Birth days and death days


Birthdays are a strange thing.  In our family we have a guarded attitude towards the special days because they are tinged with sadness and poignancy.

In 1998, my mother died on her 65th birthday. Every year I struggle to get through that day.  Then in 2007, my step-mother, with whom I was also very close, died. On her 75th birthday.   When birthdays approach in our family, we half joke (in that totally inappropriate way which Scots are rather good at) that we hope we get through the day.  Not so deep down, we are very nervous about our own and each others’ birthdays.

When I woke up yesterday, on my birthday, I was in a strange mood.  My recent unexpected health escapade meant that I cancelled my plan to celebrate my birthday somewhere new.  I would be spending my day in Yangon and it was impossible not to associate the day with the birthday I marked not long after arriving in Myanmar in 2009.  It was a Big Birthday – one ending with a zero, and due to paperwork difficulties we were not able to travel, so any wish bucket plans were not possible to realise.  Furthermore, being in the middle of rainy season it meant that travel anyway even nearby was not really a great idea.  So we marked the day in Yangon, visiting the beautiful Shwe Dagon temple in the daytime, and then with a small group of friends in the evening.

I was totally oblivious to the fact that I was nurturing two already significant tumours and was blissfully unaware of the turn life was going to take in a few short weeks.  Now, on my birthday, in addition to the association of birth days with death days, I have the added association of my 2009 birthday with Breast Cancer.  And that starts to explain my mood yesterday, when I found myself fighting back tears before I had even got out of bed.

However, I had decided to take a day’s leave and was determined to have a relaxing and indulgent day.  I opened up my constant companion (my laptop) in anticipation of birthday greetings through email and Facebook.  And it was wonderful – messages had arrived overnight, and more were streaming in from around the world.  There are some things which Facebook is very good at.

As I skimmed through my newsfeed, however, my eye caught an update which I struggled to understand initially.  Then the realisation sank in.  My blogging sister Jenny, author of Get out Gertrude, had passed away the previous evening.  We knew that time was limited for her, but as her family said in the notice it was far sooner than expected.  Those tears which had been on standby behind my eyes sprang into action.

Jenny and I had connected through our blogs and twitter interactions based on our (albeit different) breast cancer diagnoses.  Jenny had been diagnosed with Inflammatory Breast Cancer (IBC) which is notoriously aggressive and although Stage 4, she was leading a very full and meaningful life.  She was studying, blogging regularly and a tireless active advocate on IBC.  She tells the full story on her blog.  As the disease has progressed and treatment options limited, we knew that her time with us was limited.  But with regular activity online and her incisive and wise insights, the severity of her physical health was hidden behind a strong vibrant voice.  I will miss her enormously, but value how much I learned from her. Her post on talking to her youngest daughter, who has special needs, is one which will always stay with me and shows her strength, humanity, openness and selflessness.  The fact that she documented and shared this when time and energy were precious, and sadly limited, shows her generosity.

As I am based in Asia, and Jenny in New Zealand we are in a small number of bloggers/tweeters in this side of the planet.  So, for example, while the weekly #bcsm discussion would be underway on Monday evenings in the US, Jenny and I would be joining from Tuesday morning/lunchtime.  I think of us as the “Tuesday bloggers”.  Her passing on a Tuesday is strangely meaningful and comforting to me personally.

It was probably a good thing that I had decided to take the day of my birthday off work.  In my poignant and pensive frame of mind, I could focus on Jenny as well as the preoccupations which had already been crowding my thoughts.  So I moved back to my Facebook feed and the greetings, so that I could attempt to respond to each message individually.  When I was young I was always brought up to send a thank you note for presents and cards, and never seemed to quite finish the task.  So I have tried to redress the balance in this Facebook era.  As messages came through from different parts of the world, the phrase “many returns of the day” and its inference echoed round and round in my mind.  And then one message hit me with an almost physical force as it resonated so much with my emotional place.

“Happy Birthday! I’m so glad you are around for another one!!! :)”

And that was it in a nutshell.  When I found the lump in September 2009, I thought I would not be around for the forthcoming Christmas, never mind birthdays one, two or even three years hence.  None of us has any idea how many more “returns of the day” we will have, but to have three is something I am incredibly thankful for. My relationship with mortality has matured and changed beyond recognition and I do not take these “returns” for granted any more.

So, today is August 2nd.  And here’s another strange coincidence.  Today is Rachel’s birthday. Her close friend Sarah has shared a post which Rachel’s mother has written.  My fears and associations connected with my own birthday, Jenny’s passing and Rachel’s birthday are all joining together in an emotional whirlpool.

But mixed with that emotion is a sense of bittersweet gratitude.  It is the day after my birthday. and I am overwhelmingly thankful.  Thankful that I did indeed wake up today!  Thankful that there have been returns of the day which I feared there would not be.  I am thankful that I am most clearly around for another one!

And most of all, I am thankful for the rich friendship of very special women like Jenny and Rachel.


29 thoughts on “Birth days and death days

  1. The emotional landscape of our lives have changed, hasn’t it? Well covered territories like birthdays have new contours and new resonances. Losing Jenny, marking what would have been Rachel’s birthday, all of it comes in like a mournful violin line in the happy birthday song.

    That being said, I am incredibly glad you are here and am truly grateful for your friendship.

    • This is so true, there is such a shift in that emotional landscape and everything feels so much more sharply in focus, accentuating the bitter and the sweet. I find it such a paradox that I am so thankful for your friendship too, and for having connected, but cannot bring myself to feel in the slightest thankful to cancer for being the reason. It is DUE to cancer, not thanks to! But thank you for that friendship – it means such a great deal, big big hugs to you my blogging twin xx

  2. I’m so sorry to read about Jenny’s passing. The memories of Jenny and Rachel will live on in our hearts and minds. Thank you for “penning” such a beautiful tribute to these beautiful women. We do go on, don’t we? And I’m glad you had a happy birthday. May you enjoy many, many more. xx

    • Thank you – yes I a still trying to process Jenny’s passing, it has hit hard. I read somewhere today that when a loved one passes, they live on within us and that is what keeps that our friendship/love alive. So true. We must continue to keep the alive within us. Thank you for the birthday wishes – yes I did have a good day and I am very happy to be here for another one! xx

  3. Philippa,
    First of all, Happy birthday to YOU…. and second of all…. I saw your tweet about Jenny and I began my day with tears that I could not stop. I am heartbroken. Another wonderful voice silenced. Her recent posts were so poignant and equally so heart-wrenching. These are difficult days. These are the days when the support of everyone here holds me up. No one else could possibly understand. How can I be grieving for a woman half way around the world?? The bonds are so strong.

    • Thank you AM! I am sorry to have passed on the sad news, but knew it had to be shared. As Chemobabe once said (paraphrasing) how can my heart be breaking over someone I have never met? I will check out the quote exactly but that is the gist I think. And this is something I wrote when I lost a close blogging friend and could not believe how heartbroken I was –

      That connection and mutual support is what sustains and breaks us in one, the bonds indeed are so strong.

  4. Dear Philippa,
    Thank you for opening up your heart to us in this post. Losing those we love is hard enough, but losing them on special days like their birthdays, makes for extra tugs at the heart.

    I found Jenny’s blog a while back because of you. Thank you for steering me there. She was an incredible person and I learned much from her. I am so saddened by the news of her passing.

    And yes, Rachel’s birthday today is a reminder about milestones some do not get to reach. We are all such fragile beings aren’t we?

    I am so blessed to count you as a friend. And I’m sorry to be late with birthday greetings. Much love and many hugs to you.

    • Thank you so much for your comment and friendship, N. It is a strange and intense few days but as well as the sadness I am warmed by what I have gained through friendship with such wonderful women. Jenny indeed was such a giving person, and I feel that my life is so enriched for having known her, and for that I am truly thankful. We keep the memories of these friends alive in our hearts and this is helped by the internet!!

      Thank you for your friendship – I would love to meet you in 3d one day (if that is what it is called??) 🙂

  5. Philippa, thanks for writing this. It reflects so much of how I feel today, too. While I did not lose them on their birthdays, both of my parents died within days of their respective birthdays. One of my closest friends’ moms, and a woman I knew and was fond of, died on my birthday, just months after my own mom died.

    I didn’t know Jenny, but I certainly knew Rachel, and realizing it was her birthday today had made today bittersweet. And I can thus apprehend how sad you must be at losing Jenny. And then, on FB, I found out today that a sister I got to know through a peer support forum died today of her breast cancer, when so many of us didn’t even know she had been Stage IV. So, now I’m reeling again…

    I’m so glad to know you and to be able to mark your birthday yesterday. Birthdays have certainly become poignant occasions for us all. Love, hugs, and more birthdays, P, however bittersweet they are.


    • Thank you for sharing this Kathi – it really does have a bearing on how we mark those days, doesn’t it? I am so sorry to hear that the sister on your support forum has also been taken, sending you warm hugs. You are right, these shocks send us reeling again and again. Despite all the strange emotions though, I did have a good birthday. albeit distracted at times. So glad to be here in so many ways, thank you my friend xx

  6. Thank you for sharing this post that is so full of emotion. Birthdays are one of many anniversaries that have a funny mixture of joy and sadness (unlike when we were children, when it was all about the joy with cake, balloons and celebration – is it me, or do we become emotionally heavier as time passes?). Nevertheless, I’d very much like to wish you a happy belated birthday. Happy Birthday 🙂 I hope it was more sweet than bitter, but can absolutely understand the swirling of emotions.


    • Thank you Catherine, you are so right about that mix, birthdays are complex days. I guess that the emotional baggage we carry as time passes gets heavier.

      Thank you so much for the lovely wishes, and with the amount of cake my hubby procured it sure was more sweet than bitter!!
      Hugs to you xox

  7. A very moving post, Philippa. “Emotional whirlpool” is a wonderful description of so much of post-diagnosis life. Belated birthday wishes from the same side of the planet. I hope that the year to come is a great one for the Gecko!

    • Thank you so much L – yes that emotional whirlpool came out of nowhere in more ways than one!
      As another Tuesday girl, I would love to try and find out if there are many of us of this side of the world?

      Love and hugs to you Ms Paw Paw xx

  8. I didn’t know Jenny, I only began reading her blog after ChemoBabe made the notification she had passed away..Loss birthdays and celebrating take a back seat. Especially when we also have an illness. Both my mother and grandmother died 11 months of each other. My grandmother was 93 full of vim and vigor. She was outside shovelling snow from the driveway. the last winter of her life There was a blizzard there she was in the middle of it!! I asked what she was doing , she replied she didn’t want the mailman to slip, fall hurt himself. She just began to slow down. I moved to be with her. I just wanted to take care of her. . We lost her 4 days short of her 94th birthday…. The annversary of her passing is today…. August 3rd. 1998 of congestive heart failure

    My mother died 11 months later… July 9th 1999. my mother from full blown AIDS she had been diagnosed only a month earlier

    Philipa Happy Birthday…

    Love Alli.. XX

    • Thank you so much for your message, Alli and I am so sorry that you lost your mother and grandmother so closely in time. I love the story about the snow on the path – it tells so much about your grandmother. And the coincidence that you lost your gran when I was reeling after my mother’s death, and then your mother died exactly a year and a day after my mother had died. What an internconnected world we live in.

      Thank you so much for the wishes – they mean a great deal.
      P xx

  9. Thank you so much for sharing this post. It is wonderfully poignant and filled me with emotion. My thoughts and prayers are with you. Sending you big love during this very mixed emotion time. xoxox

    • Thank you so much Terri – it is indeed such an intense time. This whole year has been intense.

      I love the fact that you were also a Tuesday blogger for a good part of the year.

  10. I was one of the strays Jenny collected – having been friends with her eldest daughter since high school – and I just wanted to say thank you for your lovely words. Gertrude didn’t stand a chance, Jenny’s strength of spirit is impenetrable and will live on in her beautiful girls.

    All the best, and a belated Happy Birthday!

    • Thank you so much for commenting – and what you say about your connection with Jenny and her family, especially her eldest daughter, reinforces the wonderful impression I have of her family. Thank you for sharing your insights. Knowing Jenny has made so many lives richer for sure.

  11. Hi Feisty,
    I am facing the same brick wall of knowing my birthday month has left me with nothing but heartache and sadness. On the 16th July 2009 my father passed away, on the 26th he was laid to rest, on the 29th I celebrated my 39th.. This year my recurrance was discovered on the 16th July… and after several prods and pokes I’m back under the knife on the 13th August… and the ironic thing is my hubby is born on the exact same birthday.. we are continental twins and his mother died of breast cancer at the age of 3…

    Happy belated Birthday!!! Keep your feisty spirit going honey, for it is all we have in the fight against this disease….

    • I am so sorry that so much has happened in July months past, and that your birthday month has been given those associations of heartache. I have been thinking of you as you stand up to this latest round and wish for treatment to be smooth and your recovery rapid (I have been following your updates on your blog).

      Thanks so much for your comment and I wish you well (I know you have oodles of feist 😉 )

  12. Wonderful posting about something that people who’ve been affected by breast cancer — or any life-threatening condition — can relate to. We now have a relationship with mortality that not everyone can relate to. And isn’t social media great, when people all over the world can become virtual-but-real friends?

    • Thank you! That relationship with mortality is so complex, isn’t it, and impossible to explain to those who have not been in that “confronted with mortality” situation.

      I too continued to be warmed by the friendships which form virtually, and the very real emotional support and connection that develops.

  13. Pingback: Hippo Bird-day! | Feisty Blue Gecko - a tail of the unexpected

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