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Birthday Cards from Beyond

March 3, 2011

I’ve written a bit about the recent cake exploits in relation to my swirl of possibly sugar-fueled depression.

You never really need a reason for cake but we’ve had quite a few, and this is a story about one of the reasons, though it does not star cake.

A few weeks ago was my mom’s birthday. My sister was the GRAND POOBAH of birthdays and holidays. We’d held the last zillion holiday and birthday celebrations over at her house, because not including her in something so extremely important as a birthday was unthinkable. Of course, she was never as included as she wanted to be no matter where we had it: she couldn’t leave her room, and we couldn’t all spend the entire celebration in her bedroom, darkened to make her eyes feel better. Not to mention that she couldn’t eat cake or lasagna. Like me, and the rest of the humans, some of the main things my sister wanted were to eat delicious food and to be included in everything all of the time. And she wanted to celebrate. More than being celebrated herself, she wanted to celebrate you. Hard. So we tried to make her happy regarding birthdays, but we were still disappointing.

In this new era, which should be easily indicated by some letters — AD? I think that’s taken. PB? We will never be post Beth — you will see what I mean. In this new era, we did not have my mom’s birthday over at Beth’s: we had it at my mom and dad’s house. The “first” of everything after someone dies is supposed to be rough. My birthday was two weeks after my sister died, and I was somewhat insane, and I don’t even know if it counted. I really wanted to celebrate, because I realized that the other option, the one with me sobbing on my bed about being 39 and the passage of time and loss and mortality, was not pretty. Christmas was also not pleasant, though it has not been pleasant for a number of years. It seemed like this birthday, three months later, this could potentially be pretty unpleasant for my mom. I felt compelled to make sure that my mom would have the sort of birthday that a person would want, but also one that my sister would have envisioned, with cake, flowers, balloons, chocolates, and gifts.

I also tried to get a good card for my mom.

Cards can be tough, because you are subscribing to someone else’s sentiment, and it’s generally too vague or too specific or too sappy: it’s too someone else. Finally I found one that I thought would be great from me, but I was still browsing around. Then I found another one I liked — and realized that it would be the perfect card from my sister to our mom. Talk about someone else’s sentiment.

I have been buying cards from my sister for a long time, as well as signing them for her. Uh, just because my sister had ALS and was bedridden, that did not mean you were not getting a freaking birthday card from her! So when I saw a good one from her, I thought, wait. Should I buy this card to be from my sister?

To buy it seemed like a natural extension of acting on the sentiment I know was hers, and it was something I was accustomed to doing. Beth can’t do this thing, but it’s important to her, so I will do it for her. That’s the way we’d been operating. Except, which is weirder: not doing what you normally do, or buying and signing a card from a person who has actually died? I wrestled around with it, and decided that the second was the weirder of the two choices. Also, there would be the issue of my mother opening a card from someone no longer with us. Way to put someone in the spotlight on the spot!

So, I bought a “to mom on her birthday” card from me. And I arranged to give it to my mom just from me — my husband and son would have another card to give.

I had my card. The birthday was still a few days out.

On one of the nights of those days, I had a dream.

When Beth was sick, I’d dream about her all the time, but I would dream that she was healthy. We’d be about to go swimming, or to a restaurant, and I’d be expecting her to have a hard time walking or talking, but then she’d show up and be fine. In my sleep I realized that we were all making really heavy weather about the disease: she was really pretty much fine.

But after a while, I did start dreaming that she would die. It was sad. I was growing to accept things.

Since her death, in the PB or the AD or whatever, nothing. I’d had no dreams about her.

Until:

Very soon after I chose not to buy the card, I dreamt that I was visiting Beth. She wasn’t at home, and she wasn’t in the hospital. I’m not sure where she was. She was still alive but very much in the throes of ALS. She couldn’t move or speak. She was in the middle of a huge bed, the size of many rooms put together. In the dream, her arms were actually in a sort of crossed mummy position. I went to visit and started crawling across the huge bed on my hands and knees to give her a hug and kiss and to be close to her so I could talk to her. And she . . . she . . . she started rolling towards me. Fast! This rolling thing — this was not a power she had in life, after she’d lost her other powers. But in my dream, she was a fast-rolling, alive, wrapped-up mummy sister. And man, was she mad at me. Mad like a snake.

I woke up confused and disconcerted, obviously. I’ve been waiting to have a dream about Beth. One where she comes to me happy, in a bloom of soft light, and says something to the tune of, “I’m ok now! It’s good out / up / in here! I miss you but I’m not suffering! And I’ll see you later!” In the anticipated dream, everything is floaty. No one is mad at me. I had a dream like that about my great uncle after he died. It was excellent.

This was not peaceful. I was sure that she was mad at me for not buying a card for our mom from her. Frankly, it seemed totally in character.

A few days later, it was the tail end of the birthday dinner for my mom. We’d had cake and wine and balloons and our fabulous family chicken casserole. The kids ate pizza. It was time for cards and gifts. I’d gotten everything done but hadn’t yet signed the card for my mom.

I signed it “Love, Mere” like I am supposed to, and then something came over me, and it may have been emotion, and it may have been sparkling Chardonnay, and it may have been fear of bad dreams, but at the last moment I was moved to put in parentheses, “(and in spirit, Beth)”.

I licked it and sealed it and handed it over.

When she opened the card, my mom—our mom—teared up. I mean come on, who wouldn’t?

She kept on with the cards and gifts and overall the evening was considered a success, I think. She had her husband there, and grandkids yelling around eating pizza and her sons-in-law and daughter and sister and brother-in-law and dog all celebrating her birth and her life. I made a huge cupcake with marshmallow filling. It was a fake Hostess one. It was a good birthday, I think.

The next day, my mom and I went shopping. Driving around, we talked through some of the events of the previous evening. I mentioned the card and she said it was a surprise, opening a card from both of us. I explained my conundrum in the store and the subsequent scary dream. My mom, who’d been bossed by Beth about getting the right cards and gifts far more than I had ever been, laughed and laughed.

I said something to the effect that Beth had gotten to me.

Mom pointed out that really what had happened is that I had gotten to myself.

Sigh.

I have no idea what happens after death. I am not certain in my beliefs. I don’t actually even have any to be certain about, though it’s not from lack of thinking about it. It’s like faith. The word “faith” doesn’t mean that you know something is true, it means that you’ve decided that you can’t know or don’t know and will make decisions based on not knowing. You don’t take a “leap of faith” because something is a sure thing. You do it because you’ve decided that acting one way is worth it, for whatever reason, and you have enough evidence, or enough insouciance, or enough forward motion from your culture or community to leave rationality behind. I don’t have the ability to make that decision, though, or perhaps the desire. The idea of God and afterlife seem both metaphorical and soupy to me, and neither of those is a slam. But if you boil it down time and again, it just ends up concentrated as the idea of “Do unto others” or “don’t be a big jerk” or “you are accountable for your actions, you know, so try to have good actions.” Those are great ideas. I try hard to stand by them, but I can’t do a lot more than that. I can’t believe more than I believe. And I never know what to believe.

Because of the dream I had about my great uncle, I’ve always had a rather hopeful notion of still being able to communicate with a person who has died, or at least receive a one-way communication. You know, a telegram. I have a vague sense that people who have died aren’t completely and totally done, but that doesn’t mean I think that they are in heaven. It might mean that they are going to come back in another way and keep trying for greater enlightenment.

But it’s amazing how we internalize people while they are here with us, isn’t it. I spent so much energy trying to convince my sister that she would always be with me, but for her sake, so she wouldn’t feel bad. Now that she’s gone, I think a lot more about the effect that this has on me. But she’s with me, all right.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Michelle permalink
    March 4, 2011 1:03 am

    Lovely.

  2. Karen permalink
    March 4, 2011 9:09 am

    I am in complete awe of this post, Meredith. It is, and I mean this literally, better than the 18 months of therapy I had after my mom died. That’s how wonderful it was to read, for me. Not only are you an imcomparable sister, you are an incredibly gifted writer. Not that I didn’t know that before, but this felt right-er than anything I’ve ever read…. thank you. The cake is working, you know. Thank you for sharing this.

  3. Amy permalink
    March 6, 2011 11:38 pm

    Yes, this was really great, Meredith. I love your dream, wherever it came from. I think your sister would be happy that you signed her name. 🙂 She sounds like she was a really great person (anyone who not only remembers other people’s birthdays but then actually goes to all the trouble to send a card has my total admiration). On a completely different note, do you think sometime you could share the recipe for your family’s amazing chicken casserole?? (Please forgive me for being terribly rude–it’s just that I have three kids and could really use a chicken casserole recipe!) 🙂 Take care.

  4. Hillery H permalink
    March 7, 2011 11:21 pm

    That was really lovely and thoughtful, Meredith. I never know if all of my own wondering and reluctance to accept anything unproven or unlikely (‘soupy’) is just being stubborn? Milla asked me the other day what I thought Heaven was like. And I kind of stammered and thought about what I’m supposed to say, and in that vacuum she said, “I think you just get to be with all your people, but up there instead. That would be Heaven, right?”

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