Birthdays, Death Days, and Heavy Metal Guitar

tyson jpg

Sunday was my 43d birthday, which you may have missed on your calendar because it tends to be obscured by other, more lustrous anniversaries: Mozart’s Birthday, the 118th Anniversary of plumbing innovator Thomas Crapper’s death, and International Holocaust Remembrance Day. So, despite my obvious personal luminosity, there’s a lot of 1/27 competition.

My birthday is also two days after Freddy’s, which is (and rightfully so) a far more incandescent event. I have never really liked birthday attention, or too much attention of any kind. It makes me squirmy. When Freddy was born, I thanked Nina for waiting the extra ten days she carried him around post-due date because it took a lot of the focus and pressure off of me at birthday time.

This year our birthdays fell on either side of the 23 month anniversary of Nina dying. I swear I haven’t deliberately tried to keep the monthly anniversary of her death artificially significant. At this point it seems more appropriate to mark the years, rather than the months. But it’s become organic and inescapable for me: each month, like clockwork, a few days beforehand I find myself ruminating, fighting depressive thoughts, feeling dislocated or lonesome in ways that are invariably tied to her death. It’s not a correlation without causation, I think. This month was no different, except that maybe I’m also anticipating the two year mark next time the calendar flips.

I’m trying to roll with the monthly anniversary thing, so long as it makes sense and isn’t causing any undue emotional trauma. I don’t think it’s doing me in and my grief is like anything else: to really embrace it I have to get both arms around it. There’s no point in sorta just casually putting one arm around its waist and hoping it doesn’t notice while I plot my next move.

Grief is weird, though. It’s not a place I want to wallow or learn to “like,” the way sometimes people get attached to their own afflictions. But I know it’s also not something I will ever check off my to do list and move beyond. It’s got an eternal returniness to it that’s both confounding and an important reminder that preparing myself to face each day in life is also preparing myself to lose it — including surviving / bearing witness to the people I love dying.

garfield-rake
Totally makes sense now: Garfield is grief, Jon is actually a widower!

So I keep stepping on the same grief rake and getting hit full in the face over and over again, (I always leave it right there in the same spot in the yard, you’d think I’d learn…), but every time I try to learn something new or see things a little differently, which seems positive. The hard part is the realization that, as soon as I get past one self-inflicted grief bludgeoning, that process is just about to start over again. My hope, and I think it’s a promising one – is that recovery from loss is a spiral and not a plain old two-dimensional vicious circle; that I’m making some kind of progress each time I go through the “get hit upside the head –> ruminate and respond –> process –> repeat” feedback loop.

Mike Tyson is famous for saying that “everyone has a plan until they get hit.” Mike wasn’t known for his intellectual heft, or even pith. Today he’s probably more famous for his face tattoos and cameo in The Hangover, but he was one of the hardest hitting humans to ever put on a pair of boxing gloves and, of course, he also got stopped cold by a punch from a guy named Buster at the height of his powers and fame. So maybe he was right, if painfully un-self aware?

Everyone takes their lumps. Nobody can just follow the plan. And, while I’m glad not to be doing it every day, birthdays are a good time for activities like “reconstructing a life plan,” realizing how hard I’ve been hit, counting my teeth, making sure I know what day of the week it is, etc.

This was the first birthday since Nina died where I really felt the fullness of being alone, being unpartnered as well as widowed. I’m not playing the tiny violin, lots of people are single — including scads who’ve lost their partners or a relationship — and they get by on their birthdays just fine. But after 19 years of exchanging gifts, making sure we can each stay in bed late with a mug of coffee, and making all of the tiny birthday magics happen, it’s an adjustment.

 

It’s kind of great this year in particular that Freddy’s birthday is only a couple days before mine – and both fell on a weekend. When Nina was alive it was kind of a welcome relief to have my birthday overshadowed. I don’t like too much attention directly on me and what it meant in practical terms was that my birthday often wound up being largely a Nina and me affair — my preference in any case. And now Freddy’s celebration gives me something to focus on outside myself and a chance to stand in for Nina in a meaningful way, since her delight in making birthdays fun for the kids was among the more inexhaustible features of her personality.

Freddy had very specific and completely reasonable demands for his birthday: dinner at his fave ramen place and a movie afterwards with his BFFs and brother, then video games at home with a sleepover. Not only was planning it easy, but I got to eat ramen and go to a movie, which in the realm of kid birthdays has to be like 98th percentile?

 

Inevitably, celebrating our birthdays is a major implicit reminder of Nina’s absence. It’s never merely celebratory; like most things in our lives it’s part of our ongoing attempt to grasp the present and a peculiarly salient lived experience of grief and loss. Maybe the density of loss is just greater around birthdays and anniversaries. IDK. But I’m trying to carry both the weight of whatever grief surges at times like these, and the challenge of diving into the present and future as they roll around (with increasing speed).

Someone asked me the other day if I have any birthday traditions and after a brief, stumped pause I said “no,” which seemed odd even to me. I mean, dinner out with Nina, some kind of greater family get-together, nothing more specific than that. But, even if my birthday had been a major ritual, I like to think I’d be making up new traditions with the boys with each passing milestone. It can’t ever be exactly the same as it was, so why not just embrace the forging of new meaning, new traditions?

This year a new tradition was gifted to us that forged a link between the present and the past. My sister bought the boys tickets to see Metallica over in Raleigh as a Christmas present and the show happened to fall on the day after my birthday. I saw Metallica once before, when I was just a bit older than Freddy. I stood on line to buy myself a ticket at South Hills Village Mall, had my mother drive me to the Civic Arena in Pittsburgh, found some friends from school, scream-sang myself completely hoarse, and nearly put myself in traction head-banging.

From left: James Hetfield, Kirk Hammett, Lars Ulrich and Robert Trujillo, of the hard-rock band Metallica, at their headquarters in San Rafael, Calif.
These guys are way older, just like me. Whodathunk?

 

This time around was … different. The band has obviously aged along with me (though they’re in remarkably good shape and still wear skinny metal jeans!). The show I saw was almost THIRTY YEARS ago. The crowd this time was larger, older, and more sedate. The pyrotechnics and lightshow were slicker. Metallica’s “oeuvre” has grown exponentially (though the highlights were all songs that were in their catalog last time I saw them). But when I looked over at Freddy as the band played a few of his favorite tracks, he was pumping a fist into the air and sing-shouting along. Benny was rocking too, but he sat down a lot and had to make sure his earplugs didn’t slip out. He enjoyed the show, too, in his own way, but Benny and I commiserated a lot about when to buy snacks and water, while Freddy glared at me every time I took out my phone to text my sister pictures (“watch the band, Dad!).

It’s funny, I think if Nina were alive we’d have handled this the exact same way: she’d never in a million years have gone willingly to a Metallica show, so I’d probably have taken the boys, texted her regular updates from the arena, and collapsed in a heap to oversleep while she got them up the next morning in the aftermath. It didn’t go down that way, obviously, but it still went down, and it keeps going, like the coffee in the thermos I bring to work: always gone faster than I’d prefer. But I’m determined to enjoy whatever hot messy parts of it I manage to imbibe. This year, with a little help from a generous sister/aunt, hot noodles, and some face-melting guitar solos, we managed.

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