©2014 by Jack Andrew Urquhart
“Birthday wishes have power for good or ill because one is closer to the spirit world on this day.” The Lore of Birthdays (New York, 1952)
Dear Dillon, Dear Son,
It’s March again—what would have been your thirty-fifth birthday arriving hard and heavy on the heels of Ash Wednesday this year.
I say hard and heavy because it feels that way. It feels like a rock. A boulder. Like a millstone. That is how extravagantly your absence weighs—an excess of grief that I’d gladly give up for Lent if only that were possible.
Instead, I keep thinking, You should be here! Not cinders in a box. Not just your ashes to mark the day.
And yes, even this die-hard agnostic knows that Lent has always been about self-denial and penance. All about atonement. And I have much to atone for. After all, I lost You, didn’t I? Surely there is transgression in that.
And now, as if by way of confirmation, it comes again—comes in your absence: March 8th, your birthday.
No gaudy, bespangled birthday cake this year. No dazzling display of candles either.
It wasn’t always so.
What parties we threw when You and your sister were little! Such grand fêtes: plenty of cake and ice cream and candles then—and party favors, too; and sleepovers with your pals from school. Remember the year a Magician showed up to perform feats of prestidigitation with cards and balloons? The year your sister insisted on a “My Pretty Pony” birthday cake?
Your mother and I loved planning those annual celebrations; we loved throwing a party for the whole neighborhood—your aunts, uncles, even your grandparents flying in from New Orleans. Lord, how You and Devon gorged on the sweets, on the bonbons and pralines that Mo and Gerry brought from the Big Easy! There were lots of presents, too—way too many presents; and You laughing, beaming as You ripped through yours in a whirlwind of paper and ribbons.
Such happy times when your birthday Marched around, Dillon—and how delighted You were to be the center of attention.
But the mood changed over time, didn’t it—your mood? Growing darker and heavier as You moved into adolescence and beyond, the weight of the passing years increasingly oppressive. Until the burden seemed to trigger an annual panic in You.
Perhaps it was the illness slowly saturating your brain, the chemical voices in your head bonding You in hopelessness, their chatter ever more persuasive—convincing You that there was no cause for celebration in yet another depressing birthday milestone.
We, your family, began to watch for them, your annual bouts of sadness. Even to plan and prepare for them.
Or so we thought.
If only we’d understood!
If only I’d fathomed how ponderous and solitary the burden of your illness. So much weightier than simply finding the right medication. Maybe that extra bit of effort would’ve made a difference? Maybe together we might have found a way to bring back the celebration?
Maybe I wouldn’t have lost You?
I don’t know.
I only know that it’s your birthday—and that I have reminiscence instead of a living son.
And your ashes, of course.
I have your ashes in a box to mark the day.
I’m not sure why I hold onto them so doggedly—your corporeal remains. Something to do with mourning and contrition, I expect; or perhaps it’s just that I don’t want to let You go. Not quite yet. Not even for Lent.
And yes, I know that soon I must.
I tell myself that there might be happiness in releasing You to the winds, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, all your pain burned away to cinders. Maybe even something akin to joy in seeing that elemental part of You borne aloft and one with creation? Not solitary anymore?
Rather, light as air?
Which sounds pretty wonderful, doesn’t it? Sort of like starting over, all new and fresh? Surely there would be cause for celebration in that? In being reborn?
Maybe that is what your Daddy will wish for, Dillon—what I’ll wish for this year when I light a candle for You:
A very Happy Re-Birthday, Dear, Beloved, Son.