My mom died about thirty minutes after midnight on a Saturday night. Since Monday of that week she told everyone she was going to die on Sunday, and sure enough she kept her word with that just as she always did. Earlier that Saturday night, while I was washing her sparkly silver hair, I mentioned that if she died before midnight then she wouldn’t die on my Dad’s birthday, but that I understood her whole “I’m dying on Sunday because it’s the Lord’s Day and I’m going to celebrate being cancer free at the big feast” itinerary.
Her death was as brave and beautiful as her life, and went just as she said it would. Two close family friends were with Dad and me when she died, and the four of us continued to hold her hands and talk to her, as we’d done all day that Saturday. After the Hospice nurse pronounced her, finished paperwork and went on her way, the four of us continued to sit around Mom’s bed in our family room and kept talking to each other like it was any other Saturday night. Dad had a beer and the rest of us had some wine, cheese, and a random assortment of holiday snackage as we sat by her bed waiting for the funeral home to come. We would have had one of the many casseroles some fine Christian women had put in our fridge, but since Mom had the kitchen renovated prior to the holidays, nobody else knew how to work the damn oven. We laughed, shared stories, puttered around the kitchen, and took turns holding her hands a little more as apparently that’s the Presbyterian way of sitting Shiva.
I’m pretty sure I offered the funeral home folks some Malbec and stale Christmas cookies, lest all Southern hospitality fall by the wayside during grief. After they left, we congregated in the kitchen until the fatigue of the past four weeks set in. Our friends went home, Dad and I took naps, then spent Sunday morning cleaning closets, sorting through get well cards, and organizing the fridge full of feelings food. Later we met the same two friends for dad’s birthday dinner, since it seemed like the normal thing to do. The server brought Dad’s birthday dessert with a candle in it like it was any other birthday. And, it’s not like any of the four of us had told the server any differently, since you can’t really say to the hostess, “We’re here for a birthday and a death. See his wife just died on his birthday, but we still want cake, and maybe a table in a corner so we don’t have to be so much in public since we’re exhausted and may or may not cry in the brie.”
At some point before his birthday dinner, Dad mentioned he wished he had a lock of Mom’s hair. I hadn’t gotten him a birthday gift yet anyway, so I called the funeral home and asked that they cut a couple locks of hair for me. They graciously did, and even honored my request for them to keep it secret it so I could surprise Dad.
Today marks two years since my mom died on my dad’s birthday, and it’s as surreal and ordinary as it was two years ago. As a chaplain, I frequently tell families there’s no wrong way to grieve and there’s nothing too odd if it seems meaningful at the time. Much about death is sacred, yet makes no sense, kind of like life.
Sometimes spouses of 39 years die on their spouse’s birthday.
Sometimes only children surprise their dad with a lock of their mom’s hair as his birthday gift.
There’s no Pinterest board for how to celebrate life everlasting, a birthday, and grieve a death on the same day. But there is cake and there are candles. And so long as the light continues to shine in the darkness and there is life to be celebrated, we continue to make birthday wishes before the candles are blown out.