This is the time of year that I have come to think of as “birthday season”. For some reason, the vast majority of my friends and family have their birthdays in the Spring and early Summer. My mom’s birthday is in February, my sister’s is in April, and my stepdad’s is in May. And then there are the late-May birthdays of two people in my life who are no longer here. Well, not in physical form, anyway.
My dad’s birthday was May 26th and his mother’s birthday was May 27th. Before my dad’s suicide, I think my grandmother took a special joy in having a birthday only a day apart from her son’s. It was something they shared and I can imagine that his arrival into this world only one day before her birthday must have felt like a wonderful gift. After his decision to take his own life only a matter of weeks before his 51st birthday, of course, her experience of her birthday changed. For many years, it seemed to only be a brutal reminder of the fact that her life was going on, while her son would never see another year. Over time, I think the pain became less sharp and the dull ache was accompanied by good memories and a sense that she could still connect with her lost child in her own way.
My experience of my father’s death was quite different to that of most of my immediate family members and I think this was because I was never raised to think of death as a terrible thing. From my father’s perspective, it was natural and not to be feared. He always used to tell me that, when he died, he absolutely did not want a somber funeral. He said he wanted to be put in a pine box in the ground so that he could become part of nature again and that he wanted everyone to celebrate happy memories, his life, and his passing, which he seemed to think of as just another milestone in his soul’s journey. This made sense to me as a child and still does.
To me, death only meant the loss of my ability to connect with someone in the body that they had lived inside of. That, of course, doesn’t mean that I don’t experience pain with the loss of someone close, but my grieving process has always been simplified by my total acceptance of physical death as a natural and even beautiful part of life, while knowing that my connection to my loved one’s soul will never end. When my father died, I knew he was still very much present in my life. I was 14 at the time, and I would see him in dragonflies and art and my younger sister. He would appear in books and music and strangers that I met. I had no doubt that he would continue to show up in my life, sometimes when I needed him and sometimes just because he felt like saying, “Hi.” So, when my grandmother died two and a half years ago, I knew she wasn’t gone either.
She had spent her last few years of life in a hospital bed. Like so many people in their later years, she went into the hospital for injuries she sustained during a fall and never came out. She had lost her husband/my grandfather, many years before, and before the end of her life she saw the passing of most of her friends, my uncle/her son and only other child, and my aunt/her daughter-in-law. By the time my grandmother passed, she was so very ready to go, and even though I was sad to never be able to look into her loving blue eyes again or feel her squeeze my hand just slightly as she held it, I was happy for her release.
After she died, I could feel her all around me. Much like my dad, she showed up in all the things that held meaning for the two of us when she was alive. Every time I see kittens playing, I think of her. She loved cats and always said that she could watch kittens play for hours. I think of her when I make okra the way she taught me to or when I make lists, which is a habit she and I shared. I talk to her often. I ask for her help whenever I’m struggling, and I can feel her putting her arm around me as she used to do. My grandmother was and will always be, without question, one of the most powerful sources of unconditional love and unwavering support in my life.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been reaching out to both my grandmother and my father a bit more than usual. I’ve been experiencing some challenging moments recently between navigating some frustrating health issues, launching a new branch of my business which has brought up both excitement and fear, and trying to buy a condo, which has been a much more emotional process than I could ever have imagined. There have been points when I have felt incredibly overwhelmed and, in those moments, I talk to my dad and grandmother. Like, actually talk to them, out loud. I tell them what’s coming up for me and ask for their support. I’ve always known that they’re there behind the sences, pulling any strings they can and simply putting their arms around me when they can’t, but over the past two days, I got some very special signs that they were staying especially close.
Yesterday was my dad’s birthday. He would have been 70, which is a pretty big one. I talked to him off and on throughout the day. I told him happy birthday and imagined him doing things that he loved. And then, as I was walking through my apartment, I happened to glance at my laptop, which had gone into screen-saver mode. And there he was. My screen saver shows words and their definitions. I rarely ever even see it because if I’m not actually using on my laptop, I usually keep it closed, but for some reason I had walked away and left it open. When I looked at the word on the screen as I was passing by, it said “windigo.” For most people, that wouldn’t mean a thing, but a windigo is an evil spirit in Native American (Algonquian, to be exact) folklore, and I know this because my father used to tell my sister and me a ghost story about a windigo when we were little. We both loved and hated the story. We loved it because my father was so good at telling it and would completely envelop you in the story with rich details and perfect timing. We hated it because we literally almost peed in our pants from fear when he would get to the scary parts, no matter how many times he had told it before. When that word popped up on my computer screen, I knew it was my dad saying “Hi” and thanking me for the birthday wishes. I mean, really? “Windigo”? Of the nearly half a million words that my screen saver could have pulled from the dictionary, it pulled that one.
And then today, my grandmother decided to let me know that she was here, too. Years before she died, she moved into a retirement village, and during the move, she gave a lot of her stuff to my sister, cousins, and I. As we helped her clean out the home she had lived in for almost 50 years, I came across a lily plant, potted in an old cooking pot, sitting on my grandmother’s back patio balcony ledge. I had always been particularly fond of those lilies. They weren’t quite like any lilies I had seen before, with their pale lavender-pink flowers and grassy leaves. They had come from my grandmother’s grandmother’s front porch and had most likely been originally dug up from the ground and potted because of their delicate beauty. I asked my grandmother if she wanted to take the lilies with her to her new place, and knowing that I had always loved them, she suggested that my aunt and I break up the bulbs and split them up into multiple planters for me, my cousins, and my aunt to each have some. I carried mine home on the plane from Arkansas to California and potted them as soon as I got home. They bloom a handful of times each year, seemingly at random, and today, on my grandmother’s birthday, I woke up to a single blossom. Of course, it was her.
These little messages—the screen saver and the flower—mean so vey much to me. They help me feel less alone, which is a feeling that comes up for me from time to time as I try to find my way in this very big world. But when it really comes down to it, it’s not really these signs that let me know that they’re still with me. Of course, it’s nice to have these little moments that serve as reminders, but I know that my dad and grandmother are there because I can feel that they are. And even if I never got another impossibly coincidental message again, that would be just fine, because when you really feel the truth of something in the depths of your being, proof just isn’t necessary.