Sunday was Mark’s birthday. He would have been 37.
This year it took me by surprise. I knew it was coming up but when I woke that morning it took me a while to look at the date on my phone and realise. I told Ethan when he snuggled into bed for a morning cuddle and he asked if we could go to the cemetery. He wanted to take flowers and write Daddy a letter. When it came to sitting with the piece of paper in front of him he got as far as “Happy Birthday” and then was stuck. He didn’t know what else to say. But then I can’t blame him. A 7 year old isn’t meant to know what to say in a birthday card to his dead father, is he? In the end he drew some flowers and signed his name and we drove up there in the afternoon.
It’s a beautiful place really. The grass is spongy with moss, the trees lush and green in all this rain, far enough away from town to be peaceful. There is a huge old fir (I think) in the middle of the graves, with the thickest trunk I’ve ever seen, deep brown and dark green, sheltering the metres around it. It always fills me with awe as I think how far it’s roots are spreading through the cemetery, connecting everything. We put down our flowers and our letter and had a little chat to Mark about what was going on. Ethan said “Happy Birthday” and told Daddy that he had a cold! I had been fine all day, but listening to his little voice tell his Daddy about school and the Hatchling broke me. He never wants to stay very long – I get that, it’s not a very engaging place for a 7 year old and everything he has to think about there is very abstract. As we drove home I found myself back in my most frequent line of thought: my son is a very impressive little boy, but he shouldn’t have to be. I am torn between being oh, so proud of him that he can articulate his feelings and furious with the universe that he has had to learn this skill so young.
On the 30th October will be 5 years since Mark’s death. It both feels like yesterday and a whole lifetime ago. To be perfectly honest, standing there at his grave with the Hatchling moving around in my belly felt odd. My whole life and the circumstances I have found myself in are so very strange. Any possibility that there might be any sort of over-arching plan seems laughable. There have been lessons learnt, sure, but not through design. I was brought up with the concept that there was a plan for my life – an end goal that I was heading towards – that you just had to find the right path and you’d get to that point. I can’t pass that assurance onto my son – because it’s crap. You have no idea what life will throw at you when you wake up on a Tuesday morning. The best you can do is make sure you have people around you who love you, enough self-awareness to know why you act and respond how you do in every situation, and a sense of humour to carry you through when all else fails! If I can model those things for him, and for the Hatchling, then I think I’ll be doing ok. (Maths skills would also be a bonus!)
Milestones are weird things. In reality, each day is much like the other. It doesn’t get any sadder on the 29th of September, or the 30th of October, or the 12th July, or the 17th March. Mark is not missed any more or less. But our brains like these checkpoints. They help us make sense of time, and I think they help us weave the action of grieving into our lives as we walk forward. Humans crave rituals, birthdays, anniversaries, festivals, Strictly Come Dancing finals. And a grief milestone helps you create those rituals around the loss of your loved one. I have never told Ethan that on Daddy’s birthday we visit his grave, but we have done it every year and now it is a normal part of the year for him. This (I hope) helps him frame his grief, and gives him an opportunity away from school and minecraft and friends to take it out, examine it, and experience it. He knows that being happy is perfectly fine, and so is being sad. Should he need it, he has an outlet.
So, Happy Birthday Mark – our son is pretty damn awesome, and we love you very much.