Monday, February 10, 2014

The Ghost of Birthdays Past

Yesterday we had a wonderful party, but there was a ghost.

It was the shared birthday of E2 and E3 -- the third birthday for the middle child who last year got a baby sister for her birthday and the smash cake extravaganza of a first birthday for the least of the grandbabies. Mom had gone all out and planned a splendid affair with the theme of Princesses and Pirates, because although she has three little girls, there are a lot of little boys in her circle of friends. The same cast of characters that I've come to expect at every birthday party for four years was there with some new additions, but we were missing one.


It was a glorious party. Beyond the cake, which featured the princess of the year Sofia (Sofia the First) as well as Jake (from Jake and the Pirates) there were games, tiaras and swords, eye patches and wands. Although I saw one father of three wearing his daughter's tiara, the boys pretty much avoided the girl glitz. Little girls, however, were apt to be wearing tiaras and carrying swords. From turning on the princess bounce house, where there was much joy to be had, to Little Miss with pink frosting in her hair, a pinata on the church playground, and baby after her bath in the kitchen sink, it was an action packed two hours. Odds are good that everyone slept well last night. I think I even relived bits of it in my dreams.

I was photographer for the event, looking for special images to capture the day for Mom and the girls. After 25 years as a journalist at small papers where I did double duty as photographer, that's the role I'm generally assigned. That, along with an unofficial co-host (a role grandmothers get when there are so many little ones) kept me pretty busy.

Sometime during church service, however, while I was anticipating a big time, it hit me that there would be a ghost at the party -- or not at the party, depending on how one looked at it. After the party, after the cleanup and the loading of tired and cranky girls, packages and leftovers, I completely fell apart.

I knew that I would have to fall apart on his birthday, but I didn't realize every birthday party was going to bring on the pain.

Ethan loved birthday parties. He loved children, and cake and, although whatever it was that made him feel separate always kept him standing in the background, he would have been there. E1 would have been so happy to see him. Although he wasn't around a lot, she doted on him and her sisters would have come to do so as well.

At all the birthday parties, he's been a shadow in the background. One I didn't always take the time to photograph while focusing on the little people, but who I can find bits and pieces of in most of my birthday pictures.

Yesterday, however, there was no warm, swallowing hug, no smart remarks about my pirate get up, no beautiful smile, no big, gentle hands catching little people, or getting a second helping of cake, or helping with cleanup.

The last time I saw him was at E1's birthday in August, nearly four months before he died. He'd been using again, but not that night and he enjoyed visiting with cousins, eating grilled hot dogs, cake and homemade ice cream in my front yard. I made not one single, decent photo of him, although I can still feel that last hug in the driveway when he left with my parents (he didn't have a license any more), still see him getting in the car, riding in the back seat while my dad stopped to make some smart remark before leaving.

I wish the party hadn't take so much of my time and that I'd had more time to just be with him, but there's a million of those things I would change if I could have a redo. None of them are an option, so I just have to learn to live with my regrets.

Learning more about addiction, I know that although he seemed to have fun, he didn't get the pleasure from those gatherings that we do. I've learned that his drug took over his mind so much that it was the only thing that could bring him real pleasure and that, perhaps, he stood back not just because he often didn't feel he fit in, but because in the back of his mind he may have been thinking about when he left and getting high again and how he knew that would hurt us but he couldn't stop himself.

I know he was filled with love for his nieces, his sister, and the rest of his family and friends, but not enough love for himself to realize that somehow, he was worth taking care of and saving. I know he would never have wanted to ruin a party for any of us, he would want to enjoy it with us.

Yet these parties and family gatherings, the times when I could have usually counted on seeing him, are going to be the toughest times for a while. I'd grown used to his absence in so many ways that it's almost easy to get through the days without focusing on the fact that he's not just a phone call away and he's not going to randomly call me. Almost. And when we are all together, there's enough activity that one often silent young man, may not be missed in the heat of the moment.

It's afterwards when everything becomes a memory that I store away that his memory is buried a little further back under the new memories. It's while I'm downloading pictures and almost looking to see where he was at. It's while I'm looking at the faces of children and remembering another child long ago. That's when it hits me like the train that didn't cause the crossing guard to drop, sending me spinning into dark places where I feel my heart shatter into a thousand pieces yet again.

I'm glad the girls share a birthday, so there will only be two of these parties to get through this year, not three. But I already know that the one in mid August will be hard. I will want to be very busy and very involved, not looking for another ghost in the shadows.

Because he won't be there at all, although he'll be everywhere for me.

Ethan's memory, his ghost if you will, caused me pain yesterday, but thinking about him this morning has brought me smiles as well as tears. That ghost that lingers around birthday parties is one I'll have to come to terms with and, eventually, be happy to see because it's a happy spirit and those are happy memories. What makes them painful is that they are just that, memories.

There will be no new memories, but Ethan lives forever in my heart.

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