Birthday Rituals

cake

When you’re a kid, few things rival the exciting anticipation that comes with celebrating a birthday. This Sunday, my daughter will turn nine. Like most families, we have a lot of birthday rituals to uphold; a party with friends, cake, and presents, a special birthday breakfast, and a family dinner at any restaurant the birthday child selects.

My daughter’s birthday also marks the nine year anniversary of my descent into a nightmare that no one saw coming. 12 hours after her healthy birth, I suffered grave complications that were partially caused by my scleroderma masking some symptoms of preeclampsia. This ultimately led to a 218-day hospitalization where I lost my colon, spleen, underwent eight major surgeries and was robbed of my ability to speak, breathe, eat, or move. With every passing year, the memories of the dark days following her birth grow dimmer and I am able to fully focus on my beautiful daughter and all the joy her life brings to everyone she knows.

sun moon and stars

I try with every fiber of my being not to associate her birthday with my near-death experiences. I never want my daughter to think for one solitary second that I am anything but eternally grateful for her birth. She is truly the sun, moon and stars in my sky and I would endure every moment of that 218-day hospital saga again in a heartbeat to have her. She is my miracle and I was destined to be her mother. I can’t imagine life without her.

I used to think about all the horrible anniversaries that accompany spring with ritualistic absurdity. I would battle to block out thoughts like, on this day 3 years ago I had an emergency collectomy and my family was told I had 48 hours to live, or, 5 years ago today I bled out on the operating table and everyone thought I was a goner, or, on this date back in 2006, I was hallucinating in the ICU and was tied to the bedrails with restraints. Ah…good times indeed.

I have slowly stopped reliving these anniversaries, but there is one I don’t think I’ll ever let go of commemorating. On May 15, 2006, I was lying in the Intensive Care Unit, fighting to stay alive. One of my closest friends, Stacy, flew in from New York, thinking it would be the last time she ever saw me.

While Stacy was visiting, my husband, Dave, insisted that I write a letter to our newborn daughter. Even in my half-dead haze, I found this alarming. I am the sentimental one in our marriage. It has been me who has written in journals, created scrapbooks, pulled out the camera and took pictures and video of our life together. To this day, Dave still hasn’t even watched the video of our own wedding. (“Why do I need to watch a video if I was there?” he says.) Why then, was Dave so persistent in his request for me to write a letter to our baby?  Crap, I must really be about to kick the bucket if Dave is getting sappy, I thought.

I attempted to write my name inside a journal, but I was so weak that my writing resembled a preschooler’s.inside cover

“Stacy, would you write down a letter to Em for me? Obviously, Dave thinks I am going to croak any second now.”

Stacy let out her signature rich laugh and said, “Of course I will.”

“Okay, but Stace, please make sure you use correct spelling, punctuation, and your best penmanship. You know I pride myself on having beautiful ‘teacher handwriting.’ If I die, I don’t want Em to think that I was a moron who couldn’t spell.”

“Yes Lisa- that would be the true tragedy—if Em thought her mother lacked a firm grasp of grammatical rules.” With pen in hand, and a broad smile on her face, Stacy recorded my dictation.

 My Dearest Em,

There is one page written on 4/26 all about your birth in your brother’s journal. One day, Mommy will sit down and explain to you everything that happened after 4/26. Please know that if there was any way mommy could have written during these days, she would have. There were complications after your birth and Mommy is still in the hospital, trying to get better so I can go home and be the best mommy I can to you and your brother. The moment I held you in my arms, I fell madly and deeply in love with you. You are beautiful both inside and out. Everyone says what a wonderful baby you are and how calm you are. It is pure agony not to be home with you, your brother, and daddy. The only thing that keeps me going here is knowing what an amazing life we have to live together. I know all daughters will hate their mothers at some time or another. And all mothers will vow not to make the same mistakes their mothers made, but end up becoming their own mothers in spite of themselves. I know your life will not always be perfect—no one’s ever is. I can only pray that I will be allowed to stay with you here and provide guidance, comfort, and listening ears. The one thing I have learned from this experience is the power of friendship, the immeasurable love from family, and the strong influence of knowing how deeply you are loved. I can only hope that your life is as powerfully blessed with these things as mine has been. My darling Em, no matter what life brings us, I hope you know how loved you are and there is nothing you cannot come to me with.

                                                                        Love Always,

                                                                        Mommy

Whenever I reread this letter in Stacy’s handwriting, I am awestruck by her incredible courage and strength. Had she been dying and asked me to do the same, I would have instantly dissolved into hysterics. Stacy—strong, beautiful, remarkable Stacy—transcribed this for me and did not shed a single tear. She kept smiling and talking with me as if we were at Starbucks sipping coffee.

journal 1

Every year, as my daughter’s birthday approaches, I reread this letter and bawl like a baby. I used to cry because it reminded me of how much I missed out on when I was sick; my daughter’s first smile, or my son’s first day at a new preschool. I cried for my husband who faced the news that his 31-year-old wife was not likely to pull through the night and then went home to care for a newborn and toddler. I cried for all the sacrifices family and friends made on my behalf ; holding my hand and refusing to let go, regardless of the cost to their own personal and professional lives. Nine years later, I cry tears of joy because of all the things I didn’t miss and for the intricate tapestry of support I received from hundreds who carried me through my darkest hours.

My husband does not like to think about the past. Look where you’re going and not where you came from, he always says. I try to remember this and not allow myself to be swallowed whole by the traumas of the past. I still say it’s good to look back once in a while, though. Where you’ve been often shapes where you’re going and gives you the perspective to get there. I know where I’m going this Sunday. I’m going shopping with my Em for a special mommy-daughter birthday celebration. I will revel in all the happiness her birthday brings and the miracle it represents.

Disclaimers:

  • Of course, my son is also the sun, moon and stars in my sky. My kids don’t read my blog, but I don’t want anyone to think I play favorites.kids
  • I am compelled to mention that Stacy is an actress and left her theatre tour to fly to Chicago. Stacy was playing Mrs. Quimby in the children’s stage production of Beverly Cleary’s, Ramona Quimby, Age 8. While Stacy was gone, the other actors performed the play without Mrs. Quimby. Yikes! The poor kids in the audience must have been so confused- did Mrs. Quimby run off with Mr. Kemp from across the street?
  • I’m just the slightest bit impressed with the coherent letter I dictated. Given that I was heavily sedated and on a wide array of narcotics, I give myself a solid ‘B’ for sentence variation and vocabulary usage.
  • If you are a first time reader, my entries are usually way funnier than this one. Click here for evidence.

 

14 Comments »

  1. So touching. Stacy is a great and wonderful person but you have to know if you were not as awesome and wonderful you are all those people wouldn’t have been there. You are one lucky person!

    Sent from my iPad

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  2. If you could dictate that letter to Emily under those horrible circumstances…let me try to comment through the tears that your latest blog drew out of me. So sorry for everything you went through. You are so strong! Great reminder to all of us to enjoy the present moment and be grateful for all the beauty in our connections with family and friends. I’ve noticed that once I’m moved by your writing…I laugh harder at your jokes. Crying and laughing at the same time. Thanks for sharing Lisa!

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  3. Like you, I look forward to spending time with my children and now grand children. For most of their lives, I have been their only parent because they lost their father when they were teens. I, personally, am still mad at him for dying and leaving me with the responsibility of raising two children on my own. Thank G-d for wonderful family and friends who helped me get through those awful first days. Now I look at them and think that I did a damn good job. They are both great parents, kind to others and tease the life out of me whenever they get the chance. I know that this is just their way of showing me how much they love me and I am grateful.
    I remember the doctor telling me that I had two choices when George died: I could curl up in the corner and die with him; or go on with my life and raise the children the way he would have wanted. You know me, so you know what I chose.
    I had the joy of meeting Stacy when she came to Chicago to help you and Dave with the children. I painted the toy box and she came to my house to pick it up. I can understand why you think she is so wonderful. She is!!
    Keep enjoying those children because they grow up way to fast and leave the nest to fly into life on their own. Give then the strength to make all the right choices and and enjoy life.
    Renée

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  4. For the record: I did NOT fly in from New York thinking this would be the last I ever saw you. I did book my flight thinking I was flying in to see you for the last time. But on my way to the airport, standing on 110th between Broadway & Amsterdam, Shana called my cell and laughing through her tears announced you had woken up out of a drug induced coma and started banging on the hand rails. You apparently had enough drugs in you to put out a grown man 3 times your size, but you woke up and were PISSED. And in that moment, standing there laughing and crying with my rolling suitcase on 110th street, I knew you were going to be okay. I just knew it. A wave of calm clarity washed over me- I knew it was going to be hard, I knew it was going to be terrifying, for you and for all who loved you. But you were going to be okay. I knew it. I wrote that knowing in my heart of hearts, one day Emily would read it with you by her side. xo

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  5. I’m totally drained… Stacy sounds amazing but you do know that amazing people have amazing friends. You are an inspiration to us all. Happy Birthday Em. What a wonderful mother you have. Enjoy the time together.
    Xoxo

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  6. Also for the record- I was only off tour for a few performances & I believe all of my lines in Ramona Quimby were delivered by either Mr. Quimby or Beezus. And each scene I was supposed to be in was prefaced with the announcement of some shopping trip or errand Mrs. Quimby was off doing. So don’t worry about corrupting the youth of America with Mrs. Quimby’s mysterious disappearance. They simply thought Mrs. Quimby was a shopaholic.

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  7. Love this entry Lisa, thank you for continuing to share your journey with all of us. Your stories help keep me focused on what really matters in life. Happy Birthday to Emily!

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