Remembering Aidan

This past weekend we celebrated my dead son’s birthday.

It’s the same every year; it’s easier that way. There’s no thought or planning involved; we can just slip into it and let the ritual carry us. At 5 pm on October 17th, the family and friends who are coming meet at our house. We walk down the back path, down the hill to the cemetery, carrying a bunch of balloons. When we get there, the balloons get distributed and when everyone’s ready and we’ve ascertained the direction of the wind, someone counts to three and we let them go as we all say, “Happy Birthday, Aidan!”

And off they go to Heaven, it seems, and there is a hush for a moment, a wiped-away tear—and then the children are running and playing, the grownups spend a moment at the grave, and we walk back to the house to eat pizza together.

Aidan was born with lissencephaly, a major brain malformation that caused severe delays, seizures and choking spells. Those choking spells led to the pneumonia that took him from us just after his first birthday. The year that he was alive was very hard—and very powerful. Aidan couldn’t do things other babies could do, but he loved to be held, especially if you moved or danced while you held him. He loved to be talked to or sung to; he loved soft touches, the warmth of sunshine, the tickling of a breeze. These things took on real value; the world slowed down, and we rejoiced in holding him and holding each other. Little things made us happy: a few smiles from him, a sunny day, a pretty flower, a nice meal, a walk outside together.

“Every fall, the season of his birth and death, I get sad. I will find myself in tears and realize: oh, it’s fall. Of course.”

The raw grief has long passed, although there are still sometimes moments when a smell or a certain light in the trees or the softness of a baby blanket will bring back a memory that stops me in my tracks. The grief now, 14 years since his death, is more hard-wired. Every fall, the season of his birth and death, I get sad—unrelated to anything going on. I will find myself in tears and realize: oh, it’s fall. Of course.

It’s more than just grief that comes every fall. Out of nowhere, every year, I get panic attacks that something bad will happen to someone I love. Fall has become for me a time of being aware of just how vulnerable we all are.

We like to think that nothing can touch us, that our loved ones will always be well and with us. We might know intellectually (at least on some level) that there’s no guarantee of this—but we ignore it. Which is understandable. After all, most of the time everything works out fine. And it would be very painful to go through each day being fully aware that it could all be taken from us, in an accident, a fire, a result of a test.

But every fall, I can’t escape that awareness. Every fall, as I remember my baby, I come up hard against the precariousness of life, and it is indeed very painful. But as I’ve lived through it each year, I’ve found that there is a gift to it—because, just as when Aidan was alive, the world slows down. Those things that had absolute value when he was alive—those moments of peace, a sunny day, smiles from those I love, and most of all holding each other—become deeply precious and important, not to be taken for granted. As much as it hurts, I am grateful for the reminder—and the reorganizing and reprioritizing it brings.

We chose a line from Isaiah for the epitaph on Aidan’s gravestone: A little child shall lead them.

He did then, and he still does.