To My Boarding School Birthday Girl
Dear Birthday Girl,
We did the whole cake, ice cream, candles, and gifts party before we left the United States. But it wasn’t really your birthday that day. On your real birthday, your sister will hand you a wrapped shoe box full of tiny gifts, each individually wrapped. Your dorm parents have a plan. The school has goofy birthday traditions. Dad and I will call you on the phone. We’ll sing the regular birthday song and our own song, the one that’s just for you.
I’m so thankful that you will be celebrated by people all over the world. I’ve seen how people at this school honor and celebrate kids when their parents are far away. I’ve seen moms Face-timing with moms on the other side of the continent during soccer games and banquets. I’ve delivered birthday packages and hugs on behalf of absent parents. You are loved by so many by being part of this particular community. It takes a tribe and you are in the best of tribes. Knowing this, reminding myself of it, is my gift to myself on your birthday.
Because, though thankful, I’m still sad. I’m learning to hold both grief and joy in the same hand, to feel both sadness and gratitude, to sit with loss and celebration.
On the real day, you will be far away from me and I won’t be able to hug you or measure your height against my own to see whether you’ve caught me yet. I won’t be able to tickle your side or run my fingers through your hair.
This is the first birthday any of you have been away from me. Your brother and sister’s birthday is in July and they are home that month. So we haven’t done this before, haven’t missed this day before, haven’t relied on other people to celebrate you.
I know you know how much I love you, how proud I am of you. You get tired of me saying it and demand specifics in ways that both flabbergast and thrill me. What, specifically, do I love about you? Why, specifically, in this moment, am I proud of you? The answers to those questions are for me and you, for another time. But I still need to say those words: love and proud, on this day.
You are our 9/11 baby, born a blessing on a day of mourning. We named you Light. We named you Gift. We named you Victory. We named you Ours. You continue to live out these names, filling them up and redefining them through the lens of your own character, talents, and personality.
You are the biggest risk I ever took, ever jumped into intentionally. I was afraid of so many things. Afraid of more than one baby again (though that was the other greatest adventure of my life). Afraid to be pregnant here. Afraid to give birth here. Afraid I wouldn’t be mom enough for all of you. Afraid of postpartum depression again. Afraid of sleepless nights and rage. Afraid of morning sickness and changes to my body. Afraid of how much love I already knew would hurricane through me as soon as we touched outside my body.
Now I think, what if we hadn’t taken that leap? What if I let fear dominate and closed myself off to all the possibilities that are you? I’m learning to acknowledge the fears and to walk through them. You’ve helped me do that.
I can’t let my fear of who I might be when I’m not with you restrict you.
All these years after that 9/11 when you were born, I’m celebrating who you are and I’m saying, go be you.
Be you, where you are. Be you, apart from me. Be you, without fear or anxiety or strings attached. Be you, with exuberance, abandon, power and delight.
Be you with your crazy laugh and your mismatched socks and your uncle’s college band t-shirt. Be you with your full body singing and no fear in sports. Be you with your love for sunrises and bird-watching and your dog-training skills. Be you with your love for creating and your loyalty and courage. Be you in all the ways I will treasure in my heart, just for me.
Happy birthday from far away. Live it wild.
Tips for parents celebrating birthdays from far away:
- Celebrate when you’re together. Early or late, doesn’t matter.
- Send a surprise package, either in the mail or with someone else to hand deliver.
- Have a distance-friendly tradition, like a goofy song to sing over the phone, or a photo tradition.
- Ask someone who lives nearby to bring a cake or gift or to deliver pizza to their entire dorm.
- Tell the people around you and around the birthday person, so they can celebrate with you and with the birthday person.
- Schedule a phone call ahead of time.
- If you have a traditional meal, ask someone to make it for them on your behalf.
- Be thankful for the global community who loves you and your birthday person.
Our 9/11 baby, other stories:
Back when I was a regular contributor at Babble, I wrote about my daughter’s birth on the anniversary of 9/11. I also wrote about it for the Modern Love column, read by Mireille Enos for the podcast last spring.