I spent my morning finishing the birthday cards that will accompany the children's future birthday gifts. I bought each child a birthday gift for every birthday between now and age 18 plus a gift for their high school graduation. I stopped it there because I had to stop somewhere and 18 seemed like a natural endpoint. I still have two more gifts to wrap for Amelia, my watch and my diamond earrings. I was waiting on those in case I wanted to wear them again but I don't really need them and I'd rather have them ready just in case I get blindsided by death sooner than I expect. I have one more gift to buy for each of them and this heartbreaking task will be done.
It was hard to write the cards. As I got further away from the present I realized I was writing to people I did not know, people I would never know. I can imagine the teenagers and the adults that they might become. I can see Amelia as a mother with at least three kids who works part-time as a vet or a pediatrician. That's her current plan and I can see that in her now as a nine year old.
Aidan is a bit more of a puzzle. When I watch him build with his legos, it's hard not to imagine him as an engineer or architect. In his first grade class, the students were supposed to draw a picture of themselves in their future career. Aidan drew himself and wrote, "I don't know what I want to be when I grow up." And surrounded the figure with question marks. I think it's healthy that he is keeping his options open. And like most boys his age, he never indulges fantasies about being a husband or father. Though I suspect that someday he will be one rough-and-tumble dad.
I know the career ambitions of children morph a lot along the way. My first plan was to be a cookie. Seriously, if you asked me as a toddler what I want to be when I grew up I answered, "A cookie." I guess at some point I realized that was not an option. I remember wanting to be a special education teacher for a long time because I wanted to work with children with Down's syndrome. After I started doing community theater I wanted to be an actress but my dad made it clear that he would not pay for any college education involving a theater arts degree. I don't know why I picked nursing. It was safe, easy to get a job, practical. The problem was I hated it as my college major. I swtiched to an undeclared major for a semester and discovered economics but when I looked in the help wanted ads, there were no positions for economists. My working class view of the word got the better of me and I went back to nursing. I finished my degree and became a pediatric nurse.
My initial instincts were correct: I didn't like being a nurse. I didn't mind the patients or the families, but I hated the way many doctors assumed I lacked intelligence and was beneath them. Few recognized that the nurses often knew far more about the patients than the doctors did. I lasted two years, during which I also received my Masters in Public Health. From there I started my doctorate in Health Policy and Administration and, there, I finally found something I really enjoyed. I liked the research and teaching aspects and found the field fascinating. So, in a very round about way, I found a career that was perfect for me.
So. knowing all this, I suspect my own children may end up far from where they intend to be at the outset. Of course they may be like Bill, who has always wanted to be a doctor. In fact, he won a state science competition with his work on antibiotic resistance when he was in high school. He apparently took the direct train to his infectious disease specialty.
As I wrote the cards, I tried to think back to myself at different ages of my life and came to the conclusion that I have always been, more or less, the same person. There were years when I was a little more withdrawn and self-conscious but they were few. For the most part I have always been outgoing, friendly, honest to a fault, talkative, introspective, stubborn, and bookish. I think I have changed very little; I have merely grown older and, hopefully, wiser.
But I know it doesn't always work this way. Sometimes people change drastically. And I cannot help but wonder what an early curve ball -- like losing your mother at a tender age -- can do to someone's psyche. So I have no idea to whom I am writing: my happy go luck girl and my willful, sensitive son or two people who do not yet exist.
I wrote the cards out, explaining the gifts. Some, like a set of Encyclopedia Brown books, needed only the simple explanation of how I loved them as a kid and always wanted to figure it the solution before the mystery was revealed. But others, like watches, had a double layer of meaning. Yes, they were nice timepieces but they were also reminders of the precious nature of each moment and the finiteness of our lives. I encouraged them both to use their time wisely at jobs they loved and with people they cherished. In some cards I wondered aloud about what they were doing, "I wonder if you still play soccer? Do you still do gymnastics?" I told them I hoped they were enjoying middle school and high school. I told them I hoped they were happy but that when they were unhappy they should remember that it does not last forever. Happiness always returns, but sometimes it runs like the Italian train system, a little behind schedule.
I didn't want the cards to be sad, but in a few I told them I wished I were there to stroke their cheeks and hug them again. And I assured them that I am always with them. I signed each card, "Love you and miss you, Mommy."
I hope the gifts are the right thing to do. I picture them blowing out the candles on their cakes over the years surrounded by their friends, happy and laughing. Part of me fears that going to their little nest to pull out "Mom's gift" will actually ruin an otherwise happy day. I hope that opening them each year will not feel like ripping the scab off a fresh wound causing it to bleed again. I don't want the gifts to pull them down; I just want them to know how much I loved them and how much I wanted to be there on the day that commerorates their entry into this world.
I'll have to be sure to let them know that the choice to open the gift is theirs. They needn't feel obligated if it hurts too much. The gifts are there, whenever they need a little reminder of me to hold in their hands or whenever they need to read my script across white card stock. It doesn't have to be on their birthday if that would ruin it for them. Perhaps they never have to open the gifts if it hurts too much. Because I don't want to make their grief last any longer than necessary. I just want to still be with them someway, somehow after I'm gone. And maybe that is selfish of me ... maybe I need to let them go without trying so hard to stay behind.