Today is my birthday.
I’m now thirty six years old. In my reckoning, that’s the last year of your mid-thirties, and it’s a perfectly fine age. I’m not one to agonise over aging; I’m philosophical as my body creaks and softens, as the list of things I’ll never be good or expert at lengthens, as the wide landscape of potential and opportunity hardens into experience and choices made and consequences. But of course, these aren’t new developments just for this birthday.
But this is the first birthday without you, Mum.
There have been a number of moments since she died that sharpened the realisation that life continues on without her forever now: packing up a house, closing down bank accounts, re-homing dogs, marking her birthday, celebrating a Christmas, every forgetting that she was gone for a second, every anecdote that involved her. But today, selfishly, her absence feels nearer as no phone call comes through, no message received, no plans made, no warm hug.
There is something so powerfully connected between your birthday and your parents, particularly your mother. Not only is the date an anniversary and celebration of a profound transition and bond, it’s also a day that marks a relationship that has existed for the entirety of your existence. The presence of a mother – or a parent or those who stay with us our whole lives – is so fundamental and permanent that it almost constitutes a elemental principle of nature. Fundamental and permanent until it isn’t.
Perhaps the depth of feeling today is related to the experience of thinking I see her, now occurring more often; a vivid, unique shock for which there should be a word. That moment when I see a woman of a certain age, a certain shape, a certain dress, a certain greyness, and there’s an invisible impact, catching your breath in your lungs, before you realise the resemblance is fleeting or close or wildly inaccurate. And as it happens more often, I wonder if my mind is reaching to make these connections, confused as to why it hasn’t seen this person, this face in so long; a reflexive action. In Camera Lucida Barthes searches for his mother in photographs, grief-stricken, unable to see her amidst her literal likenesses, until he does find her, in a suspended moment of her childhood captured in a photo. Familiarity and memory become treasures.
So now, I think back on thirty six years and thirty six birthdays, but this one the first shaped by the absence of Mum. On the mantle, what was empty air will now be a space in which this year’s birthday card from her won’t sit, never written and never given. And as I think back on all of my years, I worry about the parts that I’ll forget or have forgotten already, and for which I can no longer turn to her to fill in my memory. That transactive memory, on which we all rely, and where the loss of one person takes away from the memory of others.
In between the kind, loving, and funny messages from friends, family, colleagues and others, there’ll be a space, a note missing from the chord. And as much as I enjoy the embrace of affection from everyone around me, in the quiet, reflective moments alone I will breathe out into that space and remember the warm, witty woman from whom I never needed a gift on this day, as she’d already given me all the important ones in advance.