Piper should be turning six today. The age you proudly use two hands to reflect your years. This isn’t at all like we imagined it would be. What can a birthday continue to mean after death? For me, it still means everything it did before. Because you can’t have death without first having life, any more than you can lose something you never had. This day signifies the beginning, and the beginning was beautiful.
On this day six years ago, Piper first became ours and we became hers. I had gone into the hospital early to monitor my blood pressure. I still remember the Christmas tree earrings my nurse wore when she told me I needed to be induced and we would not be going home without our baby. It was just three days before my due date, but Nelson and I were so anxious, thinking we weren’t quite ready, expecting we had more time. That feeling would find its way back to us the day she died.
From her first breath at 2:01 p.m., Piper looked like magic. She still looks like magic in my dreams and in the memories I guard. As every parent knows, when you first glimpse your child’s face, biology notwithstanding, the wonder of their creation is unfathomable. It’s very much like a wish coming true.
But wonder and wishes aside, today is full of sorrow too. The absence of giddy birthday excitement is unmistakable. For the second time, December 18 is not a day to celebrate growth or childhood milestones. Instead we work extra hard to keep the what ifs, whys, and crushing unfairness at bay. It’s an unchangeable hurt.
Piper earned only four candles in life, and already two in death. Even though we imagined her future the moment she was born, we only got to experience the beginning. Even though we painfully permit ourselves to imagine her at six, she was only ever four. Four years, 10 months, and one day.
This time last year, the reality of her death had not fully set in. Fourteen months later, so much has changed. We spend a lot of time reflecting, motivating, and evaluating life in the wake of death. I read somewhere that parents who bury a child become ancient, and I think that’s true. We’ve experience life out of order, seen the end first, survived our worst fears. We love differently and fear differently. Even normalcy is different. Maybe most changed is how we feel about time itself. I never want what is next more than I appreciate what is right now.
Olive and Harlow are our “right now” and they are increasingly the motor to our boat. Recently Harlow was the weather reporter for her classroom. As many of you know, that was Piper’s favorite “job” in preschool. She loved it so much she regularly forecasted at home. As usual, it made me both happy and sad to see Harlow enjoying something as Piper had before her. When I asked Harlow to tell me about her job that day, she said matter-of-factly, “it’s partly sunny.” I laughed and thought, well isn’t that the perfect metaphor for our life.
We are a family that can appreciate partly sunny. Our days are partly hopeful, partly despondent. Partly full, partly empty. Partly content, partly restless. Just when you think you should pack up the picnic, clouds part and you catch a rainbow you would have otherwise missed. The only real constant is that grief is love, and it never ends.
Each of us holds a place in our heart that is Piper’s alone. We take refuge in our belief that Piper goes on, that there is a place for all the perfect souls like hers. Time and space separate us now but one day they won’t. Until then, our eyes will search for her, and our ears will listen for her. So much of Piper remains, and this day is still hers.