Happy Belated Birthday. Tuesday was your big day. On that afternoon, three days ago, I sat in my van at the Nye Beach parking lot overlooking the endless progression of Pacific waves while Bella practiced for her ballet recital. Isaiah sat in the back seat behind me watching a movie. It was a sunny day but the wind had come up, strong, and a kite flyer struggled to hang on to his wings which threatened to abandon their tether and take him for a ride. And then, Emily, your mom and your grandparents arrived. They parked their silver sedan in the row in front of me and I watched your mom’s back as she struggled to unfold herself into the elements, her fists clutching four pink balloons filled with two invisible elements—helium and hope. Before I had even read the Happy Birthday messages printed on their bubblegum backgrounds, I knew it was your birthday. And I knew you weren’t here to celebrate.
Your mom wore a black leather jacket and its wind-driven fringe whipped her onward while those balloons pulled her closer to you. I know she would have gladly abandoned herself to the lift. Your three loved ones wrapped their arms around themselves against the weather and the missing you as they proceeded down to the hard-packed sand with I, and perhaps you, their only audience. When they reached the darker shades of sand they huddled together as your mom patiently unwrapped the desperately entwined ribbons. I wondered if it had been so when she was forced to say goodbye to you. Had she simply let go of you, all wrapped up and twisted together with parts of herself? Or had some stranger peeled her pleading fingers from your blue skin, one by one, prying her loving warmth from you on that cold, heartless day, leaving you covered with only her fingerprints? What happened to you, Dear Emily?
Finally, your mom succeeded in her gros-grained task and distributed your enthusiastic balloons to the helpless hands of her parents. The three of them busied themselves taking photographs of each other holding your gifts. And then they just stopped and stood there a minute. Maybe they spoke. Maybe not. Maybe they’d already said all there ever was to say. On silent cue, they let your birthday presents go, sending them soaring to you, Emily, wherever you are. We all watched, desperately straining our eyes as your balloons ascended on an invisible current—up, up, and away. We lost sight of them as they disappeared over the rooftops of houses built too close to the eroding cliffsides which the sea will some day claim as its own, just as perhaps you were claiming your birthday balloons.
Your mom found a stick and began to write to you in the dark brown sand, packed hard and cold by the receding salty water. I knew without looking what your mom was writing. It was the same thing I would write were I down there with the wind whipping my hair and my jacket fringe against my face instead of wrapped in the warm cocoon of my car, watching. Your grandparents and I bore silent witness, your grandmother bending in to help her bereaved daughter as best she could, lengthening a letter here and there. I, in turn, kept silent pace with your mom in my head, slowly, painfully discerning her message. While your mom scratched with the hard, brown stick that had once exhaled soft, green leaves, so I, too, engraved each character in my head, etching H’s and A’s into the pink tissues of my brain.
When at last we ceased inscribing the happiest and saddest words a mother can sing, your mom straightened her weary spine and your loved ones took their final photos of your big day. Wanting only photos of you, Emily, laughing and smiling so pretty while blowing out your candles and opening your presents, they settled for snapshots of themselves waving bye bye to balloons and inscribing sandy birthday cards with forced smiles on bewildered faces. The three of them fought the wind back to their car and I watched them climb back in more easily now, unfettered by some of their heavy burdens. They drove away, your mom clutching a dead stick with a damp and sandy end—one more thing for Emily’s baby book.
I started my own car but before I left to collect my ballerina, I asked Isaiah to run like the wind down to the sea’s edge and learn your name. “It says, Happy Birthday Emily,” he panted upon his return, “5-11-88 to 3-5-09.” So, then I knew. It was your 22nd birthday, Emily. You were born in the year I got married and the year before Hannah, our firstborn, graced our lives. Today, Dear Emily, is Hannah’s little brother, Jonah’s, 12th birthday. He was born three days after your own tenth birthday, Emily, but he has only that one date, 5-14-98, as his birth was also his death. I won’t be buying any blue balloons today. Any messages I send will be invisibly transmitted within my heart, which holds him still. But, Emily, I might prevail upon you to share your balloons and your spirit with Jonah. I like to think of the two of you laughing and playing tag with his older brother, Noah, and all of your too-many friends in the warmer, friendlier waves of your heavenly home. By now, the selfish Pacific has taken your birthday card for herself. And that is bittersweet. Like so many things in life, the words were only temporary. The message, however, is eternal.