Today is our son’s 14th birthday. Well, what would have been his 14th birthday. He’s forever 12 ½, but we can’t forget the day he was born.
We were stationed at NAS Whiting Field in the Florida panhandle, and I was already gravitating to the “crunchy” side. We had hired a doula, Shining Moon, to accompany us to the Naval Hospital for Kai’s delivery in May 2002. She was Taiwanese, with penciled-in, very arched eyebrows, and she spoke soothingly in her Asian accent. I wanted to deliver naturally, which perplexed my husband. “Pilots NEVER get to take drugs. Get the free drugs, baby!” I was in good shape, almost 32, and confident I could do this.
We went into the hospital that morning because I admitted I was leaking amniotic fluid. Tick tock, they said. Must start the Pitocin. All day, as I rolled around on an exercise ball, the Pitocin flowed freely and increasingly. Shining Moon whispered affirmations, massaged my back, and brought me heat packs for my contracting belly. Finally, at 9:00 PM, all hell broke loose. Transition.
Leaning against the edge of the hospital bed, I knew the baby was coming. It was too late for any pain relief. We didn’t know the gender, but I felt confident it was a boy. Just as Kai started to emerge, a doctor ran into the room, latex-covered hand outstretched, barely in time to catch the baby who came flying into this world. In my postpartum haze, I decided our child needed four names: Jacob Kai Wallace Wright. Not too far away from John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt, right? By two months, we realized Jacob-Kai, or my suggestion, Ja’Kai, were just unworkable. We had his name legally changed, figuring “KWW” would look better on a monogram anyway
In our family, on your birthday, you wake to baby photos strung across the living room. Your birthday gifts await you, so you can open them at breakfast. You choose the menu all day long. It’s YOUR day, and we celebrate YOU. For the second time, we’re bumbling through how to celebrate someone’s day when they’re not present.
We hung the photos for Kai. We made his favorite breakfast, a Dutch Baby Pancake. Later I’ll go pick up steak and potatoes for Kai’s birthday dinner. But today, there will be no cake with candles. No “Happy Birthday” song. No gifts to open. It’s the un-birthday, and we’re all acutely aware that’s our truth.
I’ve heard, and read, in several bereavement groups that the second year is harder. The first year is white knuckling through every holiday, every anniversary, every moment. It’s survival. The second year, reality has settled like a San Francisco fog. Every moment is the realization that this is it. This is our forever. This is our every year. We’ll continue getting older while Kai stays forever 12. Someday, not too long from now, our 6 year old will be 12. The thought alone is crushing.
On days like today, I abandon that whole, binary “getting bitter or getting better” paradigm. It’s very ‘Murican, believing hardship can do one of two things: ruin you, or make you stronger. As Americans, we’re very fond of the “hard times make you better” scenario. I totally bought into that as a military wife, surviving multiple combat deployments. What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, we would tell ourselves. Every time we grit our teeth and lean in, we’re only growing our superpowers. Put on your big girl panties, ladies, and embrace the suck.
Today, I’m embracing the suck, but not because I’m seeking healing, or superstrength. I’ve decided I’m OK in the place where I am today, broken, and sobbing, and weak. I’m OK wanting to stay in, stay close, stay tearful, stay quiet. I’m OK touching Kai’s clothes, his origami, his Nerf guns, his Rubik’s cubes. I’m OK looking through photos and videos, invoking the moments and memories that are all that remain. I’m OK being broken.
I’m discovering that this place, this broken and vulnerable place, is where change happens. It’s in this place that I have to lean in on faith, and abandon my own resources. It’s in this place that I can feel the deepest compassion for all the other loss mothers in my new community. It’s in this place that time becomes precious and memories become treasures. It’s in this place that I am humble. It is here that God speaks to me and tells me I am not alone, and don’t need to make this journey by myself. In this broken place, I am better. I am more real, more kind, more accepting, more open. It’s OK if the wound stays open.
The gift today is the one Kai has given to me. I am better for knowing him and loving him, even though it’s painful. The suffering I’m enduring now is the price of great love, complete love. I am open, and broken, and often scared, but at the same time, I feel brave. If I can survive Kai’s birthday without him, I know there are much greater things I can accomplish. Being broken, ultimately, is what changes me, in so many beautiful ways. I don’t want to be bitter, and I don’t want to be all healed and better. No. I want to stay broken, ever mindful of my heartache, and allow that wound to grow dendrites. I want it to be a place where I meet my God and I meet other hurting people.
Kai was always looking out for the new kid, the outsider, the one who needed help. Let my heartache channel Kai’s desire. May I be the helper Kai was, and may my brokenness help me meet people where they are.