Imagine being eighteen and dreading your birthday.
The dread arrives weeks before your birthday does. It arrives on wings edging its way through your dorm room window, sliding in a crack open against the stuffy heat of the college heating system that buffers late winter’s cold. It lounges on the closed lid of your computer, sprawled like a cat waiting for you to open it and attempt to work on your music assignments.
It wedges on your shoulder as you sit at the piano in the practice rooms of the conservatory. Your oversized manuscript beside you, your pencil fingering the keys as you tempt ideas from your lessons on counterpoint, working on a multi movement chamber series on the stages of grief.
You are too young for this, a voice inside your head screams in objection. Your shoulders slump forward. Your head is bent. Is it concentration on the progression of chords singing on the keys as you play what the pencil scribbles onto the manuscript? Is it the empty feeling inside your gut?
Your twin is gone and it is the third year you will spend the birthday you shared without her.
You run from your dorm room to the practice room… immerse yourself in music. It is the only way you know the distance yourself from the feelings. The dread of that day. The remembering which you can never forget. You run from the practice rooms back to the dorm. It is late. The night is dark and only habit shows you the way. Sometimes in the dorm your friends are chatting together. Sometimes your roommate is working. Sometimes it is so late she is asleep. You fall asleep, exhausted.
Sometimes, when your own work does not consume too many hours, you run to concert halls and hear other students perform their works. At Oberlin there are first class classical and jazz concerts every night. There you can get carried away by the music. For you, the harmonies and instrumental combinations not only soothe, but your mind is charged by analyzing the technical genius of the composition…
Your birthday falls at the end of Spring break and although going home feels special, it can also feel more lonely. Jesi should be there. Your friends… your music… won’t be around you to cushion you from the loss. How will it be, you wonder?
Three years ago, that last birthday you spent together… Jesi was home from hospital between her initial chemotherapy treatment after the cancer returned, gaining strength before she was to return for a bone marrow transplant. Together you celebrated with a pizza party. A small group of school friends splashing ingredients onto the dough you rolled into odd shaped pizzas. Jesi was not well but she laughed it off.
“I guess no pizza for me tonight,” I remember her saying.
You stood next to her at the kitchen bench, your arm around her, a plate of cup cakes and an enormous bowl of fruit in its midst. I remember the happy birthday candle too. I found it in a bucket full of an odd assortment of stuff in an ethnic shop. A plastic flower when lit, the petals unfolded and rotated slowly, shooting silver sparkles out from the flame while it sung “Happy Birthday to You.”
This year, I tried to make up for the absence…but how ever could I? Yet you did a wonderful job. You invited your closest friends over, just a handful, friends from college who happen to live near by. You bought party hats and paints and birdhouses to decorate. You ate vegan Thai food and we made vegan cake. We stood around the other side of the kitchen counter and sang to you. And your friends gave you some of the most lovingly handmade gifts ever!
And for all of this, Chris also came home from college to help celebrate your birthday.