I’m not much for birthdays, or for that matter, holidays in general. Both involve too much pressure to have the perfect day, with the perfect people, and often that allegedly best-of-all-possible days involves conspicuous and compulsory consumption. Birthdays, in particular, seem to celebrate the wrong person or people, invisibilizing and thus not honoring those who did the heavy labor and care work.
I’m not much for biology, either — in terms of gender, age, and kinship — and that puts another crimp in the notion of birthdays. The expressions of who we are, our relation to the world over time and space, and the families that we’re birthed into aren’t necessarily the ones we’d pick, or stick with unconditionally, especially over the course of a life. A life and indeed society worth marking seems instead to emerge from our own self-understandings of festivities, seasons, and cycles; special occasions that arise from the extraordinary events of our lives and deaths; the mundane occurrences that end up having profound import for us; and our own dynamic sense of what it means to continually strive to be a fully individuated person, striving also to do good in this world, even as we also strive to build and sustain caring communities with others.
So today I’m taking a joyous pause — intentionally, and with a new “tradition” I want to put into practice — to celebrate the three-month birthday of my mom passing from this world into some other space. The space of the unknown. Which is, come to think of it, an underlying premise of all our lives at the moment of birth, even before we die.
From this time on, at the start of 2014, January 3 is a rebirth day, in which I’ll recall all the gifts that I received from the thirteen months I spent with my sick and dying mom, as partner in life and death during that period, until she wound down from her worsening cancer on October 3, 2013. Our biological connection meant that I “decided” to be by her side throughout that journey, without really knowing why; our increasingly chosen connection meant that I self-determined love with her (a love that never would have occurred had it not been for illness and caretaking), collaboratively, as I realized more and more toward the end.
Love, freely chosen, worked hard at, forged through innumerable honest and poignant conversations and experiences that I never planned on nor would have invited, sealed through too many impossible decisions, and way more moments of unanticipated gifts of human compassion, kindness, and care, punctuated by emotions of all kinds, generously shared — that is true love. It lasts on the air of memory, which if we’re serious about living, we continually remember to breath in and feel anew.
That hurts sometimes. Like today.
It also feels miraculous. Like today, too.
To my mom: happy giving-birth-to-life (and love) day, on this three months since I last held your hand. And even though I didn’t write “The Shades of Love” for you — a lifetime ago, in May 2012 — and even meant the essay as a counter to some of the ways I’d experienced bio-parent love — I’m sending it your way, because it does in fact speak to “the shape of love” I hold out toward you now:
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If you’ve run across this blog post as a reposting somewhere, you can find other blog-musings and more polished essays at Outside the Circle, cbmilstein.wordpress.com. Share, enjoy, and repost — as long as it’s free as in “free beer” and “freedom.”
(Photos by Cindy Milstein: graffiti, Brooklyn, December 2013; last picture, unfortunately blurry, that I took of my mom, August 2013)