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Happy Birthday...

So. I turned 37 today. Humphh.


Maybe it’s the just ‘getting older’ idea ‘that has put me in a funk today- and I am very aware that the ‘getting older’ part is relative, however, for me, it’s still true.


At the end of the day, I’m just glad to have the chance to be having another one.


However, there is still a small thread of sadness weaving it’s way through this day.


I think it all came together when I found myself at the cash register of a shoe store yesterday morning. From the moment I opened my sleep deprived eyes, I had this raw, fragile feeling, one that made me feel completely out of sorts and vulnerable-tears brimming at the surface so close that even burning a piece of toast could send me over the edge. Everything felt off, and I couldn’t really figure out why.


I started chatting with the sales lady at the counter and she made some passing comment about being from West Africa, and naturally, I asked about what part and shared that I had lived in East Africa for many years. She was from Liberia and started talking immediately about her mother, and how she had not been home to see her since 1998. Tears welled up in her eyes when she talked about losing three family members to the recent Ebola pandemic; she said she didn’t know what she would have done if she had lost her mother. Although it had been almost a year since she had spoken with her mother and heard her voice, she was the most important person in her life. She wistfully reflected on the fact that she had come to America for a better life, but had been forced to sacrifice so much in the pursuit of betterness. Tears welled up in my eyes as I shared with her the loss of my own mother about six years ago and that I knew what it felt like to lose yourself in the need of hearing your mother’s voice. We stood there, two strangers, tears dripping onto a pair of cheap black sandals, finding comfort in each other’s grief.


It was clear that we both deeply missed our mothers, and although our circumstances were different, as my mother is no longer living, and her mother, as far as she knows, is still passing time in a Liberian village, dead or alive, the reality is that they are both unreachable to us in the immediate. And sometimes, you just NEED YOUR MOM.


The tearful moment awkwardly passed, and I quietly gathered my things and told her that I hoped she had the opportunity to talk to her mother soon. I gave a weak wave and blindly walked back to my car.


While driving home, I thought about the fact that, although I will be celebrated very sweetly by my dear husband and little ones on the next day, and while I’ve already started receiving phone calls and text messages and Facebook posts wishing me the happiest of birthdays on my special day, the truth is:

There is one person who will not be calling me today- she will never again send me a specially selected birthday card in the mail, and she will never again reminisce about that beautiful spring day in a Portland hospital, where I calmly came into the world around 4:00 in the afternoon, delivered by a practioner appropriately named Dr. Miracle. I will never hear my mother’s laughter as she remembers that I didn’t cry for several minutes after delivery, but instead, quietly observed my surroundings with wide eyes and a serious face. Here she would insert her initial feeling that she had just birthed a laid back, go with the flow, kind of girl, but as she watched me grow and mature, later would come to the realization that I was so quiet because I was just thinking to my newborn self, ‘Ok, that’s over. What’s next?!’


I loved hearing those stories from the one who carried me in her belly for all those months, and then named me Jessie Corinne. I cherished hearing my mother give another embarrassed laugh when she remembered how she brought me home from the hospital and realized she had no idea how to change my diaper. She was a new believer at the time, and always told the story that she just threw her hands up in the air and did the only thing she knew to do: Pray. She said, ‘Ok, God, I don’t have a mother here to show me how to do this, so you are going to have to be my mama and help me figure this out.’


I never really heard the end of the story, but I guess God showed her how to change a diaper, because she went on to have two more babies, and as far as I know, we all came out of the diaper stage fairly unscathed.

My mom’s childhood was filled with one tragedy after the other. At the tender age of six, she watched her mother suffer terribly and die at the age of 32 of ovarian cancer, leaving behind three children and a husband, all wandering and lost in unrelenting grief.


My grandfather remarried, but when my mother was 11 or 12, her father, who worked for the local electric company, was electrocuted while working on some power lines, and she and her two brothers officially became orphans.


I remember her telling a story about her oldest brother, Steve, whom my baby brother is named after, to whom she was particularly close with;


She said she remembered crying at her father’s funeral, panicking about what was to become of her. Her oldest brother, Steve, just 15 at the time, wrapped his arms around her and said, ‘Don’t worry Marilyn, I’ll take care of you, I’ll make sure nothing happens to you.’ My mother’s child self took solace in that, until Steve was killed, about a year later,  in a car accident. He was only 16.


My mother was 13 years old and had lost all but one family member. She was left to a step-mother who didn’t want her and a brother that was as traumatized as she.


I’m pretty sure the worst thing I had faced by the age of 13 was the cliques of middle school and the disappointment over not making the cheerleading squad.The thought of death and abandonment was not something I had ever had to face in such a stark reality, and to this day, I still can’t figure out how she was able to function through all of that tragedy and leave the memory of her contagious laughter with everyone she came into contact with-how was she so….happy?


I’m guessing I come from a pretty long line of survivor’s, and my mother, Marilyn Jane Osmon, was one of the toughest, fighting tooth and nail for the gift of life, her mental clarity and emotional freedom. And by God, she earned it. It wasn’t easy for her (I’ll write more about that in a later post) but she was more than a conqueror when it came to life and figuring out how to live it.


I remember being in my parent’s Midwestern hometown visiting my grandmother one summer, I must have been about 15. I was in a Hallmark card shop, looking for a birthday card for my mom, when suddenly, I was overcome with this massive wave of empathy for her and I just started sobbing in the middle of the birthday aisle. I couldn’t get it out of my head that my mother had most likely never had a birthday cake and candles prepared for her, at least not that she could remember. She had never been celebrated, even remembered, as a child.


Instantly, I understood why, to my massive irritation as a teenager, our birthdays were SUCH A BIG DEAL deal to her. EVERY YEAR, she would go about planning a massive party, with cake and streamers and our favorite meals. We were encouraged to invite friends over, and she always took such great care in picking out a special gift for us. The best part of our special day, was that we never had to do any chores on our birthdays; we were allowed to lay around and she would serve us as if we were the Queen of Sheba for the day. She would always let us off the hook for everything saying, ‘It’s your birthday! Enjoy it!’ The anticipation of birthdays was almost more than I could stand when I was little, and in that moment, standing there amongst all the messages of birthday celebration and good cheer, I suddenly understood what it was all about.


My mother had taken her own tragedy and neglect and turned it into beautiful memories for her children, because we were her beauty for ashes. We were her eternal birthday present.


That summer my mother turned 42, and I baked her a lopsided birthday cake complete with sprinkles and as many candles as I could find. I have a picture of her excitedly blowing out the candles as I held it in front of her- the looks on each of our faces  so appropriate for the roles we were playing. She the celebrated child, me, the proud preparer.


Fast forward to July 21, 2010, I’m now 31 years old. I was home in the US on annual leave from my aid job in Somalia. I had been back for a couple of days, but was still suffering from terrible jet lag and had gotten up much earlier than my mom, to go down to the basement to check my emails and do a little work before she got up. It was her 57th birthday, and I had left a card and her birthday present on the kitchen table, thinking we could have breakfast and then she could open them.


When I walked up the stairs, I started chuckling to myself, because I could hear the card that I had gotten her singing, ‘You Are My Sunshine’ over and over. I was laughing because my mom was always like a little kid when it came to birthdays and of course, she hadn’t waited for me, but had torn into it like she was six years old again. I figured, maybe in some ways, birthdays were the only time she could let that pre-traumatized child out and allow her to live in a few moments of pain free joy.


I was so excited when I found a card at the local card shop singing ‘You Are My Sunshine’ because I remembered my mom saying one of the only memories she had of her own mother was of her dancing around the kitchen, singing that song.


When I walked into the room, I found my mother standing at the table, card open, tears streaming down her face.


I felt terrible and asked her what was wrong.


She said between sobs, ‘Sometimes, I just miss my mom…..’


I wrapped my arms around her, explaining that I hadn’t meant to make her cry or feel bad. I clumsily thought it would make her happy and reminiscent and she just said simply, ‘It’s ok, it’s very thoughtful, it’s just that sometimes, I still just need my mom…..’


She was turning 57 that day; she’d missed celebrating 51 birthdays with her mother, and while I’m sure it felt wonderful to be celebrated and loved by all of us, in the end, what she really needed was to just spend some time in the comfort and company of her own mother.


The irony is that five days later, my mother unexpectedly took her last breath here on Earth. The first thing my sister said to me after we found out that she had gone, and something I took great comfort in, was that at least, now, she was finally in the arms of her mother, which she had longed for, so much.


And so, I sit here, on the day, celebrating my 37th year of life, so very grateful for it, and so very thankful to my Mom, for giving it to me, but very aware that this is my 5th birthday celebrating without her.


Today is a good day, but as is the case with most things in life, it is also bittersweet.


As my husband and two babies came parading into the bedroom this morning with gifts and cards and excitement, my heart was overwhelmed with blessing and gratitude at being allowed to have yet another year to spend with all of them. The moment was beautiful, yet somehow incomplete, because all I wanted to do was pick up the phone and call my mom and relay the silliness and celebration with her because she would so appreciate it.


It’s impossible to call her up, so I decided the only thing I can really do is write these thoughts down and release them out into the universe, hoping that she, along with my grandmother whom I never got to meet, are sitting up there in Heaven right now, having a wonderful party, laughing over all the birthdays that they are witnessing from above.


So, here it goes….


Mom, I hope you know how thankful I am for all the birthday parties, and the cakes, the candles and the granted wishes. I thank you for making me feel like I was the only one that mattered on March 8, every single year- for the beautiful memories, and for modeling how to love my own kids on their very special days. I’ve never felt forgotten, unwanted or unloved, but have always felt celebrated, treasured and cherished. What a gift you gave to me, every single year, one that did not need any wrapping paper, but one that I treasure and hold dearer to my heart, with every passing day.


I thank you for surviving, for thriving and for living a beautifully imperfect life. Because of your strength and will to experience something better, I am here today, celebrating my 37th year in this wildly wonderful gift of life. You gave me a wonderful opportunity so many years ago, and even though you are not here to celebrate with me, you continue to sustain me with the memories of your laughter, slumber parties past and chocolate cakes shared and enjoyed.


You are my hero, an inspiration, and I miss you so much, not just today, but everyday.


I hope you know that you are my sunshine, my only sunshine- you make me happy, when skies are grey…..



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Jessica Buchanan © 2017

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