The bittersweet birthdays

Last week, Joseph turned three. And then three days later, my sister’s son Louie turned five. Consequently, we had three days packed with cake and jelly and boundless excitement. A theme park, a party and a whole lot of presents.

Because Paul was away and it was a nursery day, we celebrated Joseph’s birthday a day late. But to make things simpler, we didn’t tell him. He never has any idea what day it is. When he arrived at nursery on his actual birthday, the women who look after him there burst into song. ‘It’s not today,’ he told them. ‘It’s tomorrow.’

The following morning, he woke up before six and I told him he could come into my bed but he had to try to go back to sleep. So he curled up next to me, asked for a story, asked for a snack, and then finally went quiet for a minute. ‘Mummy,’ he said next, ‘is it my birthday?’ I silently gave up on having any more sleep. ‘It is,’ I said. He grinned an enormous grin.

Rachel is on my mind often, of course, but that afternoon, when we were surrounded by family and I was trying to take photos of Joseph opening his presents, I remembered that at his first two birthdays, Rachel made a note of who each present was from, for thank you card purposes. And I missed her. Not just on a practical level, but on a visceral one. It suddenly seemed impossibly sad that she wasn’t there, celebrating with us.

When I put Joseph to bed that evening, I told him how much I loved him and how proud I was of him. Close to tears, I thanked him for being my little boy. ‘That’s ok, Mummy,’ he said. And then, after a brief pause, ‘can you get off my bed now?’

On Louie’s birthday, Scott and Louie and I went to see Rachel in the morning. Scott handed her Louie’s presents so that she could give them to him. And she wished him happy birthday in the deliberate, emotionless way that she speaks now, and I thought of how excited she has been on his past birthdays.

Five years ago, I spent the night trying to sleep in a cold hospital corridor, waiting to meet this tiny boy. Our family is very small. I don’t have any cousins. Louie was the first baby for many years, and I was so excited about his arrival. When I was finally allowed in, I couldn’t take my eyes off him. He was fragile and perfect, sleepy and still.

It’s sometimes hard to believe he’s grown into the curious, clever boy he is now. I look at him and I can’t really see any trace of the baby I met that day. But I love him just as much as I did then. I love him more.

In the afternoon, he had a party. There were twenty-three children, mostly dressed as superheroes. There was food and games and face painting and running around. So much running around. We’d all been a bit worried about the various elements of it, but it seemed to go well. Friends stepped in at every opportunity to help out, as they have done throughout everything. Rachel’s absence was palpable, though. She would have been everywhere, doing everything, stressed and possibly a little snappy, proud and happy.

It was a tough few days, tiring both physically and mentally. But I think we got away with it, and gave both boys a nice birthday. And that’s the most important thing. A couple of mornings ago, Joseph came into our bed early and we had a kind of conversation while I drifted in and out of sleep. At points, he just rambled away to himself. ‘Rachel had a big poorly,’ I woke up to hear him saying, ‘so she had to go to hospital.’ And then this morning, he pointed to a soldier on his playmat and said ‘that’s Rachel.’ ‘What’s she doing?’ I asked. He looked at me for a moment. ‘She’s getting better,’ he said.

And she is. It’s a long, dark road, and we keep losing our way and doubling back on ourselves. But at the end of it, perhaps there’ll be another party, with no face painting and no running around and plenty of wine. Here’s hoping.

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