My daughter was 8 years old when she was taken from us. Just 8 birthday celebrations into her life before it was over.
She was taken 6 months before her 9th birthday. Exactly halfway through her 8th year.
I hadn’t moved on to good days and bad days yet when her birthday rolled around. I was still at good moments and bad moments, but time doesn’t wait for you to grieve. Time stops for no one, and before we knew it her birthday was upon us.
I knew my family was going to struggle for this ever so difficult day. I had two small boys, ages 8 and 10, who needed me to take the lead. I had family members looking to me for how to react on this day and how to act. I had people watching to see if I was going to fall apart as the day came closer.
I knew we had to celebrate Ashley’s life. It was important in a way I cannot explain. We needed to remain connected to her, even though she was no longer of this earth. We needed to have a birthday party, even though she was not going to be able to physically enjoy it.
I made a plan. I invited as many people as wanted to be there. And what follows became a birthday tradition for a very special little angel who still touches people’s lives with her light.
The day before Ashley’s birthday I had the count of how many people would be there for this very special celebration I had planned. My sister-in-law and I went to the store and got cake and balloons enough for everyone. There were so many balloons and we looked so funny trying to stuff all these, helium filled, balloons into her little car that we couldn’t help but laugh at ourselves. Laughter was always welcome at this point in my life because it didn’t come often and it was a temporary relief from this heaviness that had enveloped my life.
Finally we got everything home and into the house. We put everything away, hugged, and said goodbye.
That night there was no laughter. As I cried myself to sleep, my husband holding on to me for dear life, I was once again overcome with heaviness.
In the morning I woke, once again to shock and tears. I had dreamed that Ashley was alive and playing with her brothers, only to awake to the reality that she was no longer with us and my heart broke in two. Those mornings were always the hardest, waking to that horrible reality. Even with the difficulty of the night and morning, I managed to get up and get everyone ready for the day. I put myself together and prepared for my daughter’s birthday party.
We got out lots of pictures of Ashley for the table and rooms. We wanted to fill people with the light of this beautiful child. We wanted some sense of joy and love on her special day.
People began arriving and hugging me. Hugging was always difficult because I could feel their own sense of grief on top of my own and it would send me spiraling. Somehow I managed to hold it together with only a few trips to the bathroom to collect myself.
Eventually everyone had arrived. There were uncles and aunts, along with children cousins. Everyone wondering what exactly I had planned. I mean I had given them some idea but it was time to explain to everyone what we were going to do for our little angel.
I explained that we would be writing letters to Ashley. Then we would each choose a balloon and attach the letter to it to send up to heaven.
The children LOVED this idea, as I suspected they would. What surprised me is that the adults all loved it as well.
Everyone grabbed their paper and pen or pencil and went off to their own space to write to Ashley. Some of the younger children would at this point draw for Ashley, which was perfectly wonderful as well.
Once all the notes were complete we began helping the children attach theirs to balloons. After the children’s were attached the adults then did theirs. Everyone went outdoors together with all the balloons and on a count of 3 we released them to the heavens together and yelled “HAPPY BIRTHDAY ASHLEY!”.
The children turned it into a balloon race to heaven and so there we all stood watching the different colored balloons to see which would go out of site first. I don’t remember who won but I remember the childrenbloon smiling and laughing and then running to the house for cake. Thank heavens for little children because they truly helped to keep the day lighter than I fear it would have been.
Every year for many years to follow this would become a birthday tradition for our family and many of our friends. Some people would come every year and some would eventually stop. We added people to the group as new folks joined the family and even those who didn’t know Ashley would write to her.
Today, John and I no longer live in Maine. We do not have that group of people to celebrate and remember with anymore. Still we keep this day a special one and we celebrate our little angel’s life.
What surprises me is how many others still hold to this tradition. I receive phone calls and emails letting me know that they’ve bought their balloons or after telling me they let a balloon go up to Ashley. It touches my heart to know that this became a tradition that is held on to so dearly.
And so every year, on April 1, heaven gets a huge influx of balloon mail for one very special little angel.