Birthdays are definitely milestones, moments that yes, we celebrate, but that also are markers of time passing, of us examining where we are at and comparing it to where we thought we would be and where we would like to go. We often tease my younger sister, a social worker, because she likes to ask people on their birthdays what their goals are for the next year, but it is a very good question and one that whether we realize it or not, we do. When we were expecting our rainbow baby, I wrote about birthdays and how the passage of time in our journey of infertility and loss meant that the vision I had for each age kept getting pushed back and readjusted, while at the same time, the societal “biological clock” was telling me I was getting too old to have children.

Elliott sleeping on Michelle's lap on her 40th Birthday

Author’s Personal Collection/Michelle Valiukenas

I turned 40 in April and definitely felt a lot of that stress in the lead-up to the day. I had never imagined being in my 40s and still talking about whether we wanted to have another child or even thinking I would be going into my 40s with a toddler at home. If anything had worked out the day we had planned, we would have been done with having kids before this moment. But, on my actual birthday, there was this moment where I found peace with where I was at, knowing that the life I had thought and the timing did not line up, but it was okay. And as he always seems to, it was my son who taught me this. I was holding him sitting in our family room and he got comfy, rested his head on my chest, and fell asleep. When your toddler decides to sleep on you, especially after you went through so much to get to that point, you let him. In those moments that he slept on me, I thought about how while there is still grief and pain, the life that I do have is pretty damn amazing.

But, now, about a month and a half into 40, I find myself again dreading birthdays—this time, Colette’s fourth birthday on May 23.

I love that we continue to celebrate her life and that our family will know nothing other than we celebrate our daughter’s and our big sister’s life on her birthday, but with that, comes a lot of pain, anger, and frustration.

For Colette’s first birthday, we decided we would order balloons and deliver them to her grave, a tradition that we have maintained. Back then, in a pre-Covid world, my husband Mark and I went into a party supply store and chose a bunch of balloons, a mixture of mylar and latex balloons. I remember us having fun picking out the baby girl, 1st birthday, fun reminders of characters we liked or that were meaningful to us. It felt normal for those few minutes, as if we were picking out balloons for a living soon-to-be one-year-old child whose birthday party we were planning, instead of balloons to bring to that child’s grave. When we finished choosing, the young woman who was taking our order began to ask questions, not knowing our plans, like did you want table height or floor height. Mark said one option at the same time I said the other. We debated back and forth about it and ended up with floor height, thinking that they would be held down by the balloon weights and able to fly somewhat freely. We left the store shortly thereafter and Mark turned to me and said, can you imagine if we had told that girl what our plans were and asked for her opinion. We laughed in the dark sense of humor that only loss parents can have about how lost she would have been.

On the day of her birthday, we got the balloons and went to her grave. Right away, we learned a few things.

First, cemeteries are notoriously windy and those lovely balloons we carried over went this way and that way and were hard to keep together.  We also realized that as a result of the wind, the balloon weights were not going to work, in fact, it was laughable that we even tried. I bent down and started trying to tie the balloons around the container of artificial flowers that were there. We learned our second lesson then that latex balloons pop very easily when they are out in that open air and so as I was on the ground, trying my best to get these balloons tied down, we kept hearing pops over and over.

But, we also learned that all of these efforts, even and especially as they failed, were funny. It was so easy to forget in those moments where we were or that we would not get to hold our daughter on her first birthday. It felt like one of those things parents learn when trying their hand at a first birthday, especially one outside in Midwest May weather, and failing and improvising and failing and improvising. So, we laughed. We laughed as we heard the pops of the latex balloons. We laughed as the strings that I was trying to tie down got away from me. And, we really laughed as the balloons flailed about and hit me in the face and head.

After the balloons, half of which had popped, were tied down to the best of my ability and I stood up from the ground, the impact of where we were and how our child’s birthday was not in fact normal and never would be hit. We stood there for a while, holding hands, talking to Colette, and overall remembering that even as we figured out the nuances of what worked best for us and our situation, there would always be a yearly reminder of our losses, of a daughter we adored and celebrated but would never get to hold, of a lifetime of what ifs. And that first year also hurt because we still did not know if we would ever get to have a child whose birthdays would be closer to normal, a child who we could hold on their first birthday and hopefully many birthdays after that. We left the cemetery and drove to eat gyros and cheese fries at a nearby restaurant in Colette’s honor since that was one of the very few foods that I could eat during my pregnancy without getting sick.

That first year was really nice and peaceful, and we dictated the direction of the day, which felt very empowering and normal as most parents of young children do the same thing.

We were also flooded with so many people wishing Colette a happy birthday, so easily, so naturally, and in a similar way to celebrating what it would have been like if Colette turned one and was alive. The next day, it felt like a relief, like phew, we made it past that milestone.

For the second year, we repeated the same tradition, albeit different in an early-Covid world. Balloons were ordered online and picked up curbside instead of in the store. Lunch was ordered in much the same way. We now had one year under our belt and we knew that it was much easier to order table height balloons and came prepared with stakes we could tie the balloons to. It again felt very peaceful and we got to dictate how the day went. But, this time, less people reached out to wish Colette a happy birthday and for many who did remember, the level of remembrance had gone down. Instead of the personal text messages sent that first year by friends and family, we might have gotten a comment on a Facebook post we shared about her birthday. Sure, our core group, our inner circle continued to react the same way, but it was different. Some of that difference was due to Covid, but a lot of it was also due to the general malaise of humans. We remember things only for a short time and then since we do not spend a lot of time talking about death, we assume everyone has moved on by the time the second anniversaries and holidays come up. It also was a lot because we were expecting our rainbow and those around us thought, as most of the world thinks, that a pregnancy means all good things, all sunshine and rainbows, and even worse, we knew that some people would expect us to use LL Cool T, as he was then known, as a “replacement” of sorts.

We also had some mourning of our own that was new to that year. We were so excited about LL Cool T, eager to become a family of four, and thrilled about getting to talk about his big sister with him, but we also grieved that being the last year when it would just be the three of us at the grave, when it would be just mom and dad visiting Colette and being able to focus all of their attention on her. And while that had lots of thrill and excitement to it, it also had a ton of fear.

Elliott at Colette's grave on her birthday

Author’s Personal Collection/Michelle Valiukenas

Last year’s birthday was amazing because it was actually exciting to include Elliott in our traditions.

I know he didn’t really understand what we were doing, but getting to share why we did the things we did and talk about Colette was awesome. He also got to have his very first gyro, cementing his legacy as a Chicagoan.

But, again, we saw even more people fall off the radar and not reach out to us or to reach out to us in a less meaningful way, like when you get posts on Facebook from people you haven’t actually talked to in decades wishing you happy birthday. However, as we would come to find out, when Elliott’s birthday happened just a few months later, the people who had “forgotten” Colette’s birthday found it easy to remember and celebrate him, just as long as we weren’t also bringing up our dead daughter because that was too much for them.

That brings us to this year. The holidays have gotten tougher over the last year or so and I think that’s mostly because we know that she would be participating more, dictating what she liked for birthday themes, for food, and understanding what was going on and why we were celebrating her. The what ifs just overwhelm us as we think about whether she would have liked dinosaurs or unicorns or cars and trucks or Barbies. And the fact is that we have no clue what she would have liked and never will again. It also is exhausting to plan a birthday for an angel baby when you have to make these choices in a small vacuum where everyone thinks it is exciting and yet also completely crushing, all at the same time.

Because as much as I can talk about the peace I found on my 40th, the truth is that I want my 4-year-old running through this house and getting into trouble and teaching her baby brother what to do to annoy me. And while I want that every day, when her birthday rolls around, it just highlights that deep-seated yearning for a child that will always be in my heart and never in my arms. Plus, it angers me that I have to choose balloons not to hang at home or in a party room and that I have to drive to go “see” her and that seeing her and spending time with her is really just staring and talking to a brick with her name on it.

So what is my goal for this year and next year?

Honestly, survival. Getting through these milestones is enough work in and of itself so I’ll just say surviving is a win. Oh, and by next year, I’d like both Colette and me to not have to celebrate in a Covid/quarantine mode.

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