By Lori Wenner
The din of the birthday party seemed to fade as a cloud of primary-colored balloons drifted high above the treetops, slowly disappearing into the azure sky. We’d enjoyed birthday cake, sung “Happy Birthday” in a large circle and then released the balloons. But something was missing: the birthday girl was absent from her party. As the last balloon vanished, I heard a voice whisper, “I’m okay, Momma. I love you.”
The birthday girl was Alexa Christine, my first daughter and she had died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome a year before when she was eleven weeks old. My husband Rohn and I had decided to observe her first birthday with a gathering at her grave. We couldn’t bear the thought of the day passing unnoticed, as if she’d never existed. But I worried what others would think; I didn’t want to make anyone uncomfortable. Rohn had reassured me, with his typical confidence, that our loved ones would approve and attend. He was right. We marked Alexa’s birth as she deserved and received love and support that our friends and family would never have known how to give to us otherwise.
The dazzling summer sun spilled over our gathering and a breeze from the nearby Neches River granted us a reprieve from the southeast Texas heat. The mood was light with laughter, conversation and hugs. Our many guests mingled under the towering pine tree standing sentry over Alexa’s grave. The party also served as a send-off: Rohn and I would depart that afternoon for a Colorado holiday where, pregnant with our second daughter, Caitlyn, I looked forward to relaxing in the cool mountain air.
The cemetery where Alexa is buried is as green and lush as a city park. Pine and live oak trees shade the grounds, which are dotted with picturesque flower gardens. The grave markers are uniform, flush with the ground allowing an unobstructed view as the land slopes gently to the river below. Here, it’s easy to forget you are in a graveyard. When Alexa died, we chose four paired burial plots near the river, arranged head-to-foot. We buried Alexa in the middle of two plots; the other two were reserved for Rohn and me. I buried Rohn in his plot seventeen years later, when, at age forty-eight, colon cancer ended his life.
We celebrated Caitlyn’s first birthday fifteen months after Alexa’s. On that crisp, sunny October day, many of the same guests from Alexa’s party milled about our backyard, laughing and talking. The birthday girl, fashionably late after a long nap, entered the yard with her chubby hand in mine. Rohn videotaped her toddling by my side, capturing her pale pink smocked dress, her lacy socks, her white Mary Janes and the pink bow in her curly blonde hair. I presented the group with the queen of our world, my heart full to bursting.
Our family grew by two over the next six years, as Caitlyn’s sisters Jillian and Zoe were born. Big sisters and an ever-expanding cast of cousins increased the fun as we celebrated first birthdays with elaborate cakes from Beaumont’s best bakery and new dresses for the birthday girl and Mom. We chose Blue’s Clues, Jillian’s favorite Nickelodeon show, for her first birthday theme; the birthday girl wore an aqua, green and hot pink dress to match the chipper puppy and a headband that tamed her thick, black hair. At her own first birthday party, Zoe wore a vintage-inspired linen sundress, white sandals, and a white bow in her blonde hair. Rohn photographed her seated on our dining room table near her two-tiered pink cake, which she quickly devoured with both hands.
After celebrating Alexa’s first birthday with our friends, we honored the occasion each passing year with a dinner with my parents. In the early years, we also visited her grave. But, as time passed, I didn’t feel the need to visit Alexa there. I felt closer to her in our home giving her sisters the love I couldn’t give her.
Following his death, we celebrated Rohn’s birthdays at his favorite seafood restaurant, with his favorite cake: lemon with chocolate icing. Rohn had wanted these flavors for his groom’s cake, but for once, I’d said no to him. I would have been better off suffering through that cake once. When he didn’t get his requested groom’s cake, Rohn felt entitled to a lemon cake with chocolate icing for his next twenty birthdays. We continue this tradition now, reminiscing about Rohn’s other odd food combinations, like Steen’s syrup and cheddar cheese atop pancakes. In her first year away at college, Caitlyn marked her Daddy’s birthday by baking his favorite cake in her poorly stocked dorm kitchen and sharing it with her friends.
Caitlyn’s, Jillian’s and Zoe’s birthdays have always been about growth, hope and life; each represents another year that a child of mine has flourished. Since his death, Rohn’s birthdays have been about remembrance and gratitude. I often mention him to friends on his birthday. We laugh together, remembering the kind, gregarious, creative and unstoppable man we all loved. Rohn’s life was cut short, but he packed everyday of it working hard, playing hard and loving even harder. It is sad to remember Alexa on her birthdays and there isn’t laughter when I do, so I only mention her birthday to a few select friends.
Losing Alexa remains an agony, even after twenty-three years. I can easily recall the happy times in her short life, but I keep the the unvarnished fact of her death hidden away. I know that my daughter is dead, but I rarely access that reality. When I do, I say the words my baby died aloud. The intensity of my grief shocks me. Then I recall Julian Barnes’ thoughts on mourning: “It hurts just as much as it is worth.”
Alexa’s birthdays are not about a baby who didn’t get to grow up. They’re not about what might have been. After the initial devastation of her death, I wrestled with a heartrending question: Would conceiving and loving other children betray my love for Alexa? With time, I have come to believe that each unique child’s conception is only possible at one precise moment in time; a child conceived at any other time is a completely different person. If Alexa had lived, I would not have become pregnant so soon afterward and Caitlyn and her sisters would never have been born. In this way, I have come to believe that Alexa was meant to live for only seventy-seven days. This is a sadness I can bear; what I cannot bear is the sadness and regret of a life not lived.
A nursery RN for thirty years, I usually choose to work on Alexa’s birthday. I recall my first pregnancy, labor and delivery as I walk past room 319, the room where she was born. The babies I care for comfort me. At times, I see a whisper of Alexa’s spirit in their faces and for a moment, it’s as if she’s there with me.
Lori Wenner is an RN/lactation consultant who lives in Beaumont, Texas with her three daughters ages 22, 18 and 15. Her work has appeared in Mamalode, Nursing for Women’s Health and MEDSURG Nursing.