On October 20th, 2008 I wrote the following in my journal:
Jordan’s gone. The pain is everywhere and there’s no place to put it.
It’s Merrick’s birthday. I got up, got the kids off to school and stumbled back to bed. Mark held me as I slept and he stared.
Later, I got up and curled my hair, put on make-up and changed my clothes. I made sure to put on a necklace, earrings and a bracelet, the things Merrick has seen me in before. The things I wear when I want to feel like I look good.
My heart is so heavy and aching with missing Jordan; I also have joy and this wonderful gift whose name is Merrick. Today is his day and he will be celebrated.
Those are the words written in my journal 8 days after Jordan died. Within 8 days were the death of one child and the birthday of another. I was saturated with pain and sorrow and my son’s 16th birthday was here. He was upon one of the “big” birthdays, the one that puts you on the threshold of independence and starts the pull from adolescence into young adulthood.
Since the age of 5, Merrick claimed the month of October as his own. The first day of October he would come downstairs and in a loud voice announce, “It’s Oc-toh-berrr” just like one of the World Wrestling Federation announcers. It was his signature call that we all awaited. Then every day until his birthday he would count down and ask me the same question, “Hey Mom, you know my birthday is in 19 days?” Then the next day the same question as the countdown continued until finally his birthday arrived. My response everyday to the countdown question was the same, “Yes Merrick I know your birthday is in 19,18,17… days. I was there for the actual birth.” Last year like clockwork came the “It’s Oc-toh-berrr” call. He was so excited at finally being 16. He talked about getting his learner’s permit and then his license. He told me he knew he’d have to run errands and pick up his sisters “Just like Jordan.” He was so excited that he was about to be 16.
I asked him if he wanted to do something special with his friends for his birthday. He gave me an exasperated look and explained that girls got together for birthdays and had “little parties” but that’s not what guys did in his generation. He told me, “let’s just do what we always do.” Our family tradition for the kids’ birthdays was to go to Cheesecake Factory for dinner, order cheesecake to go, and came home to sing “Happy Birthday” and open presents. I told Merrick, “then we’ll do our regular routine”.
Our regular routine, even saying those words is difficult now, but planning for Merrick’s birthday is probably the last time I said or felt anything that was like “our regular routine.” October 12th, 2008 the day Jordan died has taken the words “regular routine” from our vocabulary -at least for now. There may come a day when those words feel right to say again. We celebrated Merrick’s birthday last year, all of us with such heavy hearts. Merrick did his best to be cheerful but there are pictures from that night that make me cry every time I look at them. Pictures of Merrick with a faraway look, lost in thought, clearly not thinking about celebrating. Every time I look at a certain picture I wonder if Merrick is thinking what I was thinking, “Jordan would/should be calling right now.”
Merrick hearing his brother’s voice wishing him a happy birthday was missing from the day. That birthday call was part of the regular routine since Jordan had been away at college.
Right after Jordan died Merrick and I talked and he expressed his sadness, but also his belief that Jordan’s spirit would be with him always. He admitted to me however, that he was relieved that Jordan didn’t die on his birthday. He said to me, “I don’t think I could take it if that had happened. This is already too hard.” Even though Jordan didn’t die on Merrick’s birthday it has changed October for all of us, but especially my son who lost his only brother and his claim on the month of October.
This year as the first day of October came; I waited but knew there would be no cry of, “It’s Oc-toh-berr”. Merrick no longer claimed October. Merrick was so subdued and didn’t mention his birthday at all for the first week of the month. One day as he and I sat at the kitchen table eating lunch, he said to me, “Mom, there are two good things happening in October.” I asked him, “What are they?” His reply was about a new video game and a new movie coming out that month. I looked at him across the table and then gently said to him, “And your birthday.” He looked at me and said quietly, “Oh yeah, that too.”
How I ached for my boy. He needed so much gentleness and care. The 8 days that separated his birthday from the loss of his brother weren’t lived in real time. They were more like one extended day that should never have been. I didn’t push any false cheer on Merrick. I knew the result of that would be him forcing himself to act happy to make his family feel at ease. I had to let him feel whatever he needed to feel as his birthday approached. It hurt seeing how changed he was from years past. Merrick had gone from treating his birthday as a national holiday to seeming wary and just trying to make it through the day. It was one of those moments as a parent when you stand helplessly by watching the pain of your child and know that it is a burden you cannot fix. There is no way to take away the pain.
As Merrick’s birthday approached, Mark told me what gift he planned to get for Merrick. He was planning on buying him the Sony Playstation 3, even though we couldn’t really afford to right now. Mark’s only care was trying in some way to see a glimpse of excitement and joy in Merrick’s eyes. Any talk of money and budgets from me were futile. Mark was determined that whether it worked or not he was going to surprise Merrick with a gift he knew he wasn’t expecting at all. He wanted to see a glimpse of joy amidst the quiet pain haunting our son’s face.
A few days before his birthday I asked Merrick what gifts he wanted since he hadn’t asked for anything. Merrick told me that he needed a couple of sweatshirts and a new wallet. He needed a wallet because his had been stolen from his gym locker a week before. Most of the contents of the wallet had been found in an empty classroom including his school ID and learner’s permit, but he was most upset that “Jordan’s mantle” was gone. The mantle Merrick referred to was a piece of cloth that had been cut from a larger cloth our Pastor used during the tree dedication ceremony we had for “Jordan’s tree”.
The tree was donated by my daughters’ Girl Scout Troop and planted in Jordan’s honor at the field overlooking the elementary school all four of our children attended. Our pastor explained that the cloth represented a way for all of us to honor Jordan’s memory by carrying forth Jordan’s work, loves, interests and personality. The pastor placed the mantle cloth on a branch of the tree and urged everyone to cut off a piece and keep it with them and decide what aspect of Jordan’s personality and life they wished to emulate and keep alive. He talked of Jordan’s sense of adventure, his social activism, love of family, love of reading and learning new things, and his loyalty as a friend. The mantle cloth represented all of these attributes and Merrick as did everyone at the ceremony cut a piece for himself. He told me that he kept the cloth in his wallet. He was most upset that when the contents of his wallet were found, the mantle cloth was not among them. I assured Merrick that we still had the larger piece of cloth and that he would be able to cut another piece.
The day of Merrick’s birthday arrived and with the help of his sisters who had excitement to spare Merrick began to look forward to the celebration we would have after school. I tried to glean and soak up the excitement and energy my daughters were feeling but it wasn’t enough. The reality that my family was starting year two without Jordan to participate in our celebrations weakened me and made me weary. I struggled for most of the day trying not to concentrate on how many celebrations we’d have to have without Jordan. Last year shock had acted as a buffer to the pain of losing Jordan. This year, the first anniversary of Jordan’s death, reinforced that my boy can’t and won’t be coming home. Imagining having to muster the energy and excitement for all the holidays to come overpowered me. “How could we every truly celebrate again when someone, our Jordan, was missing from the table?” “Would any holiday, or vacation ever feel right?” “Could our family make new memories without Jordan that felt joyful and not tinged with sadness?” Those were the thoughts swirling through my head on my son’s birthday. I was so anguished and upset with myself that I was having so much trouble preparing my mind and our home for Merrick’s birthday.
I spent most of the day in bed, crying off and on and so tired. I tried to figure out how I was going to get the things done, and get myself in the right state of mind to be present for my family and especially my son. The list of errands I needed to run to make Merrick’s day special was on a reel in my head: pick up balloons, get cards and gift bags, and have everything out to welcome Merrick home. The list of things was minimal but my weariness made it feel close to impossible to accomplish these simple tasks.
Then it happened, the part of me that never lets me fall too deep into despair took hold. There came the point during the day, when my sorrow and fatigue started to feel like wallowing and self-pity. I knew I had to shake the depression and take care of my child. I reminded myself as I have times before, “I am the mother of four.” October 20th was my beloved, amazing son’s birthday, he would be celebrated and it would include all the traditions he had come to expect. Despite Merrick’s hesitation and the strangeness all of us felt at celebrating a family event without Jordan, we had to, and we needed to. As parents it was Mark’s and my responsibility to help Merrick reclaim his birthday in a way that showed our joy at celebrating him and the day he was born.
Merrick changed our routine a bit and asked that we order dinner “in” since his birthday was on a school night. When he came home from school, his chair was festooned with balloons as is our tradition and after dinner we sang “Happy Birthday” and took pictures as he blew out his candles and opened his presents. He opened the presents and cards from his grandparents and his aunt and uncle, the gag gifts his sisters bought for him, to make him laugh, and the presents from Mark and I. He liked the clothes I’d chosen for him, and then I handed him a gift bag that was just from me. He opened it and saw that it was a wallet, exactly like the one that had been stolen from his gym locker. I told him to open it and he saw that I had put a dollar inside. I explained that his “Oma”, my mother, had always taught me that you never give a person a wallet without money inside. I then told him to look into one of the folds. He opened one of the folds and pulled out the piece of “Jordan’s mantle” that I had tucked inside. Merrick looked at me tearing up and said simply, but with so much gratitude, which is his way, “Thanks Mom.”
Then it was on to the final gift. Mark had spent the afternoon setting up the Playstation 3. He had wrapped one of the controllers as Merrick’s clue to the “big” gift. Merrick opened the package and very quickly put two and two together. All he could say was, “Wow, I never expected to get this. This is awesome. Thank you. Thank you.” The look on his face erased any worries I had about our budget. Excitement and joy crossed the eyes of my son who has been weighted down with so much loneliness and sorrow. No matter the cost, that gift was worth every penny. We all went upstairs so Merrick could check out his new system. For the next couple of hours he and Mark were upstairs tinkering and making sure that it worked perfectly. After I came downstairs I heard Mark and Merrick laughing and talking and knew that Mark had done right by our son.
That night as is his nightly routine, when he was about to go to bed, Merrick came into my bedroom to hug me and say goodnight. Before he left to go to bed he looked at me and said, “This turned out to be a good birthday.” I looked at him and said, “That’s what we wanted for you. I’m glad.” With everyday my family is relearning a new normal and celebrations are no exception. We keep going.