It was the fall of 1999. Second grade was proving to be even better than First and I finally had a pet hamster, so life was pretty great. My grandmother was visiting from France for a couple of weeks and along with her came a whole suitcase of gifts. It was the beginning of an ordinary November in central North Carolina, with the air turning crisper and the leaves changing colors. As is usually the case for children, the season of one’s birthday is always magical. Anticipation of new privileges to come with an added year at a time in life when you can’t possibly imagine being any older than you are about to become. Or at least that’s how my childhood was like.

In a feat nothing short of miraculous, I had somehow managed to convince my mom, if not my dad, to let me get my ears pierced for my birthday. My best friend had just gotten hers done and in my mind, this act was sure to be a very important step in leaving behind plain ol’ six and embracing grown-up seven. Together, with my grandmother in tow, Mom and I went to the mall to the small ear piercing stand. It must have been a Saturday because Mom’s heavy work schedule in those years wouldn’t have allowed for such activities during the week. As I sat in the high chair, my legs dangling far above the ground, I waited nervously as the woman prepared the piercing gun and the traditional gold balls we had picked as my first pair of earrings. My grandmother, never a proponent of tears no matter what age, stood by the glass counter, drumming her fingers and assessing the situation. “She’s going to cry,” she kept saying over and over in French, “Just you wait, she’s going to scream and we won’t be able to pierce the second one.” Ignoring her, Mom knelled down to my level, taking both of my hands in hers. “Don’t listen to her,” she either whispered or conveyed with her reassuring eyes. “Just squeeze my hands if it hurts. You’re getting your ears pierced!” she exclaimed excitedly, trying to distract me. Locking eyes with her and determined to prove my grandma wrong, I focused all my energy and willpower on Mom. In that short moment, lasting only seconds, one I still vividly remember, I am sure that her strength and internal peace that in a few short weeks would be put to the test, radiated through her fingers into mine. Or so I like to imagine it. Second ear pierced and a smile spread across both of our faces. The spell was broken. “Mom! I didn’t cry!” I exclaimed proudly, as I fell into her congratulatory outspread arms, having surprised even myself.

But turning seven would come to represent more than just getting my ears pierced. Within a few weeks my mom would be diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer, already classified as stage 3, making the memories of this birthday the last ones I have of what life was like before my mom was sick. Wistfully, I look back on that birthday as a time of incredible innocence when my sense of security was as intact as any other young child’s. Maybe this all sounds overly dramatic to some of you. But when you go from a perfectly carefree existence to one where you don’t even have the ability to understand everything going on around you but you are able to sense that something is very terribly wrong with your mother, that is one of the most dramatic things that can happen when you’re seven. Added to the equation is the fact that from that point forward, cancer would never really be out of our lives, it is understandable that my seventh birthday holds such significant place in my mind as the end of the Golden Years.

Taken a week before my seventh birthday. This is what I looked like when my mom was diagnosed with cancer.
Fall 1999. Taken a week before my seventh birthday and a few weeks before my mom was diagnosed with cancer.

Thousands of miles away from my family’s photo collection, I don’t have any pictures to share of that sacred birthday. But I’ve revisited them so often that I can see them clearly in my mind now. There’s the one of us all sitting around our old dining room table, singing “happy birthday” to me as Mom places my pink ballerina cake in front of me. Her silky black hair hangs down across her shoulder from its long ponytail, a reminder of what she looked like in those blissful pre-cancer years. “That was a hard birthday. I knew something was very wrong at that point, my entire left breast was hard from the tumor. But I couldn’t get an appointment to see a doctor because I didn’t have a primary care physician at the time,” she shared with me years later while flipping through pictures of this birthday together. I was shocked. My world was still so intact on that day, the words “cancer,” “tumor,” and “chemotherapy” were not a part of my vocabulary yet. After the end played itself out in 2011, I scrutinized this series of photos often, searching for any visible signs of the imminent destruction of this previous life. But all I could find was a mom doing her best to make her daughter’s birthday as special as possible, which is exactly what she continued to do for me and my brother for the next twelve years. Some years, there were few gifts, the result of the strain of medical bills. But I didn’t learn about that until years later and honestly, I never really noticed. There were even a couple of birthdays when her chemo was scheduled the day of my birthday, plunging Mom into a deep, drug-induced sleep that lasted until the next morning and putting our house on “if-you-disturb-your-mother-in-the-slightest-you-will-be-in-big-trouble” lockdown. Birthday celebrations had to be postponed. But she always made sure we spent a special day together, either going to the movies, finding some chocolate treat in a coffee shop to satisfy our sweet tooth, or going out to eat, just the two of us. Time is always the greatest gift, especially if it’s running out.

After my mom passed away, the idea of celebrating my birthday was unfathomable. How do you celebrate the day that your mom literally brought you into this world without your mom? That powerful connection, established between a mother and child from birth, had been broken and I still hadn’t discovered all the ways in which it is still preserved. That first year without her, I convinced myself that it would be easier to just ignore the day completely. I had made up my mind that it would be too painful without her. But thanks to an amazing, supportive college roommate and sensitive friends, I was lured out of my anti-birthday spirit with homemade French toast and thoughtful gifts that included a framed set of photos of me and my mom. Not to mention my cousin from California who just showed up on my doorstep to spend a couple of hours with me. And every birthday since, that tradition has continued. There is always a moment in the week or so leading up to my birthday when I get a little teary thinking about another birthday spent without Mom. But my friends have gone out of their way every year to make sure I don’t slip back into pretending the day doesn’t exist and to make it special for me.

So after three years of being enveloped in such love on your birthday, what do you do when you’re separated by thousands of miles from the cushion that breaks your fall into what you fear will be sadness? You go to Italy, of course! In all honesty, I hadn’t given much thought to my birthday at all this year because I am truly having the time of my life over here in Europe. I wasn’t in denial that it was approaching, I just didn’t feel as bound to the past as I have before on that day. So much has changed in the way I carry myself and these memories, particularly in the past year, that I just didn’t feel the sadness of not sharing the day with Mom in the same way. No tears were shed leading up to the day, no fear was felt that it might be a terrible day without her. It was just a day spent wandering around Rome eating like an Italian queen, not marked by her absence but rather by an appreciation for being given another year to live in the present. Because even if strength and super powers weren’t really transferred from her hands to mine 15 birthdays ago, her love certainly was, and every day since as well. From walking around the Colosseum, wandering down via del Corso, and eating gelato on top of the Spanish Steps, the day was so full of discovery and beautiful things that it only crossed my mind a couple of times that it was actually my birthday, like a little secret between her and me. When it did, it only added to the magic of being in one of the oldest cities in Europe. In all the chaos and buzz of the city, I was part of something bigger than my own existence, just as I have to believe that what my mom lived through was for a greater purpose as well.

Piazzolo di Spagna
The Colosseum
Italia 401
Piazzolo di Spagna

 

At the end of the day, there was a birthday cake waiting for me when I returned home to the family with whom I was staying. But the most amazing thing about it was that I had just met this family the night before. The extended family of friends I’ve known forever, I was invited to stay with them during my time in Rome but had never met them beforehand. The extent of their generosity and kindness towards a stranger in their home was endless. After a detour to Florence for a couple of days, I arrived back in Paris where another celebration awaited me. Usually so far away from this side of my family on my birthday, I could feel how excited my grandma was to be able to share it with me. The nice wine glasses and silver laid out on the table, a home cooked Alsacian meal, and a simple yet delicious chocolate cake made for a wonderful birthday. What leaves me smiling about this month’s multiple celebrations is that on the birthday when I felt the least in need of any kind of distraction from my grief, I was surprised with the amount of love and kindness you can find in the most unexpected places. At the same time, I’d like to think that perhaps my mom led me to where I needed to be on the day that was always so special between us, where she knew I would feel her love and the joie de vivre that she cultivated so well. Or maybe she just taught me how to follow my heart and seek out that place on my own…

Huge thank you to the Fanciullo family!
Huge thank you to the Fanciullo family for a wonderful stay!

 

Florence, Italy
Florence, Italy
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