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The day before your son’s eighth birthday, you stop at the market to get sausage for breakfast the next morning. You go to the bank, get gas, buy coffee. You meet a friend, eat quiche, drink coffee, write, like you do every Thursday. The checklist of errands, the routine of your writing day soothe you.Henry's garden angel—birthday traditions

The day before your son’s eighth birthday, you notice the lilacs are fading quickly, though you still catch a ghost of their scent, but the deep purple irises have just opened near the back door. You stop to watch a butterfly hover and rest on a flower, its wings nearly black with white spots on the underside, with more yellow on the top. You stand and watch even though mosquitoes hover around you and the air is steamy and your garden is full of weeds. Your son taught you to slow down, to notice. You needed to relearn that lesson throughout his life. You keep trying to relearn that lesson now.

The day before your son’s eighth birthday you get your older daughter off the bus as the leaves turn up on the trees and the wind picks up. You wait for rain that doesn’t come. You hear a low rumble far away.

“Let’s make Thunder Cake!” your girls shout. It’s not the cake you planned to make, but you eight years ago you learned that your plans don’t always play out. You read the story with the girls clamoring on the couch around you. Then you set them to beating the egg whites in the old hand mixer while you measure out the other ingredients.

When you try to take the cakes out of the pans, one sticks and crumbles. You look at the mess and sigh. It will still taste good. Imperfect things can still be amazing.

***

The night before your son’s eighth birthday, you sit in the rocking chair and sing your girls their songs. You remember the song you made up for your son who should turn eight tomorrow. You remember singing it, tentatively, quietly, in the NICU surrounded by beeping machines and another baby who couldn’t stop crying and parents you knew only by sight and nurses. You remember how tense you were in those first days and feel yourself wound tight again. You take a deep breath and try to let your shoulders down.

You try not to yell at your girls who have to use the potty, see spiders, have “bad thoughts,” can’t sleep. You tuck them back in. You give them good thoughts. You say, “Be quiet. Its late.” You say good-night one more time.

On the night before your son’s eighth birthday, you make chocolate frosting, the really good one that takes a long time. You flip the mangled cake onto a plate, spread the thick frosting on top. You flip the other layer on top and smooth frosting on again. When you are done, you look at the cake. The smoothness of the top that will not be punctuated by candles breaks you for a minute. The tears that have been waiting come. You need them to come out. You don’t know if there are more.

On the night before your son’s eighth birthday, you plan out your morning:
egg sandwich early in the quiet before everyone is up
sausage and cake—your neighborhood tradition
get your big girl on the bus
snuggle and read with the little girl
tend Henry’s garden.

On the night before your son’s eighth birthday, you remind yourself that your morning probably won’t go that way. You’ll sleep late or the little one will be up early. Your big girl’s tooth will fall out or the little one will have a meltdown. Thunder will rumble and not bypass you this time. Things won’t go as planned. He taught you that, too, your boy, though letting go of plans and control is another lesson you have to learn again and again.

You step outside, look up to the ¾ moon bright in the sky. You want to feel him in the stars like you did one night in Maine. You want to feel him warm and sleepy up in bed. You shiver in the cool night air, feel the grass damp beneath your feet. You go inside and tuck your girls back in, shifting the big one’s feet back on the bed, wiping sweat from the little one’s forehead. You breathe deep this moment—the chill night air, the dog snoring on the couch, your girls cozy in bed. You sit with this moment. Right here. What is.

Tomorrow your son would turn eight. You plan to sink your hands into the soil in his garden. You plan to eat chocolate cake and strawberries. Maybe you will, or maybe not.

The day will unfold, just as his life did, on its own terms regardless of your plans. Tomorrow your son would turn eight. You will try to let go of your plans, hold onto your memories, and find beauty in the day whatever it brings.