It’s my birthday today. Adult birthdays are kind of a funny thing. Just like no one really cares if you’re sick unless you get everyone sick at the office, no one really knows you have a birthday unless you bring treats. I’m not at the office today, so no treats.
Birthdays have been bittersweet for me for a while. It’s not so much my fear of aging — I’ve been getting gray hairs since I was twenty and my mother is an adorable silver fox. Birthdays, for me, changed when I was eight.
It was Superbowl night, two days before my eighth birthday, and my family ordered a party sub. Life was good. My brother, aged sixteen, was challenging himself to see how many cocktail weenies he could eat and my sister, aged fourteen, pretended to be disgusted. Just a few hours later, we would be heading to the hospital, my brother suddenly ill with something too severe to treat at home. Feverish, pale– something was wrong, and it wasn’t the food.
My mother picked me up from school on my eighth birthday, and I should have known something was wrong right away because she offered to get me a milkshake. Even on a birthday, a milkshake in February is a suspicious offer in the Midwest. Over our ice cream, she told me my brother had been diagnosed with lymphoma. The word brought to mind tree limbs. Now, adult me thinks that wasn’t a bad way to think about it. Now that I’ve seen pictures of the circulatory system, the branches in our own bodies look so fragile. His blood wasn’t working well, my mother said. Broken blood seems like an easy way to explain something terrible to a child.
We had Sizzler for dinner and opened presents at his bedside in the hospital. Less than a month later, he would be dead– not from the cancer itself, but from the chemotherapy.
I finished an ARC of Rin Chupeco’s THE BONE WITCH last night (out March 7… review here). The main character, Tea, discovers her dark abilities by raising her brother from the dead. He follows her, not quite living and not quite dead, through her training and adventures. He becomes her familiar and her protector, and by the end of the novel, the relationship becomes even more complicated (you can be sure I’ll be picking up the next in the series).
This inciting incident, the raising her brother from the dead, happens very early in the novel and Tea’s grief and power brought tears to my eyes when I read it. I understood her, that moment of wanting. It’s something I still experience occasionally today, but I couldn’t raise him.
As a child, I remember seeing Aladdin and a certain moment stuck with me. The Genie squared his fingers and pretended to be making a recording. I practiced the gesture, the squaring, and pretended as a child that when I made this motion anything I saw would be projected somewhere that my brother could see it. When I say I pretended as a child, I will admit that I also did this on my college graduation day and on my wedding day and on the day when I had my first child. The wanting makes it feel real.
My brother died twenty-one years ago this year. My grief is old enough to drink at this point, but the wound re-cuts itself at odd moments. It follows you, ghosts you, becomes your familiar whether you want it to or not. Memories of him reading with me, chasing me, and pretending to captain a boat to distant lands come at strange times. He made pigs in a blanket when he babysat. He made up elaborate scavenger hunts in the back yard. He would have loved to be an uncle to the new generation of mischievous kids in our family.
Having a birthday means the beginning of a new year in my life, but it also brings to mind the other cakes and candles blown out. I am having a happy birthday, but I’m also having a thoughtful one. I believe books find us when they are supposed to, and memories do, too.