As Rapunzel wisely stated in Tangled, “That’s the funny thing about birthdays, they’re kind of an annual thing.” Maybe it is for this reason that I could not determine what I wanted to say in this post. Birthdays happen. So do holidays. October is my birthday month and it is Halloween. Grief makes holidays difficult, though I have learned to accept the setback and tears and to embrace the good moments. Ben and I loved to go to Walt Disney World to celebrate at Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party. He even proposed to me at Walt Disney World on Halloween, asking me to be his Minnie. Now, Halloween and my birthday serve as an annual occasion to think about those memories. The thing is, it has also become a time to reflect on how I have adjusted and shaped my life. Maybe it is a bit scary to feel that I have not come as far as I would like.
Last year was a milestone birthday, but it arrived with a breast cancer diagnosis. It is difficult not to think about that. Gratefully, I am still here. And, I am so fortunate to be fine. Still, I do not really like to celebrate myself. It was fun and romantic when Ben planned birthday activities. I enjoyed planning them for him, too, and I enjoy participating in plans for others. Not for myself. I am already keenly aware that I have been gifted more years on this earth than my mom and Ben. That is a lot. I appreciate kind wishes from friends, colleagues, and family. Each year, as my birthday arrives, I want to be able to say that I accomplished something, contributed to the lives of people and animals in some small way. I want to feel that I have grown.
It may seem strange, but this year I realized that I measure a great deal of my personal growth and how far I have come in my co-existence with grief by how I honor Halloween. Although most of my childhood birthdays were Halloween-themed, I attach much of Halloween, and my strongest Halloween memories, to Ben. We loved the fall weather and walking around, spotting fun Halloween decorations. We listened to Disney Halloween music. When Ben was homebound, I decorated the apartment for Halloween, usually after I put Ben to bed, so he had a fun surprise in the morning. He could often be found watching our videos of the Walt Disney World “Boo To You” parade. I have the soundtrack with that music, and I still listen to it almost every day of October, picturing Ben’s face and delight. When I took Ben to Walt Disney World for the last time in July 2014, I had our hotel room decorated for Halloween. All of those decorations came home with us. Several of those decorations were brought to Ben’s room in the hospice unit of the hospital. He loved being surrounded by those memories. After Ben left this earth, I had a hard time with those decorations. I put them in storage, and for a couple of years, I did not really decorate. I immersed myself in our memories.
After a few years, I went to storage and looked through our Halloween collection. I brought back to the apartment a few things that did not immediately make me sad. I decided that if I felt uncomfortable, I would just take them down. Annual traditions, annual tests. The Halloween banner that was placed outside our hotel room unnerved me, so it went back to storage. I did not bother to bring back many other items from our 2014 holiday because looking at them in the box at storage just made me miss Ben all the more. I felt that I was not entitled to enjoy them without him. Oddly, the Halloween countdown figurine that Ben adored proved to be a huge comfort. I still chuckle when I think about how he texted to tease me if I forgot to change it before I left for school in the morning.
Eventually, I purchased some new Halloween items, some Disney and others from another favorite store, the Vermont Country Store. It was a way that I held onto our memories but began to incorporate some new ones. Still, everything I chose was in some way connected to Ben. Each year, I tried to place the banner in the apartment, and each year, it never remained on display.
In 2019, I returned to Walt Disney World for the first time without Ben, but with my dear friend Monica and her two amazing kids. It was a tribute trip- to Ben and to my cat Disney, whom I had also lost and who was my last direct connection to Ben. It was challenging to face the memories but energizing and comforting to know that I could create new memories but have Ben with me in my heart. I brought souvenirs home that have also become a welcome part of my Halloween and Christmas decorations.
This year, once again, I pushed myself to rummage through the boxes in storage. For the first time, I felt prepared to bring almost all our Halloween decorations from storage to the apartment. Again, I told myself that nothing had to remain displayed if it brought sadness. I set out the big black candelabra and even ordered replacement LED candles for it. I placed the Halloween garland that I used in the apartment when Ben was homebound. I set out the banner, and, although for some reason I still feel somewhat bothered by its presence, I have kept it up. I ordered some new Halloween toys for Tinker Bell. I purchased some cute new Halloween toys- little Toy Story aliens dressed as other Disney characters, including Ben’s favorites: Buzz, Mr. Incredible, and Sully. The apartment has a Halloween spirit that Ben would love and that feels good. Actually, I talk to him about it. That, too, feels right.
About a week ago, I exited Central Park by our favorite block and decided to take a look at the brownstones, since they are always decorated so beautifully for the fun Halloween party that Ben and I almost always attended. The tears fell as I was enveloped by feelings of aloneness and missing the things we loved to do. Still, I was proud of myself for pushing my limits and embracing the memories as well as the tears.
I think a lot about a quote by Mrs. Frankenstein, from Frankenweenie. When you lose someone you love, they never really leave you. They move into a special place in your heart. Ben remains a part of my birthday and Halloween, even as I create new memories and traditions. He remains a big part of my annual Halloween cookie baking. This year, I made a cookie that featured the scene when Charlie Brown says, “I got a rock.” It was one of Ben’s favorite quotes. I know that he would have loved that cookie and it absolutely delights me that my friends responded so well to the image. I always feel like Ben and my grandma are with me when I bake.
I continue to cherish my walks through Central Park. During a recent jaunt, I was joined by a new little bird. It was intent on staying with me and as afraid of birds as I am, it did not fly or show a wingspan, and I have come to firmly believe that there is a reason for these visits. I took its picture and googled the bird and found that it was a tufted titmouse. I read that if seen in a dream, this bird signifies a breakthrough, good luck and a change in life. I like to think that he meant that for me.
Despite not going out of my way to acknowledge my birthday, Rapunzel is right that birthdays are an annual occurrence. This year, my annual Halloween preparations showed me that I am continuing to adjust and shape my life in positive ways. I hope that I can always say that upon reflection, my year was meaningful and productive.
I hope that you had a not-so-scary Halloween!