When we met half a lifetime ago, I never fathomed I’d be facing this milestone birthday without you here to give me sh*t in that good natured way you always did.
You always leaned heavily on the mere seven months between us, particularly when it made me the willing butt of your jokes. “Just think, when you are in your forties, I’ll still be in my thirties!” you would quip.
I would grin, shrug my shoulders and search, usually unsuccessfully, for a quick comeback, but I loved you giving me a hard time.
I remember my 36th birthday cake, the one you conspired about with my sister; topped by a grey haired doll with a half a ping pong ball shoved under her dress to simulate pregnancy because I was pregnant with our son and considered of advanced maternal age. The doll’s arms were stretched forward as she leaned against two candles; a four and a zero. “Pushing forty! Get it?” you snickered. Oh! How we all laughed and laughed. In response, our son happily kicked inside my belly.
I have always said I loved you from the very beginning. This is absolutely true, except it wasn’t the romantic, love-at-first-sight type love, rather, it was recognition. I saw a kindred spirit with kindness at her core, shared values of equity, generosity, and visions of a family during a time when our kind didn’t create their own families.
We had an immediate friendship, followed by more in time.
We laughed, Amy. Good grief, how we always laughed. We’d laugh until our sides ached at our relative poverty, our ingenuity, our tenacity, our Clyde moments, our hunts for free firewood to heat our home, our Clyde moments in the course of our hunts for free firewood to heat our home, our missteps in finding our way in a world with no roadmap for two women who wanted a family together.
Dubbed pioneers by our peers, we did find our way and laughed and laughed and laughed—until we didn’t.
One day, the stony silences and distance between us, two best friends, outweighed the laughter. I admitted defeat first. You, having been raised in a family that never quit, took longer, but in time you agreed too.
Just before reaching forty, I did the unthinkable and stated as loudly as I could at the time that the Emperor had no clothes. It caught everyone by surprise, but me—and you in retrospect.
Our forties were good, bad, ugly, and then good again. In our marriage coming apart, we fought bitter battles of self righteous indignation. By assuming the worst of each other and functioning from a place of deep fear, we did a lot of damage.
We did our worst to each other, but when we were battle-scarred and spent, we finally remembered the versions of us we’d first met in your house on Jordan Terrace.
Oh yes, our forties were good, bad, ugly, and then good again. How thankful I am for the last of the good we found. It was glorious and appreciated all the more for following in the wake and wreckage of the bad and the ugly.
We laughed again.
Oh, how we laughed. We shared in the glory of our children, a daughter and son. We planned for them, consulted with one another, helped each other to the extent we understood the other needed help, were happy for one another’s joy, and were once again fiercely protective of one another. We found our lost friendship and it was magnificent.
But you died.
On a seemingly normal Tuesday morning almost nine months ago now, you died. Suddenly. Without prelude.
I think back over the last months of your life and think about the daily calls in which we talked about our kids, your job search, my work, my sister, your folks, and our respective relationships, both in a state of flux at the time.
Once again, we laughed easily. We’d laugh until our sides ached at being busy moms and the visual of us being like gerbils on a wheel juggling motherhood and a professional life. We laughed about our tenacity, our Clyde moments, our misguided battles in the course of our separation, and our missteps in finding our way in a world with no roadmap for two women who created a family together and then came apart.
We laughed and laughed. When I think of you today, I still see you laughing.
I think back over the last days of your life and I see you sitting at my dining room table for our son’s birthday dinner.
My Aunt had splurged and gotten him king crab legs. The rest of us ate roast beef since the crab was so expensive. The roast was quite good and no one felt slighted, but it made it all the more special for our son to be the only one with crab.
You were very tired that evening and asked if I thought it would be okay for us to open gifts first so you could go home and rest. Because I knew you weren’t sleeping much those days—stress, worry, health issues, and your ages—I knew how tired you were, but insisted you stay for the dinner we’d planned together.
In hindsight, I have never been more grateful for having put my foot down with you.
I see you sitting on the other side of our son, methodically cracking his crab legs and handing him the meat so he could eat without having to stop and pick crab. He had only to dunk the prized crab meat in the melted butter and let it drip its way to his mouth. He smiled every single time you handed him a piece, but even more broadly at the bigger pieces you managed to patiently pull out of those foot long crab legs. As sweet as ever, he offered each one of us a piece of his birthday crab.
As I recall, only his sister took him up on the offer. Being our first born with all the rights and privileges we bestowed upon her from birth, she would have accepted, of course. Following dinner, our son opened his gifts including a “totally tricked-out computer” from you and me. “Totally tricked-out” were his words and it felt good giving him a gift with you for the first time in nearly a decade.
It felt good knowing we were on the same side, once again. It felt good having you in my home. In hindsight, I am so glad I insisted you stay.
I have cried more in the past two months than I did in the first two since your death.
My therapist says this is normal. She tells me I cry because I no longer have the luxury of being numb. Although I am busier than ever and fatigued in a bone-crunching way, I no longer have the luxury of undertaking busy work for the sake of busy work so I don’t have to think too much.
I no longer have the luxury of having you in my life and, sadly, I am no longer in denial about this.
In two days, I will turn 50 years old.
I imagine what you would say to me if you were still here. I imagine (in fact I am certain) you would recycle your old quip and tell me “Just think, when you are in your fifties, I’ll still be in my forties!” This would be true. You are forever frozen in your forties at exactly 48 years and eight months. Only you, who was so good with numbers, and liked your spreadsheets and factors nice and round, could deem to die on a day that would make your age so perfectly measurable. 48 years and eight months. I know you would see the dark and twisted humor in this perfect number and we would laugh once again.
I see so many things these days that I know you would laugh at. I know you’d laugh at the fact that I have little idea as to the specifics of my birthday plans but am completely confident that we’ll sort them out. You always did think my optimism even in the face of utter chaos was humorous.
I know you’d laugh that when my kind-hearted girlfriend asked me what my favorite cake was, I had to think about it for a minute. You’d laugh that it is quite possible my favorite cake may change in the coming year. You’d also laugh that you, ever forgetful about fine details and prone not to notice them, wouldn’t have a clue about which my favorite cake was.
You’d laugh at the jokes being thrown around about my age; our son, daughter, my girlfriend, my friends, our children’s friends, and even your family has all had their go at poking fun at my 50th birthday.
It is funny stuff; there is no doubt you would laugh at it all. As the song says, it’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to, but given the choice between crying and laughing on this milestone birthday, I think I will laugh and just picture you joining in.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Author: Mk Michaels
Apprentice Editor: Guenevere Neufeld / Editor: Renee Picard
Photo: via author