I love my birthdays as a celebration of being alive – but they’ve always been pretty dramatic.
There’s been break ups, hospital visits, lengthy blackouts during freak storms on remote tropical islands, exes trying to sabotage things… but nothing beats my 36th birthday, when the first call of the day was from my sister telling me my father had died.
Way to ruin my planned seafood buffet birthday dinner, dad.
I was in Queensland on holidays, so of course I packed my bags, and my six-year-old son, and headed home immediately.
I’d like to tell you I handled the first available flight back with grace and dignity. I did not.
I couldn’t stop crying. I just couldn’t, not even for my son. The only information I had was that dad had died in a car accident; another car had hit him, and he’d died at the scene – last night. The cops hadn’t been able to reach my mother until midnight. I didn’t find out until the next morning because of course my phone had been on silent, and I’d been fast asleep, dreaming of lobster tail and scallops and béchamel sauce, while my sisters tried to get onto me for hours.
So on the plane, with barely any of the details, my imagination ran wild. What were his last few seconds alive like? Did he see the oncoming car rushing towards him? Was he scared? Did he die on impact, or when his car smashed into a building after it was hit?
And then there was the disbelief. This just could not be true. People can’t just be there one second, and not the next.
I felt like I was going insane on that flight.
We finally landed, and went straight to mum’s. Seeing my mother’s face, and the face of the sister who’d been with her all day, and who’d had to call everyone, was heart-breaking. The guilt of not being there has never really gone away.
So that was my birthday in 2013, which I guess I came to believe had been The Worst Day of My Life because really, every other challenge paled in comparison.
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I know significantly worse things have happened to people, but the trauma of that day, from the early morning phone call, to the three-hour flight with no information and no distractions, to finally being at mum’s that night – that trauma was hard to shake. For a long time.
Anyone who has lost someone knows that the first anniversary is particularly difficult. And even though dad had died on my birthday eve, remembering the events of the next day meant I just couldn’t face my following birthday, the day after his first anniversary. I couldn’t fathom celebrating it.
So I ignored it. For two birthdays.
Some friends didn’t approve. They didn’t get it. They told me that I should be acknowledging my own life, and be grateful for getting older. I suspect they thought I was weak, and being dramatic – when all I wanted was to pretend the day wasn’t significant.
I just wanted birthday amnesia.
I quickly learnt that some people, who have never lost anyone integral to their existence, expect grief to have a deadline. But it doesn’t work like that.
And then one year, my son decided he needed to save the day - literally. He had an excellent idea.
My little man offered to "give” me his May birthday, and he would take my July one. It was that simple. We could just swap birthdays. That way, I could go back to having one, and also be distracted on the real date because I’d be celebrating his birthday.
Three generations on Father's Day. I never took enough photos with my dad. TAKE PHOTOS even if they aren't perfectly staged - one day they are all your kids will have. This crap-quality computer print out is one of the only pics of my kid with his Nana - and it's priceless. Happy FD to ALL of the dads, especially the sole parents, people who've lost their dads, and dads who've lost their kids. ????????????✌???? #fathersday
And then he decided, as kids do, to really commit to the whole change the date idea – and he declared he would celebrate his birthday on his favourite day of the year, 4th May - otherwise known as "Star Wars Day" (you know, because “May the Force”).
And July would, blissfully, have no birthdays to worry about at all.
So he had a Star Wars Party on May the 4th, and for the first time in years, I too celebrated my life - on the anniversary of my greatest achievement, the birthdate of my son.
And that’s all it took. One year of birthday changing. Because by the following year, I was that little bit better at dealing with the date. All I had needed was the pressure to be off for one year.
My son could see that need, he could kindly give it to me, when others around me – adults – could not.
Of course, some people had to comment about the date swapping, too – you know, the kind of people who need other people to play by the rules regarding things that are none of their beeswax. But we make our own rules in this family. We do what we need to do to survive. And it bloody worked.
Because it’s a bloody good idea. This concept of date swapping has infinite applications. If you think about it, we already do it to some extent. We have numerous birthday celebrations, with friends and then with family. The same happens at Christmas – many of us usually celebrate with different groups over at least a week.
We love to say age is just a number. We should remember that dates are, too. Because it’s with that kind of thinking that a little boy was able to give his mummy back her birthday.
Nama Winston is a writer, whose favourite phrase is "now back to me", and passions include a deep desire for us all to be just bloody nicer to each other. You can follow her on Facebook.
For more from Nama Winston, read:
- “Why you should call your kids beautiful, even if everyone’s telling you to stop.”
- NAMA WINSTON: Tween bedtimes. A story of tears (mine).
- NAMA WINSTON: “I’m divorced so please stop talking about the ‘sanctity’ of marriage as a reason to vote no.”
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