Today is my Birthday. It is my 40th birthday, and I had been making a big deal about it the whole year. I always do. Birthdays have always been a huge thing in my family. My parents always made us feel really important and special as kids on our birthday. When I was little, mom would make homemade cakes in the shapes of Mickey Mouse or Raggedy Ann, and all my friends would come over for cake and ice cream and an awesome party. Dad would put together the bike or the new Playskool record player they bought for me, and there were lots of laughs and fun. I always kept that spirit as an adult; every single year. I love the idea that there is a special day set aside for every person on this earth; the day they were born. It is truly something to acknowledge and celebrate.
Then again, its all about how you grew up and what you are used to. Don never cared much about his own birthday. He told me his mother never made a big deal out of them when he was a kid, and she was often working 2 or 3 jobs just to stay afloat and raise him; so there weren’t many gifts happening either. Once he collided with our family, however, all that changed. When his birthday rolled around, I would always ask him what he wanted to do for it, what gifts he would like; and he would say: “I don’t need anything Boo. We can just hang out together.” Of course, I never listened. The day that Don met me was the day his birthdays went from nothing special to very important. I loved making a big deal of his birthday; making him feel loved. It was so much fun to do, and you could tell he really appreciated it. One year I took him to see one of his favorite guitarists and Jazz musicians, Larry Carlton, at the Bluenote in NYC. It was such a nice evening, and he even got a picture with Larry backstage in his dressing room. Other years, we would go to Yankee games together, or see a concert or Broadway show. I would always get him a couple little gifts too, and wrap them up for him. We also had this tradition between us of getting each other 3 cards for every occasion; one serious/romantic one, one funny/ridiculous one, and one from our pet(s). Don would always write these really detailed, specific “notes” inside the cards from the pets, along with little pictures of the cats, and conversation bubbles above their heads. It made me laugh so much, because it was so incredibly silly, and he spent more time on the card from “Isablle” or “Autumn and Ginger” than he would on the one from HIM.
Normally, we would travel home to my parents house for the weekend of our birthdays, and mom would make the favorite dinner of whomevers birthday it was. For Don, that was usually my Nana Mary’s famous and very different lasagna. Nana Mary would simmer tomato juice for hours on the stove, then make homemade meatballs and pork ribs to add to it. The lasagna was made not with lasagna noodles, but with bow tie pasta, and a ton of ricotta cheese and sauce. It was so delicious. The sauce had that flavor that just made you want to take each bow tie pasta piece with your fork and catch every nook of sauce you could inside of it. The first time that Don flew here to NJ to meet me in person; we came back here to my apartment and I made him Nana Marys lasagna. He fell in love immediately. With the lasagna, and with me. After that day, I made it only one more time; on the day he moved in. That lasagna was such a pain in the ass to make; it took forever to make the sauce. Hours and hours of simmering. I left the job to my mom once a year when we would come home for our birthdays.
Don knew how much my birthdays meant to me, and so he would always make sure they were special. He would come home with flowers for me, chocolate truffles or some kind of candy, and three cards. Then he would take me out for dinner somewhere local; and we would both kind of dress up a little bit. A normal day for the both of us was jeans and t-shirts, so putting on a nice top was a huge freakin’ deal. I loved going out with him, being in his company. He was always such a gentleman with me, from the first day we met , well into our marriage. Whenever we would walk out to the car to go somewhere, he would walk around and get the door for me. I always thought that was so nice. We would try a new restaurant, or go into NYC, Central Park, or sometimes just hang out with our friends. Whatever the case though, he always made me feel like I mattered and I was loved. He always made fun of me because I loved my birthday so much and coudln’t wait for it. He would say “Its YOUR month. Your birthday month is coming up Boo! I think I’m going to call the President and see if we can make your birthday a National Holiday, and make the month of September officially KELLEY Month.” “What are ya waitin’ for? Here’s the phone!” I’d say.
All year long, I had been both dreading and looking forward to my 40th birthday. The idea of turning 40 years old was just overwhelming, and I would say to Don: “Boo, I’m going to be 40! This is the BIG birthday! You know you have to plan something epic right? You have to plan the best surprise ever!” I think my husband accomplished the biggest surprise ever when he dropped dead. “SURPRISE! I’m DEAD! What? Not funny? Not good?” He always did have a sick sense of humor. So instead of whatever epic surprise he was planning for me, he died instead. And since that moment, my 40th birthday suddenly became not so important anymore. In fact, I didn’t care at all.
When your husband dies unexpectedly, old plans change into new plans. Everything just becomes about “getting me through it.” The old, my husband is alive plan, was for us to go to mom and dads, together for the weekend. Mom and Dad were going to throw me a huge 40th Birthday party at the house, with loads of family and friends. Then Sunday, we were going to the party of a very good family friend named Thelma Mollot, who shares the same birthday date as me, September 26th. Today, when I am 40, she is now 100! So, we were all invited to her 100th birthday party. Well, turns out the 100 yr old lady made it for her 100th birthday, but the 46 yr old man didn’t live to see 47, or to see his wife turn 40. People die. Plans change. The new, my husband is dead plan still had me going to mom and dads, but I was driving there alone, in the car that my amazing brother bought for me so Id be safe. Instead of a big ole party, we decided to make it small and mellow; so the widow doesn’t have a nervous breakdown. Just me, my parents, my brother, Jen and Brian, and my Aunt Ginny and cousin Faith; who she was babysitting for the weekend. We did lobsters and steaks on the grill, and mom made her famous Red Velvet Cake; the same one she made every year on my birthday, Dave’s, Jens, and Dons.
At first, I was doing alright. I wouldn’t exactly call it a happy day, since right now there is little to no joy inside of me. If I laugh for a few seconds, its a different, dark laugh that is filtered in pain and sadness. Mostly I’m just walking around in a fog, with a constant headache from the endless crying and stress of grief. So we ate delicious lobster with drawn butter, and my dad grilled the steaks to perfection out on the deck. I was even able to bribe a hug, a kiss, and an “I love you Auntie Kelley” from Brian. His price? One black olive. Everyone gave me cute little cards with gift cards to Target and Trader Joe’s inside; which was really nice. Then, it was time for cake and the traditional “40″ gifts. Years ago, my mom came up with this crazy thing where she would wrap up the number of gifts corresponding with the persons age. She and Aunt Ginny did it for Nana, their mom, on her 80th birthday, because Nana used to love opening gifts. She was like a little kid at Christmas. When Don turned 40, mom wrapped 40 gifts for him. Now it was my turn.
Mom brought out a big laundry basket filled with tons of little wrapped gifts and placed it in front of me. Then she cut the cake that was being eaten to celebrate my life. Suddenly, I felt like I couldn’t breathe, and left the room. I found myself in the bathroom trying to catch my breath, crying, and missing him so badly it was hard to focus. It felt so wrong and so sad and so awful to be celebrating LIFE, when Don doesn’t get to live it anymore. How can I feel happy and eat cake when his time was cut short for no reason? From inside the bathroom, I can hear the laughter and chatter of my family. They are mourning too, but its different. They get to have moments, like now, when they aren’t thinking about Don; when every single part of their heart isn’t being ripped out or consumed by thoughts of him. They lost their son in law, their brother in law …and its so awful and the pain is real … but they get to walk away from it and turn to their own spouses for support. For me, there is nowhere left to run. I’m trapped inside of this hell, and the one person I want to talk to, who would comfort me better than anyone else, is dead.
come out of the bathroom and sit back down. Mom asks me: “Are you okay? We don’t have to do this now if you don’t want.” My eyes are teary and I don’t say much. Little Brian appears out of nowhere and looks inside of the laundry basket. It is a basket filled with wrapped presents! It is pure heaven for a little boy! He picks one up and starts unwrapping it. “I open cuz you’re sad”, he says, and he unwraps each and every gift, one by one, and then hands it to me. It is the most beautiful and perfect thing anyone has ever done; and he doesn’t even know he is doing it. He is just being a kid. At that moment, I didn’t want to celebrate anything. I didn’t want to open presents when my husband is dead. I didn’t want any focus on me. So the plan changed. This new plan had my 2yr old nephew opening up pairs of socks, stationary, lip-gloss, and more things he couldn’t comprehend, and handing them to me with a confused look. He didn’t care that the gifts were not for him, he just liked the act of opening them. And in that moment, opening gifts was the last thing I wanted to do. It all worked out. It was not a joyous day, but I got through it.
The next day, as we celebrated the 100th birthday of our dear friend Thelma with a really nice catered party, I was back in my fog again. I couldn’t stop picturing Don in my head. I do that all the time. I see him in my mind; or try to feel him touching me; try to hear his laugh somehow, feel a memory. I mingled adn talked to people, but I dont remember much of it. I just kept thinking about how he should be here with me, how he was looking forward to the party, how much he liked Thelma. “I hope Im that cool when Im 100!,” he would say about her. He would talk and joke all the time about what he would be like as an old man. He relished in it. He would say “I cant wait to be a grumpy old man. I can say and do whatever the hell I want, yell at kids for no reason to GET OFF MY LAWN … act insane … its gonna rule!” He always imitated himself talking to me when we are both old; using this really spot on cranky old guy voice for himself. He would say: “Come on Kelley … we gotta get to the Golden Corrall , the Early Bird Special ends at 4!” He would do this voice as he pretended to be bent over and holding a cane. He always cracked himself up at the thought of the two of us being old together. I would say “Please stop that! You’re scaring me!”, and of course, he would just do it more. These are the things I was thinking about as Thelma gave me a hug. I pictured Don bending down to hug her, because he was so tall and would have to bend down to hug a lot of people. I ate the piece of 100th b-day cake in silence as I kept picturing Don inside my head.
This morning, I got back in my car and drove back to NJ and my new widow life. The drive seemed longer than normal, and my headache wouldn’t go away. I am 40, i kept thinking to myself. Don always teased me about it, and he would say “Well, I will ALWAYS be older than you no matter what, so just think of it that way. You’re just a baby.” Are you still older than me if youre dead? Probably not. As I pull into the parking garage and shut off the XM satellite radio, the regular radio comes on and the DJ says “a very Happy Birthday to a very talented, wonderful lady – here she is – Olivia Newton John!” Then her song “Magic” plays. Olivia Newton John has my birthday date too. I listen to the song for a minute and suddenly, I’m crying hard. Again. I start thinking about Don telling me how Olivia Newton John was one of his first boyhood crushes and how he had her pin-ups on his bedroom wall. I think about how I have to open my own damn door from now on, carry in my own luggage and heavy bags, and face the rest of this year, this life, by myself.
So today, on my 40th birthday, I sit here in what was once our bed, and I cry. Again. It never stops lately, and Ive stopped caring. Ive come to the realization that in this new life, I cry a lot. Deal with it. There wont be any cute cards this year from the kitties, no cute little cake from Don that he would present to me with candles while singing really badly, and no nice dinner out together; spending time with each other and making fun of the world. Right now, at this moment, it is just me, and noone else. Happy Freakin’ Birthday. Who wants cake?