It was a very cold December Saturday, but inside, the house was warm, saturated with the scent of apple cider mulling in the slow cooker. The table was overflowing with four different kinds of cheese, crackers, cut veggies and dip, too much beer and too much wine. I’d sent out real paper invitations, and I’d spent the morning of the party making mixed CDs for guests to take home as favors. If it weren’t for the monkey theme and the bowl of cheddar bunnies, no one would ever have guessed this was a first birthday party for my first child, Hudson.
There was a monkey tablecloth, monkey cupcakes, and a small homemade monkey smash cake, all homemade. The birthday girl sported a white tee shirt on which was printed a monkey and the words “This Little Monkey is One!”
As dozens of friends and family members filtered through the front door, she played happily with other kids—or to be more precise, she played by herself next to them. Later, she sat in her highchair as we sang “Happy Birthday” to her. She looked puzzled but pleased to be the center of attention. I felt so grateful to her for being a willing participant in what was really my own ridiculously over-the-top celebration of the day she made me a mother.
In hindsight, I was glad I’d gone so over the top. I couldn’t have known that her first birthday party would be the only one I’d ever get to throw her. Five months after the party, she died of a sudden and aggressive bacterial infection.
I dreaded Hudson’s second birthday for months. I’d always been a planner, especially for parties—my purse always overflowed with to-do lists and shopping lists written on the backs of receipts. I usually reserved a special spot in the house to collect party supplies as I picked them up or ordered them. My brain was always chugging, musing about what else might go with the party theme.
Now, there were no lists, no party supplies, no theme. How do you celebrate the birthday of a child who has died? On a day that’s meant to celebrate birth and life, what theme is there for death, mourning, or missing?
Before Hudson died, I’d planned to start a ritual with her when she got older. I was going to call it “One Good Thing.” Whenever something bad happened to one of us, we were going to try to think of something good in spite of it.
I spoke about One Good Thing at her memorial service, not knowing then that it would become a mantra for my life, an unexpected lifeline as I muddled my way through the darkest days of my grief. I allowed myself to grieve acutely, to wallow in the most profound depths of sorrow. I ached physically and constantly as if my heart were literally broken. But I never succumbed to despair as I could so easily have done. Whenever I could, I kept looking for that One Good Thing. It was small comfort, but it was comfort enough. It was an amazing gift that Hudson left for me.
When Hudson’s second birthday arrived, One Good Thing continued to guide me. It seemed that giving of ourselves in some way or another was the very best way to honor her. Indeed, it was the only thing that made any sense at all. We couldn’t have her with us, but we could give her life continued meaning in the world she loved. So that day, we found One Good Thing by doing One Good Thing (or several). We donated items to our local animal shelter, because Hudson loved dogs. We donated Elmo dolls to the children’s hospital where she died, because she loved Elmo. We donated money to the National Arboretum, because we’d spent so many wonderful days with her there. Hundreds of other people around the world shared with us the One Good Things they’d done in Hudson’s honor, too.
This past December, impossibly, we marked Hudson’s sixth birthday. As the years have passed, we have continued to do One Good Thing (or several) on her birthday. But with each passing year, I find myself feeling less and less fulfilled by our One Good Thing day. It never feels like enough. I want to do more. I feel like Hudson would want me to do more. But what more, I’m not sure. It is both a tragedy and a gift that I may have decades more to keep figuring it out.
But perhaps this sense of unease, this feeling that we’re not celebrating her birthday the “right” way, should come as no surprise to me. Because no matter what we do, ever, no matter how good the One Good Thing, it will always run a very distant second to having her here with us.