Growing up, some of my best childhood memories stem from celebrating my birthday. My mom would go all out and make the impossible happen. We weren’t wealthy by any stretch of the word, and more often than not, my mom was a struggling single parent raising two kids on her own. But when it came to our birthdays, she made magic happen, and it was one of the many things I admired about her. My mom was like Superwoman: able to turn 15 cents into a massive Lion King-themed three-tier ice cream cake. But birthdays, and honestly every day in between, became less magical the day the local police knocked on our door to tell us our mom had been killed in a car accident. Growing up without her, especially in my teens, was troubling on "good" days and damn near impossible on most days. Those years were marred with missing my mom and wishing she were there to teach me, but not having my mom with me as I entered motherhood has been an entirely different type of hard and bumpy journey.
Becoming a first-time mom is tricky enough with trying to figure out if you’re doing it right. When are you supposed to feed the baby? Should you breastfeed? Why does the baby’s poop look like that? Not having my mom by my side to glide me through that process, then and now, has been a challenge I stand up to on a daily basis. But the true challenge has been figuring out how to ensure my son knows who his grandmother is. My mom would have adored my son, of course, and he deserves to know her as much as he can.
I wanted him to feel like her presence, while not physically here with us, was alive and jumping in our hearts. I wanted to try to explain all that my mom meant to me and would mean to him through a tangible experience we could both feel and celebrate. So I decided to celebrate my mother’s birthday with him.
Last year, when my son was 3 years old, I decided to tell him about his grandmother in a different way. Since he’s still quite young, having a conversation about heaven, death, and life thereafter is a bit much for him to understand. I wanted him to feel like her presence, while not physically here with us, was alive and jumping in our hearts. I wanted to try to explain all that my mom meant to me and would mean to him through a tangible experience we could both feel and celebrate. So I decided to celebrate my mother’s birthday with him. to celebrate my mother’s birthday with my son.
When my son was about 2, I attempted to explain to him who my mom was. He is a pretty smart kid so, eventually, he asked me where my mom was before I could introduce the topic. I tried my best to explain, in an age-appropriate way, that she was in heaven which is in the sky beyond the clouds, and that she looks down on us to protect us. Surprisingly, he accepted my story and for a while he talked about her as "grandma in heaven with her dog," though the dog part was his own creative twist.
He asked me if we'd go to grandma's house to eat cake and celebrate, or if we could call her on FaceTime to sing happy birthday. For a brief moment, it hurt my heart that I'd have to say no. Chocking back tears to show him it was a happy day, I told him that grandma would be watching us from heaven. And that was good enough for him.
Birthday celebrations are not just a party for the one being celebrated; it’s a party for everyone involved. My short attention-spanned toddler, like most kids, loves everything that comes with celebrating a birthday. A few days before my mom's birthday, I built up the excitement by telling him we’d be having a birthday party for grandma. This year, since he's a bit older, I waited until the actual day to tell him his grandmother’s birthday was coming. In the midst of the excitement, he sort of forgot that the lady of honor was not here on earth with us. He asked me if we'd go to grandma's house to eat cake and celebrate, or if we could call her on FaceTime to sing happy birthday. For a brief moment, it hurt my heart that I'd have to say no. Chocking back tears to show him it was a happy day, I told him that grandma would be watching us from heaven. And that was good enough for him.
On the actual day, we hit the kitchen to bake a birthday cake. While baking with my toddler is not one of my favorite activities, it really got him excited to celebrate a beautiful life. While the cake was baking, I sat my son down with an old photo album and showed him pictures from my childhood. There were some of just me, some of my brother, and plenty of my mom. I told him stories about what it was like when I was a kid, and he asked me tons of questions about what my favorite toy was and what his grandma's real name was.
I completely understand that much of what we talked about in regards to his grandmother will not stick or resonate immediately. But, as the years pass, I've made it my duty to make sure we are celebrating her life every single year. I want my son to know that my mother existed and that she loves him. I think it makes a huge difference in a child's life to know that they are loved and cared for from every stretch of their family. It gives them a sense of self to know where they come from and the lives it took to bring them into this world.
Before becoming a mom myself, my mom's birthday was a sore spot for me. I miss her on the actual day, and every day that passes. But now, being able to celebrate her life rather than mourn her absence alongside this little inquisitive person who's brought a new joy to my life has been healing for me. My hope is that by celebrating her life with my son, he'll fell like he knows the extraordinary woman his grandmother was.