As it’s midnight and I see the day change to October 30th, it would be easy to sit and wallow and fall into the fog of melancholy and grief. That’s an easy path, the one that presents itself, pretty, enticing, and menacing at the same time.
But I’ve never been one to take the easy path.
Today, October 30th, my wife, Andrea, would have been 43. That’s her up there, something like 17 or 18, in her flag corps uniform. I found the picture last night.
The better remembrance, though, is this:
Always that smile and the sparkling blue eyes.
You can see how it would be easy to despair when that person, who you spent half your life with, has left you behind. She passed away at the age of 40, far too young for someone who up there looks so vibrant.
But I’m not despairing because today, her birthday, is a celebration. I do so because, for so many years, I got it wrong. I work in television and I had to work late most years on her birthday because of ratings periods that began, invariably, on her birthday. This year, unfortunately, I do the same. Not because of ratings but because of a basketball game. It’s not a complaint, though my children weren’t overly enthused, but I have other benefits the rest of the year. I see today as payment for the opportunity to pick up my son when he’s sick or visit the doctor and come in late with no repercussions.
Still . . . this is no longer Andrea’s birthday. Well, it is, but it’s not. We’ve changed it, turned the day on its head. This is celebration day and we talk about everything we’ve gained, not what we’ve lost. We want those around us to do that, too. We honor the past, the people who love and loved us, and look at what we have as a result. I tell those around me to do the same.
I’ve gained a sister. It’s true. Andrea’s sister and I were always close, but she was Andrea’s sister. That was the bond. Today, we visit like visiting my brothers or my parents and it’s comfortable and natural and I see her and her children and I have no despair, I am blessed to know that they’re a greater part of my life. They always were, but through Andrea. Now I’m the point of contact and I see the amazing woman that shares DNA with the woman I loved and I have nothing but happiness in knowing I’m closer now than I would have been.
I have friends around me that I would not have had three years ago. It’s hard to admit you need help, but you get it.
I have friends that are now my friends when 3 years ago they were “Andrea’s friend” and now I say, without hesitation or thought, “this is my friend.” A friend who has been through hell I cannot even imagine but I see as dear and strong and impressive and I’m so very happy to have them in my life in a far greater role than they were before.
I have people that were always there who I see in far more tender light than ever before.
All these people, all these things, the adventures we’ve taken, the trips we’ve made, the life we’re leading, the home we have, the job I work, the things we do . . . all of them are direct results of the fact that this amazing woman isn’t here anymore, not physically. Her influence is mighty. None of these people would be in our lives without her. But we live now, as she’s moved on, and we live differently, love differently, and we celebrate. We celebrate what having and losing her has brought to us . . . and what we have yet to see, hear, love and experience.
Forty-two years ago, on this very day, a little blonde girl was born. It may seem unremarkable to some, though to her family it was quite remarkable. You see, forty-three years ago, fertility treatments and hormone replacement and other types of fertilization methods were rare. Her mother had tried, unsuccessfully to have a baby before to very poor results.
But this day, this amazing celebration day, the little girl with blonde hair was welcomed to the world.
By most accounts, her childhood might have been somewhat unremarkable. Still, her toddler years were marred by a clumsiness, a tendency to bump into things or not notice who was speaking to her in the distance. It hadn’t crossed her mother or father’s mind to have her checked until she was a bit older, walking, talking, all of that. The specialist who saw her had a thick accent . . . German maybe? And he informed the little girl she had “strange, egg-shaped eyeze” in a thick drawl that belied his country of origin.
The doctor had to work closely with the lab to make sure that the eyeglasses they made for the little girl were the right prescription. The glasses could as easily hurt as help if they got it wrong. One day, several years after this miracle of her family was born, she arrived in the optometrist’s office and he put on the black-rimmed, thick – almost coke bottle – glasses. The little girl looked up at her parents and exclaimed “Mommy! I can see!” It broke her mother’s heart, not that she was so helpless, but that she hadn’t realized sooner that a pair of glasses could have helped her daughter.
As the girl grew older, she became the typical Northern California girl. She would grow tall . . . very tall. Five feet, ten inches, by the time she’d graduated high school. Her father wanted her to play clarinet, though she’d always wanted to do something more exciting like drums or saxophone. By the time she was a junior or senior in high school she had made the decision to join the flag corps of her school in a suburb of Sacramento.
Her father always rode her about her weight. Yet, in high school, twirling a flag had propelled her to a muscular and lithe form. Her parents never thought she’d have the discipline to do this, getting up at 5am every day and get ready, teasing her hair so big in the style of the 1980’s, but she did. Every day. She laid out, swam, grew tan. She had her first escapade of teenage drinking using vodka and orange juice with friends . . . something that to this day would cure her of the taste of said Russian libation.
By college she’d grown wild and adventurous. She’d moved to her mother’s home state and attended a Jesuit University. She roomed with a girl from a small town in the Northern part of the state. She joined a sorority and entered Greek life with a vengeance. Where people talk of the work hard/party hard times of her college days, she lived those, and she wasn’t yet 21.
She wanted to be a journalist. She met Leslie Stahl at an event at her school and was determined to be a television news anchor. She got a job as an intern at a small station, across the river from Omaha in a town called Council Bluffs, Iowa. By all accounts it wasn’t a remarkable station, but it was filled with energy and energetic people. She already had the wardrobe, working part-time at the clothing store Express to get a discount. She walked in, likely in some sort of silk pants and wraparound shirt that accentuated both her assets and her curves.
She caught the eye of a black-haired boy from a small Nebraska town. He was shy, reserved, and quiet. He secretly liked her but kept her at arm’s length, thinking there was no way she’d ever go for a goofy guy like him. On her first day she shook his hand and talked with him, asking him to show her around. It turned out he had grown up with her roommate, a fact that brought them closer.
It took him almost a year to get up the courage to finally ask her out. By then she’d made a decision to leave the Midwest to intern at CNN on the East Coast and go to a private university there. They’d become friends, this blonde and this black haired boy. When he finally did ask her out it was like they’d been waiting for the dam to burst, a passion washing over them like the wave from the sea. They hid it from their friends until right before Christmas. She found out her parents couldn’t pay for the East Coast venture and she called her black-haired friend, whom she thought was going to be a winter fling at first, and cried. When he asked her to come back to the Midwest instead she stopped crying and agreed. They were engaged just a couple months later.
While her parents didn’t approve, engaged, they moved to Colorado for a year in a failed attempt at a job for her fiance. He tried to get her to stay at her job but she wouldn’t do it. Just a few months into their Colorado year she revealed that some creep had date raped her during an alcohol-filled party at a fraternity – long before she’d met her love. It was a problem she’d hide and it pained her forever. Alone, jobless in Colorado, it ate at her and caused her mental anguish. He told her he wouldn’t let that happen . . . and they moved back to the Midwest.
When they moved back, neither worked in their industry. They were married on March 26th, 1993 in the church of the University where she’d graduated. He was a musician, wrote her a song, even sang it at the wedding.
A year later, they had their first child . . . a little . . . blonde . . . girl. The blonde woman was totally unprepared for motherhood and was in a panic. Her husband, the man with the black hair, wasn’t. He took care of them both and found life far more pleasant than he’d anticipated, being a Dad so young.
They had problems, the blonde and the black-haired boy. She grew jealous. He grew frustrated. Yet they had another child, one who was born on the black-haired boy’s birthday. The blonde woman almost died giving birth to her and he, again, cared for the woman he loved and the two girls . . . one blonde, one with dark hair.
They moved, to Texas, and while they thought they couldn’t get pregnant again, they did. This time the black haired man freaked out, because it was twins, they were broke, he was in TV again and worked a lot . . . and they were about to have four kids. It would hit the blonde girl hard and it would take years for her to forgive him.
They moved back to her hometown, to be closer to family, but the move didn’t work as well as she’d hoped. Still . . . the damage to their relationship had healed. They’d grown closer. She’d forgiven him, he’d helped her to finally deal with that horrible night in college that damaged her so badly. It had taken years, but they were as close as when they’d met again. She asked him if he’d still have fallen for her if he’d known she’d been date raped. He told her that it never factored in. The moment he met her . . . he was hers.
Four years later, she got sick. Constant pain in her knees. Her liver had problems. The sickness made her gain a terrible amount of weight. Again, she asked the black haired man why he stayed . . . and he told her leaving had never crossed his mind.
One day, a week before their anniversary, she got a cough. A simple, little cough, something that shouldn’t have been a big deal. A day later she was in the hospital. By the week’s end . . . on the day of their eighteenth anniversary . . . she was gone. A resistant strain of pneumonia had taken her. The black-haired man collapsed in the hospital room, in tears, and wasn’t sure he’d ever be able to get up again.
But then something amazing happened. His parents, who always loved and supported him, walked in the door of their home – having driven for two straight days – and helped him up. Her sister and her family, hurt as they were, helped. They still help. Her college roommate, one of her best friends . . . and always his . . . they were there. They still are.
By the first October 30th after she left the black-haired boy . . . he made a decision. He could remember those last few paragraphs . . . or he could write new ones. He bought presents for all his kids, little things really, and wrapped them. He made a cake – from scratch – and had a comfort-food dinner. He celebrated. Not just the life of the little blonde-haired girl but everything they’d done the seven months prior. Nobody cried. They laughed, ate too much, and smiled on the way to bed that night. Nobody said it would be easy . . . but somehow, it wasn’t as hard as they’d expected.
Now, one year later . . . the black-haired boy has turned the tables. The cake is made. The presents are bought. The blonde girl’s sister is part of the day. So is the woman who was the blonde girl’s roommate – one of his best friends. The day is no longer just the blonde-haired girl’s birthday. They call it “Celebration Day.” It’s not simply her day any more. They choose to remember her as the best version of herself . . . the blonde girl who could see. The curvy, gorgeous, tall girl who walked into the black-haired boy’s life. The Mom who chased them around the room. The sister and friend whose smile lit up the room.
This is a celebration of the last year. It’s a tribute to living on top of the foundation the little blonde girl paved. It’s a remembrance not just of her but of everything to this point. She gets to remain beautiful and perfect while we wear more years and move a little slower . . . but that’s okay. It’s a day to talk about how we watched the blonde girl’s little blonde girl excel as an actress and her dark-haired girl learn to play guitar. How her two boys, both blondes, grew up, one broke an arm, the other got straight A’s. How her black-haired man wrote beautiful music from thin air.
No, it’s not like Seinfeld, this is no “Festivus for the Rest of Us.” I just . . . had to do it.
There’s a reason behind all this, I think you should know it, embarrassing as it is to say.
My wife, Andrea’s, birthday confounded me. Annually. From the beginning I never knew what would work best for her. She’d have her mind set on one thing as a present. If I got her something else, something better, even, the day was ruined. Totaled like a Ford Explorer careening down a highway onramp. One year I asked what she wanted and she said “diamonds, big old rocks.” I got her a bracelet with diamonds in it . . . and it was “too modern.”
Eventually I asked her to tell me what she wanted. She hated surprises, but when the day came and there were none . . . it was a mess. In the end, too late, I realized after she was gone all she wanted was this to be “her” day. Ignore work, stay away from other things, focus the day on her. This was hard for me to come to terms with as I share my birthday. When we were first married I had to celebrate it at her parents’ house because “it’s my parents’ anniversary” she would say. Then came Hannah, and I adore that she’s got the same birthday as I do. I was fine with being in the background and celebrating the fact my daughter’s getting older while I avoided the topic. But Andrea, well, she never came to terms with that.
The one thing I could never do . . . was get it right, it seems. Every year she wanted me to take the day off for her birthday. Every year, it was in the first week of the November ratings period. It never mattered that I could take her to the doctor, pick up the kids when her mother wasn’t up to it or just plain come home early 8 other months out of the year. This day was paramount.
Now, I work at a job where I could have gotten home on time every day and she’s gone.
Last year I made a decision that the failures and the depression and the stress had to end. We built up to the 30th of October with trepidation and worry. Instead, I decided that we’d celebrate the day anyway. I got each of the kids a little gift. I made a birthday cake. We had a nice dinner, did all of it. If we needed to talk about Andrea, we did, but it was a celebration of all of us, not a bearing of our souls because we lost something.
The kids – even this week – still call it “Mom’s birthday.” I call it “Celebration Day.” (Thank you Zeppelin) Sure, it’s the day before Halloween. Sure, I don’t get a present, I’m the one giving them. Still . . . it doesn’t bother me. I’m getting something for each of the kids. I’ve added a couple others to the mix, but it’s about those close to me. Those I love.
It’s a celebration day. Not just of the woman we all loved, she certainly has to know that by now. It’s of the family we are…and of the creed we live by: