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We probably would have celebrated by waking up early to open the usual eclectic array of home-made presents - painted rocks, a grubby fistful of flowers nicked from the neighbour's garden, or a papier-mache tiger. We would have passed the block of birthday chocolate around the kitchen table, with eleven pairs of eager fingers breaking off a square or two. Then, later that day, we would have clamoured over fish and chips, bought from the dairy down the road.
Birthdays are meant to be happy affairs. After all, they celebrate another 365 days of life, rotating around the sun on our blue and green planet. But when someone you love has died, their birthdays reappear, year after year, to remind you of your loss.
It's hard to know what to do when someone you are grieving for has a birthday. Some people bake them a cake and light a candle for each year that passes. I'm hopeless in the kitchen, and never baked John a cake when he was alive, so that's out of the question. Other people visit their loved one's grave. I've just moved to England, so unless someone can quickly manufacture me a teleportation device, I won't be able to make it. I've also heard of people writing birthday cards for the one who has passed on. But I find myself struggling to locate the right words, to articulate in mere ink and paper how much I miss my brother.
I found a grey hair on my head yesterday. It hurt when I yanked it out of my head. I'm only 23 years old, but the crow's feet are gathering around my eyes, and my skin no longer glows with the freshness of adolescence. One day I will be a firmly middle-aged woman, with a cloud of grey hair like my mother. But my younger brother will never age. He will remain forever eighteen years old, even as our siblings overtake him in age and height.
I always feel slightly strange on the tenth of May, as if the car I am travelling in has just plunged down a steep hill, leaving my stomach behind at the top. In a way, celebrating the birthday of a loved one who has passed on is worse than the anniversary of their death, as it reminds you of the age they would have been, and what they are missing out on.
When his birthday rolls around, I like to imagine what John would be up to these days. Would he have found a girlfriend he so longed after? Would he have graduated from Otago University, perhaps scraped a pass in his uncaring, laughing manner? Maybe he would now be working as a surveyor, or training to be a high school geography teacher. There's no knowing what he might have done.
I can only recommend that one prepares for the birthday of a loved one who has passed. Try to cut out extra stressors and reach out to your friends and family. If visiting the cemetery, or baking a cake feels right for you, do it. But most of all, remember that it's temporary. This day will pass, sliding by with the others as you continue to go about your own life. Don't let anyone tell you how you should feel. Cherish those you have lost, and remember the happier times.
So, happy birthday John. I wish you could be here to celebrate your 22nd birthday in person. You deserved many, many more years of life and happiness. I'll love you always.
-Jean Balchin is an English student at the University of Otago.