Celebrating Without the Birthday Boy

10:06:00 AM



This time twelve years ago, our family was anticipating the first birthday of our son, Thomas. I was dreading Thomas’ birthday and the closer the day drew near, the more unsettled I felt as the acutely painful memories of his birth and death forced themselves upon me. In contrast, all my other children were eagerly anticipating the day, and they started to make plans regarding how we should celebrate this special occasion.

Thomas has always been a very important and integral part of our family and everyone agreed that he deserved a special celebration just like the rest of us. I wasn’t so sure and in some ways I thought it would be easier to ignore his birthday and try not to think about him too much. But despite my hesitation, a celebration was planned.

“We can make Thomas a birthday banner and tape it to the dining room wall,” suggested Felicity.

“Could we make a banner to erect over his grave?” asked Duncan. I thought about it. Would it survive the elements? Perhaps we could cover it with plastic.

“What presents shall we give Thomas?”

“A religious statue? And we must buy flowers and have a birthday cake…”

“Can we visit Thomas and take a special picnic?”

Soon plans were made. I ordered the flowers: two identical posies, one for our home and the other to take out to the cemetery. The children started designing banners. Someone made a birthday cake. We had a small statue of the Holy Family to place on the grave.

Thomas’ birthday arrived and I headed to the florist to pick up the flowers. A little brown bear with a mournful expression looked up at me from his place on the shop counter. Before I knew it, I’d bought him. I took him home, a birthday present for Thomas. We named him Leo.

The banners were ready, one large, one small. The large one was blu-tacked to the wall: Happy 1st Birthday, Thomas!

“We should write our birthday greetings on the small banner,” someone suggested. And as I wrote my message of love, a few tears insisted on escaping from my eyes. I hurriedly wiped them away. I knew that if I started crying, I wouldn’t be able to stop.

Soon we were at the cemetery. Thomas is buried in a beautiful place: the children’s section of the St Patrick’s cemetery. There, surrounded by fields of grazing cows and tail-swishing horses, are a number of small sad-looking graves. We tidied up Thomas grave and arranged his posy of lavender, miniature roses and baby’s breath flowers.


One of the boys found two sturdy sticks. We sticky taped the banner to the sticks which I banged into the ground either side of the grave, using a mallet. Now visitors to the cemetery would know it was our baby’s birthday. They could stop and read our birthday messages and they would know just how much we love our birthday boy.

“We should take some birthday photos.”

All the children stood behind Thomas’ headstone and smiled widely as I snapped away.

Then it was time for our picnic. We settled on the grass in front of the church and enjoyed our birthday treats. I often wonder what people think of us picnicking in a cemetery. To me, it feels the natural thing to do. Because of Thomas, we can call the cemetery ‘ours’. We have earned that right.

That evening we had a birthday cake. The children wanted to sing “Happy Birthday Thomas” but I wouldn’t let them. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to cope with that without breaking down into the tears I’d been trying to avoid all day.

I didn’t get out Thomas’ memory box. I didn’t flip through the photos and look at his blood-stained clothes.  I knew that would be dangerous. I knew that would be the end of all my self-control.

On that first birthday I went to bed very early. I wanted the day to finish. Once in bed, I could no longer suppress the tears that had been threatening all day. I sobbed as I remembered.

Twelve years ago, we established a whole new set of family traditions which we repeat every November 9th. We visit Thomas taking along flowers, a banner and special food for a birthday picnic. One year we introduced the ritual of tying balloons to Thomas' flower bowl. We tidy up his grave, give the sandstone slab a good scrub and take some birthday photos.  And in the evening after dinner, we have a birthday cake (and I am now brave enough to let the children sing “Happy “Birthday”).

Little Leo was the first bear in Thomas Teddy Bear Collection. Each year, on his birthday and at Christmas, I buy Thomas a new bear. I told the story of Thomas’ bears in Leo, Augustine and Theodore.


Each year I put together a memorial for Thomas on the coffee table in the lounge or some other prominent place . I carefully arrange Thomas’ latest birthday bear, a candle and some flowers, together with any birthday cards friends might have sent.

Thomas’ birthday is slowly creeping closer. I am starting to think about this year’s celebration. Soon I will have to go searching for the perfect birthday bear. Which one will capture my heart? Which one will be the right bear? I will know Thomas' Teddy when I see him.

Going through the rituals for a birthday boy who is no longer here with us is not always easy but I wouldn’t omit them. Celebrating Thomas’ birthday is a way for us to say, “You are still a very special part of our family. We are so glad we have you. Thomas, we love you.”

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