A Letter to My Daughter on What Would’ve Been Her 18th Birthday

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Ana in January 2017, at age 15

Dear Ana,

You are supposed to turn 18 today. I have to keep reminding myself to stop thinking of you as 15 years old. It seems crazy — and so unfair — that I need a reminder at all. Part of my brain will always hold onto you at the age you were when you died, just three weeks shy of your 16th birthday. I’m so sorry about that.

I’m compelled to remember every year of your life in a way that most parents don’t have to think about. Because they get to see their kids grow up and become adults. That’s the consolation prize you’re supposed to get as a parent, the trade-off for the passage of time and the sadness that comes with having an empty nest.

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Ana in March 2010, age 8

As I sit here trying to imagine you at 18 years old, I can’t stop thinking about your first birthday. It was a rainy and gray day, so we couldn’t have a party outside, something that upset me at the time even though you couldn’t have known the difference.

I’ve managed to hold onto a glimpse of that day in my mind. I can see you toddling up our wet driveway, wearing a tan and pink dress that came to your chubby knees.

We invited our friends (you were too little to have any of your own), so the party was more a celebration for your dad and me. We’d survived parenthood for an entire year!

People brought you books and stuffed animals and dresses with flowers on them. You had your first slice of cake. I was probably worried about disrupting your schedule and stressed over hosting so many people in our new home. I’m sure I wanted everything to be perfect. It was all so new back then. You were so new and the promise of our growing family made me buoyant.

If I had known then we’d only get you for 15 years, I wouldn’t have worried so much. I would’ve been more present. Maybe I’d remember the titles of the books you got, and the way your eyes shined with each gift. Maybe I’d remember what was printed on the wrapping paper that day. I bet it was covered with balloons and flowers and Happy Birthday in bright yellow letters.

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Ana, April 2007, age 6

I don’t want to diminish your 18th birthday by dwelling on your first birthday or your last or on any of the birthdays in between. Part of my job as your mother is to keep all of these memories alive, but also to honor your spirit as it is now — reflected in the sunlight, in the spring growth, and in the friends and family who love and miss you as much as I do.

I wish I knew how to do that better, but it’s still so soon — just two years since you died, two endless years since the last time I saw you.

Sometimes I let myself imagine your face glowing with youth and health. I pretend that you survived cancer and that the entire length of your life is stretched like a gift in front of you. Birthdays are a good time to conjure this vision, even though they carry so much pain.

Today my heart aches with an odd mixture of sorrow and peace. I want more than your spirit. I want all of you here with me, but not if it means you’d still be sick. That’s a hard truth to accept.

With each passing year, I miss two versions of you — the Ana who will never be older than 15 and the Ana who I will never meet at 18, at 20, at 35. I feel this loss even more acutely with every birthday and holiday that passes.

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Ana (with Roo), April 2016, Age 14

As I let myself picture you at 18, I’m able to accept (for the first time) that there is a part of you that has aged and that maybe this means you’re okay.

When you were 15, you weren’t okay. You hadn’t been okay for a long time. And now you’re not dying anymore. You’re not scared and you’re not in pain. The trade-off is that you’re also not here. That will never be okay with me, because each birthday is going to remind me of the version of you I never met so I’ll have to balance sorrow with peace for the rest of my life.

I’m starting to think beyond your earthly birthday to a different kind of birthday — your third birthday in spirit, a birthday that you’re celebrating somewhere that I can’t reach.

I’m wishing happiness for you, as I always have, picturing you surrounded by people who love you over there, just as much as we love you over here.

I hope you’re on a beach with sunlight and warmth infusing every moment of your birthday celebration. Unlike that very first birthday party, the day is absolutely perfect.

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Ana, February 2013, Age 12

My sweet girl. If I could say one last thing to you, it would be that I love you. I’m proud of you. I am blessed that you’ve been in my life for 18 years.

For the first almost-16 years, you were physically here and I’m endlessly grateful for that. Now your spirit is here, as real as breath and thought and memory.

You are my child. You will always be my child. Nothing, not even death, can change that.

Happy 18th birthday, Ana.

Love Mom

Written by

Occasional poet. Writer of sad essays. Novelist. Birder and amateur photographer. I enjoy trees.

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