Monday, March 28, 2011

Happy Birthday, Dear Audrey!

Happy birthday to my baby!  We might as well take a moment to recall the good times.  Take a look at some pretty cute pictures of our baby on her first two birthdays:

(I don't even remember how she got the black eye!)
(See how chilled out we were by baby #3...she wasn't even completely dressed at her own birthday party!)

It seems like yesterday that we were baking Audrey’s Easter basket cake when she turned two, and here we are again at another birthday.  It’s only the bottom of the second inning (early in the game of living without her), and here is the count: 2 birthdays with and 4 without.  Today Audrey would have been six.  I always approach major events like birthdays and holidays as if they were like any other day. After all, Audrey has been absent from us all the time for a while now. What makes these “special” days…well… “special”? Even with this practical outlook, something unexpected usually gets me started down the path of grief, and this “special” day was no exception.

I still teach the Sunday school class full of Audrey’s little cohorts. They are in kindergarten now. They are full of life, learning exponentially, spouting some pretty big spiritual truths, and basically exuding “adorable”. Yesterday we recognized our sweet Ella. She has a birthday this week. Our lead teacher gathered Ella in her arms, put a birthday crown on her head, and we all began to sing. Precious, innocent voices filled the air with joyful noise (and a few silly additions to the birthday song…cha, cha, cha!). Ella will turn six years old on Saturday. As we sang, it seemed that time froze. I watched little Ella, surveyed the length of her legs, looked at the expression on her face, drank her in. How big would Audrey be? What would she look like? I closed my eyes and imagined that we were singing to her, too. She would have been in this tight-knit group, and she would have worn that little birthday crown on her head yesterday, too.

While Audrey’s absence is obviously devastating and the thought of what-might-have-been weighs on my heart, I also struggle with what to physically do with days like these. At dinner last night, Bryan asked the girls, “Is there anything you would like to do tomorrow for Audrey’s birthday?” There wasn’t much reply, but even if there was, I am not sure I would have heard it. I immediately withdrew from the table and into my own thoughts. Here came that pesky question again. What do I do with the cemetery? While the girls are at school tomorrow, should I go put flowers on her grave? Do I want to? Several times through dinner, Bryan called to me. “Come back to us, Sarah. Where did you go?” I managed to choke down my nachos and snuggle my Caroline, make some conversation. But I was, indeed, lost.

After we put the girls to bed, the question nagged again. What do I do with the cemetery? I imagined someone casually walking by Audrey’s grave, noticing her birth date on the marker, and wondering, “What kind of parents would not come and put flowers on their daughter’s grave on her birthday?” I know this thought was rather narcissistic. Who is going to walk by today and notice it is Audrey’s birthday? Who would care? Still, these are things that cross my mind. I know some people cannot stay away from the grave of a loved one. They somehow feel closer to their loved one there. Some are opposite. They cannot go because it upsets them. I am 100% in the middle. I am not afraid of it, not put off by it, totally comfortable with it. But, it also holds little meaning to me in this world. I am, quite honestly, baffled by it. Leaving it alone feels wrong—as wrong as walking away from Audrey’s body at the hospital and away from the casket on the day of her burial. A parent does not walk away from her child’s physical body forever. It is unnatural. And, yet, Audrey’s body—for now—no longer needs my care. She is not going to be sad I didn’t come to “visit her”.  Is she?

No matter what we decide about the cemetery, we still have to figure out what to do with the rest of the day. How do we celebrate another birthday for a child who is not present with us? Each year, this challenge seems to grow. Friends and family ask in advance, “Are you going to do anything for Audrey’s birthday?” Patiently, they try to keep their calendars clear just in case we get inspired or really want their presence. But, I am running out of ways to make this day seem positive. I am out of the energy it takes to throw another party, prepare food, come up with a message of hope, and communicate it to adults and children alike. I feel the burden (and the responsibility and the desire) to lead those around me in the grief process, to put a truthful (with a capital T) spin on things, to be the author of this story. But, I am admittedly tired today.

On Audrey’s third birthday, we planted a garden in our back yard with family and close friends. It was a lovely way to affirm life. We purchased a red bud tree. It has heart-shaped leaves and blooms in March—a reminder that hope springs eternal.

Here is a picture of the same garden in August of the year we planted it:

When we moved in March of 2009, our first gathering in our new home was Audrey’s fourth birthday party. We bought helium balloons and gave them to our friends and family to release while we sang “happy birthday”. We attached notes. Everyone wrote a personal message—what they would say to Audrey if they could. We baked a cake and blew out candles.  I don't know why, but I cannot find one picture of that gathering. 

In April of that year, we planned a garden for our new yard. It was an attempt to carry our old one with us. Doing it ourselves was hard work, so we solicited the help of some landscapers. We explained what it meant to us, and they were so kind to re-create it for us. Here is a picture of the precious men who completed Audrey’s new garden:

Last year, on Audrey’s fifth birthday, I don’t even remember what we did. I couldn’t muster up the strength to host a party. I do remember that our friends brought us dinner and ate it with us. And, today, it looks like we will be echoing that low-key kind of remembrance. I have some flowers to finish planting in Audrey’s garden. That task will be a good one. I need some time with my Savior. I need to be with the Source, be reminded of the hope I have. I can’t stay strong without Him. In fact, I am NOT STRONG. I may head to the garden center in a bit to refill the bird feeder with cardinal food. It seems we have attracted a pair of cardinals, and I would love to continue to enjoy watching them.

Later tonight, we are taking the girls to see a movie. I am sure we will find something to stick a birthday candle in as well. Blow it out. Say goodbye to this day and move on with Tuesday, March 29th. That sounds like a relief to me. I know most people won’t read past the first paragraph of this post. Who is brave enough to face their own grief, much less the grief of another? And, I know that I am not offering much encouragement today. You want real? Well, you got it. This is my process, and I have been told people like to see “process”. This, my friends, is what “living out your faith” looks like. It isn’t always pretty.  It is jagged and steep and foggy sometimes.  And, it is certainly not guided by my own abilities.  It is God-led, God-authored, God-grown.

I don’t know what future birthdays will hold, but it seems that, over time, we are drawing in, keeping it close to home. I think of Mary, who “pondered all these things in her heart”. God knows, I think to myself. No one else knows the depth of what I am feeling, but God knows.

So, the count stands at 2 with and 4 without. Looks like we are nowhere near the 7th inning stretch. It’s could be a long game, folks….may go into extra innings. Good news is (yes, I always end with the good matter what I am feeling!)...Good news is, the victory’s a guarantee.

Thank you all for the messages pounding my inbox today. Many of you have been faithful to remember, and that means the world to us.  When you think of us, don't forget to contact my husband.  Daddies need encouragement, too.


Shelly C said...

love you both.. thought at one point last night we might be welcoming a new one into the world today but God knows the perfect day... loving you through it all! S

Sandra Littlejohn said...

My oldest brother died 21 years ago this January. It marked half of my life with him and half without. Ever year on Jan. 29th, we still grieve his passing but find comfort that he no longer suffers from cancer. We have all moved five states away from his grave so there is no place to physically go. Each of us, my parents, younger brother and I celebrate and grieve on that day and his birthday in August. The grief is different when it's your child versus a sibling. I've always been touched by your honesty in your journey or process. I'm sad for you and I think of your girls as they grow up without their sister. I'm praying that you'll find what you need for today and those other special days in God's embrace.

JulieWilliams said...

Happy Birthday, Audrey! Thinking of your family today.

Andrea Foster said...

My thoughts and prayers have been with you today! Happy Birthday Audrey!

Mike Porter said...

I'll always treasure my memory of bouncing her on my knee, her precious laugh, her angelic smile...she still warms my heart.

Unknown said...

Sarah - I just read this. I appreciate your authenticity. Praying for you today. Love you - Marian