us, I mean. No offense, Rita,” Big Guy choked.

He proceeded to paint a vivid picture of that life, with his concerns ranging from tiny to terrifying.

Who will bake his birthday cakes? Who will he watch Reds baseball and Mountaineer football with? Whose Altoids will he steal? Whom will he make pizza with? “I guess I’ll still be able to go to NASCAR, but what if all my friends like He Who Shall Not Be Mentioned? Who’s going to boo him with me? Who will possibly understand?”

Boots will, I said. Boots will understand.

“True, but what am I going to do the day they call to tell me you or Daddy is dead? What will I do a week later, when I call you phone and it says, ‘Number disconnected’? When I Skype you and your account no longer exists?”

“I’ll still be with you, babes, right here,” I said, patting his chest. “I’ll always be in your heart.”

It got worse – much worse – before I was able to divert him with thoughts of the birthday cake we’d bake the next day.

“Hey, have I ever told you who taught me how to decorate cakes?” I asked. “My Mawmaw did.”

“She’s in heaven, isn’t she?”

“Yes, babes. She died almost 11 years ago. And you know what? Every time I decorate a cake, it makes me smile and think of her, because it was something fun I did with her.”

“But doesn’t it makeĀ  you sad?”

“Not anymore. It did at first. But now I remember all the good times I had with her instead of being sad.”

He’s too young to understand the cliche “time heals all wounds,” and for a 7-year-old a week of sadness is the same as a lifetime. For now, at least, the seed is planted. If that seed grows into a great big grin someday – hopefully someday long, long into the future – when somebody offers 60-year-old Big Guy an Altoid or when the Reds blow it in the eighth inning, I’ll be happy, too.

Copyright 2011 Debra Legg. All rights reserved.

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  • Alejandra said:

    There is no better way to understand the world than through the eyes (and heart) of a child. Love the post.

  • Debra said:

    Oh, you are so right, Alejandra. I learn something new from these two at least once a week. It might be more often if I paid attention. As painful as this was last night – and there were times where he had me fighting tears, seeing how he was agonized – I was still thrilled that he never said, for example, “who’s going to get me presents.” With the exception of the Altoids, and I had no idea those meant that much to him, it was all about things we do, not things we buy. I’m really happy about that.