A 13th Birthday Without the Birthday Girl

By Suzanne Leigh

 Thirteen years ago, I was organizing our apartment for the new “guest.” We’d had guests before, of course, but this one would be uniquely challenging — he or she would probably stay 18 years or more. I was sure I would love my baby, but would I love them as much as my pets? And what exactly does one do with a baby all day? I was relieved to read that newborns sleep for up to 18 hours a day. I had three months’ maternity leave. Perhaps that would give me enough time to write my first book.

There were many surprises to follow. But among the most astonishing was the one that hits many new mothers — the limitless love I had discovered for my child.

Months before Natasha’s brain tumor diagnosis at age 7, she had asked me to help with her science homework. What was the difference between sedimentary and igneous rocks? Um, sorry, Honey, I’m not sure I know how to answer that.

“But you know everything,” she said, looking at me wide-eyed and incredulous. When I saw that she was serious, I realized that this was the first and possibly last time that anyone would tell me that I “know everything.”  In six years  my daughter would be 13, I calculated, and then she might see me in my true colors: as someone who isn’t especially smart, and someone, perhaps, who could be irritating.

Forever 12

But Natasha passed away five months before her 13th birthday, a milestone that is looming and causing great anguish. Her school uniform still hangs in her closet ready to wear, her backpack is packed ready to be grabbed, her laundry is folded; even some of her meds continue to clutter up our kitchen. We’re not ready to remove anything.

While I struggle to accept that she will remain forever 12, for some reason I am surprised to see her peers surging toward adolescence. They are loping down the street solo. They are congregating in ice cream parlors, loud and loquacious; and they are huddling in tight groups outside school to share secrets, away from the questioning eyes of parents.

Natasha’s peers are burdened not by brain tumors, but by backpacks bursting with seventh-grade homework; the next major event on their calendar is not the MRI to check for disease progression, but the end-of-school-year dance or Saturday’s basketball game. Just as Natasha ceased to question her fragility, her peers have probably never questioned their salubrity.

‘So sad to see you’

Witnessing their vitality, their swagger, their new-found independence and their hunger for tomorrow, is intolerable at times. Sometimes I have to look away and stare at my feet.  Recently one of Natasha’s classmates from sixth-grade found me outside the library. A sweet girl, who was kind to my daughter. “It is so, so … sad to see you,” I muttered. “It’s great to see you, too,” she said with a smile, which I hope suggests she mistook my “sad” slip.

Before Natasha was hit by the brain tumor bullet, I had worried that 13 might be the prelude to a fractious relationship, as it is with many mothers and daughters. Perhaps healthy, about-to-turn 13 Natasha would have found me annoying.  That would have been OK. Actually, I would love to be her “annoying mom.” It’s the role of bereaved mom that is so hard to bear.

Happy birthday, Natasha, the “guest” whose stay was much too short. We will always yearn for you. We will always love you. Always.

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