Wednesday, October 7, 2015

A Year of Firsts

My birthday is a few days away, which in my younger years signaled the start of a week-long party filled with the types of shenanigans that are forever locked in a memory vault titled Shit You Do Before Kids. These days, there are no t-shirts to mark the occasion or requests for the DJ - there is simply reflection and gratitude. (Although if someone made me a shirt, I wouldn't be mad about it.) 

This year is particularly bittersweet because it's the first without my dear friend Chip. Every year since we left the Beltway, I've traveled back to D.C. for my birthday weekend. I even managed to make it the year I had an actively nursing 5-month-old baby girl. I packed up my breast pump and my postpartum depression, stocked the freezer with four days worth of milk, and left her in Arizona with her daddy. Clearly there wasn't much that could keep me away. 

My favorite part of the weekend was a long lunch with Chip, where we looked forward to recapitulating the previous twelve months in one sitting. As the years wore on, our conversations turned more reflective as we added spouses, kids, career changes and, ultimately, cancer to our list of things to discuss. Our last lunch was difficult because he was ill from chemotherapy and unable to eat. But he still showed up. 

Chip always showed up.

That weekend was the last time I ever saw him. We went out for our lunch on Friday and by Saturday he was feeling slightly better. We met for a night of sushi, champagne and celebration - my birthday least on the long list of Stuff To Be Grateful For. We had a festive evening and toasted a great many things. "To being self-aware!" chorused frequently throughout the night. Chip and his wife often brought this up - the notion of knowing exactly who you are and what you stand for. I think as his days grew numbered, it became incredibly important that they surround themselves with people who loved them despite a diagnosis. You didn't have to have all of the answers or know exactly what to say, but being perceptive was important and they particularly enjoyed spending time with anyone who was up to the task. So as we said goodbye on the cobbled streets of Old Town, minutes before my birthday was scheduled to end, Chip and I shared a hug that had become standard since his terminal diagnosis - big, long, and weighted with the unspoken truth that it could possibly be our last.

I left Washington the next day, only to return three months later for his funeral.
As this birthday draws near, I'm thinking of my friend and his wife, Sheila, who is a soul sister to me. She and her children are doing the most incredible job of redefining what family means to them. I always ask her permission before I write about Chip, and she always blows me away with her answer. This week her response was: "He would really love that, as would I."
We spoke about the juxtaposition between the year of firsts without him. Her children's first day of school, family birthdays, cancer milestones, their wedding anniversary, holidays, and the sense of wanting to get over that sorrow-filled space of having to mentally measure each day with a "this time last year", versus a desire to freeze time and meticuloulsy hold onto his memory forever - the underlying fear that so much has already begun to change and fade in the months since he left. I gave her what was in hindsight some pretty saccharine advice about how life will most likely always be a double-edged sword for her because she is making the conscious decision to soldier on instead of wallowing in the overwhelming grief of his loss. But, what do I know? There is no correct way to correlate the memory of someone with the real life, flesh and blood person that they once were. It becomes increasingly difficult to remember the precise way that someone made you laugh or exactly how they made you feel deep down inside. At some point, you can only hold on to the infinite presence they left behind.
I wrote about Chip shortly after his death, but it's something I find difficult to read. This morning I decided to finally sit with it from start to finish. As I did, I cried once more for a friend who left us all too soon. I wept for memories of birthdays past, acutely aware of what it means to have one more year on this Earth when so many others do not. I cried for my husband and my children, grateful to have this time without taking what it means for granted.
I cried happy tears that Sheila and the kids are having more good days than bad. I smiled at all of our memories, because even though there isn't a rulebook for this type of thing, I don't think it's possible to look into our own future without honoring those who took up so much space in our past. 

Please read more about Chip and his family in my post Miles Back Home. It's a tribute to a life that was taken too soon by that sonafabitch cancer and gives more justice to him than anything I could possibly write today - simply because most of the words are his. Likewise, it is vital that we all remain aware of what this disease really looks like and continue to work toward a cure.
This weekend I will not return to D.C. for the first time in almost a decade, but I will celebrate life. Not only mine, but the incredible life of a dear friend who taught me about living in the moment, knowing who you truly are, and that when all else fails, you best tell the DJ to play Pour Some Sugar on Me and get the damn party started.

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