About a year before James was born, on Labor Day in 2009, my left ear started ringing. It never stopped. For the first few weeks, I thought it might drive me insane. Wake up, ringing, Go to sleep, ringing. I saw doctors, all of whom concluded it was simply a product of the severe conductive hearing loss I was born with. I tried a surgery to plug the ear canal drilled for me when I was in third grade.
None of this worked. In fact, over the years the tinnitus has simply gotten worse and expanded to my right “good” ear. The end result is that, for me, there is no silence. This is profoundly unpleasant, but it’s best not dwell on it. If you sit and focus on the ringing all day you’ll never have time to do anything else, and it’s a losing battle to begin with. Your are singularly incapable of improving your situation, and can only degrade it. Tinnitus is simply your nerves trying to fill the gap left by the absence of sound. Sound should be there, and your brain knows it.
Today is James’ 6th birthday. Six. If he were alive today he’d be blazing through milestones. Kindergarten, first day of school. He’d be developing his own interests, his own new personality, slowly beginning to edge to the threshold of independence, albeit only a toe at a time. Dinosaurs? Sports? Something i don’t even know about? I wonder these things. The more time that passes the further the deficits pile up, the more remote and uncertain any projections become. I hardly know how James would have been at six, though I do wonder.
Every birthday I run through this exercise, with diminishing returns. I have a decent, if imperfect, idea of what James might have been like at one or two. At six? Pure conjecture. The man he might have been at 18, 30? Impossible. That is a difficult reality to accept, because although James is gone he is always with me. It is impossible to leave your children anywhere once they enter your heart and the grave is no exception.
Six birthdays without James and five years later, the loss of James is a bit like an emotional tinnitus. The hurt is constant, always there, hovering in the background, ready to surge forward given the opportunity and overtake your consciousness. It’s matured. The keening, wailing all consuming pain of the first year or so subsides, the uncertain question of whether or not you would emerge answered in the affirmative, if only because you remain alive.
The pain doesn’t leave though, it simply becomes part of the background noise that is your life. A constant, open wound, but one you know how to walk with. Over the years you’ve gained tools. Allies. Strength. You don’t even want it to heal, not really, because that would impugn the love that gave life to it. You want to remember, always, fiercely and urgently. You accept, however, that you must also live. He would want that.
Every birthday that comes around reminds me of this. There are two options. The first is to spend all day playing the “what if” game. What if James were kindergarten? Would he like his teacher? What would they be learning? What if James didn’t die. God, I wish James hadn’t died. That last statement is the only important one. I would give anything in my power or beyond it for James to still be here. But that’s not my choice. This first exercise can only end poorly. The rejoinder to “what if” is always “why not” and the answer “because he died. He got cancer and he died” can only end in sorrow, regret and misery. I try, though I do not always succeed, to spend my time practicing the second:
Today is my son James’ birthday. James was my first child, my son, and I loved him dearly. I will forever have had the privilege of being his father, and I am honored that he shared two of my names and that I was lucky enough to spend eight months and seventeen days taking care of him. Cancer or no cancer. I wouldn’t trade a minute of it. On his birthday, I remember him. I remind those around me of him, and I beg of them to do the same.
My heart remembers. The pain is simply a way of making a sense of the absence. If James were alive, he wouldn’t just be six. It would be his birthday. He deserves to have it celebrated.
Happy birthday son. We miss you. We remember you.