I can never remember my youngest daughter's birthday. I know it's in late November, but which date? The 25th, 26th, 27th or 28th? It always escapes me. And it's maddening because I remember everybody else's birthdays, easily. I remember my own, my husband's, my two older kids', my parents', and most of my friends'. I recall anniversaries and special occasions. My memory is brimming with useless facts. And yet every time I need to recall my daughter's birthday, I have to do so by counting forwards. My sister died on November the fifth, and my daughter was born exactly three weeks later, so by adding 21 days to five I know that her birthday must be November the 26th.
I go through that process every time.
I am aware that my "forgetting" is semi-deliberate. Obviously I have chosen, on some level, not to commit the date to memory, so I'm forced to think of my sister every time I wish to remember my child's birthday.
I keep the two events linked - Tanya's death and my daughter's birth. In doing this, I can forever connect my child to her aunty, even though they never met face to face. And I can inject the anniversary of my sister's death with a little hope, as I know my daughter's birthday will come in just 21 days' time.
My two older children were very close to Tanya, and they miss her terribly to this day. They were six and eight when their aunt died, old enough to harbour significant memories of her. The only time my youngest child "met" her aunt was when Tanya placed her hand on my pregnant stomach a week before she died. And it's a strange thing to have a child who is completely excluded from memories the rest of us share.
It seems implausible to me that my youngest child doesn't know my sister like her siblings do, so my mind works to fill in the gaps. Though there never was an actual relationship between my sister and her youngest niece, I've created one in my imagination. There are so many similarities between the two of them: Tanya was bright, strong-willed, rebellious and hysterically funny, and my five-year-old is exactly the same. I can picture their interactions with crystal clarity, understand their dynamics, even visualise conversations between them.
Sometime I catch glimpses of memories I know I can't have - Tanya cuddling my youngest daughter, reading her a story, dressing her up in a ridiculous outfit, or laughing as she dances. I'm not sure whether I've inserted my daughter into memories of my sister, or inserted my sister into memories of my daughter, but either way, these false memories feel comforting and very natural.
My five-year-old has her own "memories" of my sister, too. "I miss Aunty Tanya," she says to me. "I love Tanya. I'm sad that she died."
Of course, my daughter doesn't miss her aunt in the literal sense of the word. Obviously you can't miss someone you've never actually met. But my daughter has grown up aware of the gap in her family where my sister used to be, so I do believe she misses the experience of knowing her aunty, as her brother and sister did.
And I do feel that my daughter is sad that her aunty isn't around. Partly, I think, she hears her brother and sister talking about Tanya, and she wishes she could have been there. But mostly, I believe she's reaching out to me and her grandparents in our loss. I believe it's her childlike way of expressing empathy. And that compassion in a five-year-old child is beautiful. She makes me proud.
My daughter's birthday will forever be linked to her aunty's death, and occasionally that makes me sad. Even looking at photos of her arrival into the world evokes painful memories. There, etched on my face, is the pain of grief. There, etched on the faces of my parents, is exhaustion and bewilderment. And I recall the overwhelming and confusing mix of emotions I experienced in the following days and weeks, as I struggled to process the joy of new life in the midst of such a terrible loss.
I want to celebrate my daughter's birthday without the shadow of death lingering in the background. It feels tremendously unfair that my child has to carry that burden with her for the rest of her life. But then I remember that it's Tanya's death that's made me sad, not my daughter's birth. My daughter's birth was a gift. She brought hope and a new focus to me and my family. Throughout the sleepless nights, throughout the toddler tantrums, throughout the demanding preschool years, she has been a source of pure joy to us all.
And so I think about her birthday, and calculate forwards from November fifth, and remember my sister and how much I miss her. And I count to November the 26th, and feel excited for that special day, and remember how blessed I am to have my little girl.
One day we mourn, and then three weeks later we celebrate. And the cycle of life, and death, and life, goes on.
This article first appeared in Sunday Life.