My daughter was back east for three weeks this summer. When friends and family ask how she is, I joke that I haven’t really seen her since I picked her up from LAX. The night she got back, she asked to borrow the car to meet friends for dinner. The next day, she took the car to go hang out at one of her best friends’ house. The day after that, there was a lunch with more friends, followed later by dinner with yet another group… my girl is busy and social and enjoying summer. I know for sure I will see her soon, though. We have plans to celebrate what would be Joel’s 53rd birthday.
After he died, I held a big summer birthday party for Joel in our backyard. I ordered a taco truck, tried to get the outdoor speakers to work - which fell under Joel’s jurisdiction (music especially, but also, anything having to do with the backyard) and while I called it a party, what the event really was, was a Celebration of Joel’s life. I had his favorite food, his favorite music and some of his favorite people spoke about him, how much they loved and miss him, and how strange it was to be celebrating his birthday without him... and that I was the one futzing with the speakers.
Joel died nine months earlier on a Friday. That Sunday we held a private memorial service at his father’s house. It was limited to our immediate family and closest friends. Maybe 25 people. Joel and I got married at my father-in-law’s house, too. The wedding was also small - 60 guests in total. Friends who were at my wedding, still comment how lovely it was… they felt special to be included, loved the intimacy and the setting, high on a hill, overlooking the San Fernando Valley, a sense of being on top of the world.
But now I sat there, this time with our daughter, in the same back yard, on the same deck where we exchanged “I do’s” and where the rabbi and guests shouted out “Mazel Tov!” where together, Joel and I stepped on glass, a gesture of good luck.
This event though, in literally the exact same spot that was filled with so much joy and laughter and promise 16 years earlier, had a different rabbi officiating, and while the sun was shining, and the setting was still beautiful, the mood was that of a funeral, for a person entirely beloved and too young to die.
A few days after the memorial, I held shiva at my house - a period of mourning for Jews. All I remember about shiva was that my house was packed with people. Truly packed. It was nearly impossible to get from the front door to the back of the house. There were people there I didn’t even know. Former colleagues of Joel’s. His best friend from grade school who came with his parents. I remember trying to move around, saying hi to people who I was genuinely happy to see. But then the reason they were there would hit me and I would have to retreat to my bedroom where I would lay on my bed, our bed, and cry.
I thought everyone was dressed so well, they seemed stunned to be there, but at the same time, Joel and I were social people. We threw a lot of parties, good ones, fun ones. In some ways, this seemed no different. Only it was. Had it been a party, you would have talked about it the next day with friends, “wasn’t that a great party?” “can you believe how many people were there?” “..and the food!” I have a feeling people did talk about it afterwards.
I remember shiva as if it were a movie, in scenes and snippets. I think I wore a dress one day. My hair had been blown out. I only know this because my daughter remembers so clearly that when the hairdresser asked all cheery and professional, “How are you today?” I started sobbing and said, “My husband died yesterday, how are you?” I recall only moments. Even now, nearly three years later, I’ll run into someone from the neighborhood at the market or the library, or even the car wash, and a flash comes to mind, and I’ll think “you were there.”
My sister was visiting from New York recently and said something to me that I will treasure forever. She took in the new home my daughter and I now live in - the furnishings, the photos - and said, “Melissa, you’ve done such a good job of keeping Joel alive.” I don’t think that will ever change.
We will soon celebrate Joel’s 53rd birthday without him, just like we celebrated his 51st, and 52nd, and my daughter’s 14th, 15th, and 16th…. We will have a small party with good friends and food… Joel won’t be there, yet he will.
Happy Birthday, hon.