celebrating the birthday of a lost loved one

Today is my big brother Ryan’s birthday.

He would have been 34.

As I write this, it strikes me that he’s been gone for 17 years… which means that he’s been gone for as long as he was here with us. It’s that kind of thought that has the ability to knock me right off my balance. Those of you who’ve lost a loved one might understand what I mean. You never truly recover from the loss of someone you love, but time passes and stretches out, and it doesn’t hurt as badly as it used to. You can manage a minute, then an hour and then whole days without remembering what’s missing. And then you realize how long it’s been… you realize that next year he’ll have been gone longer than he was here. That thought slams into you, and just like the day he died, you lose your breath and you’re not sure how you’ll catch it again. 

September 29th.

I remember that day. I was only 14 years old at the time, but I can call it to my mind in an instant. For years that day haunted me. That date was so traumatic for me, that the anxiety would start to build months in advance. The week before the anniversary of his death nearly every member of my family was a mess, each of us dealing with the pain in our own ways. That date was a nightmare. That date was the enemy. That date was a debilitating force in my life.

And then one year I realized I was so utterly sick of September 29th. With that realization came a decision… I refused to give it anymore power over my life. Instead, I took all that energy and channeled it into today.

April 29th.

Today is Ryan’s birthday. If he was still here I like to think we’d be taking him to dinner somewhere fun like my favorite Italian place or the steak house Dave takes me every year for our anniversary. I like to think I’d have gotten him something really thoughtful, like tickets to see his favorite band or even a gag gift that makes him laugh. I start to think of all the what if’s and suddenly I’m precariously close to focusing on his absence again. He’s not here, and if I only think about all the things I’m missing out on, than I’m focusing more on his death than on his life.

I will focus on this day and the gift my brother was in the 17 years he was here. Just like I do every year on April 29th, I’ll wear one of the few things I still have of his, like his faded blue t-shirt of the ring he never took off. Just like every year on April 29th, I’ll listen to CCR and remember that road trip we took with Dad when we listened to Chronicle Volume 1 on repeat all the way to Texas and back. Just like every year on April 29th, I’ll take myself to Taco Bell. Laugh if you want, but we were 14 and 17 and Taco Bell was the only cool place we went to together. Today I’ll go into that neon clad restaurant and order myself lunch, a place I never go inside of except for this one day every year. I’m going to enjoy my tacos and the hundreds of memories they bring… of hot summer days swimming at the local pool, of the sound of his guitar drifting down the hallway, of the thrill of riding around with him in his old jeep, of younger years when we lie awake all night playing the alphabet game before we fell asleep. “My name is Alice, I’m going to Atlanta to sell Apples, My name is Bert I’m going to Baltimore to sell Balloons…” What incredible memories I find on April 29th, a day so good and so filled with beautiful reminders, that it rises up and overpowers the other date completely. ~Rachel  

Photo By Jacqueline Pilar