The Birthday That Never Was

February 25, 2022

Dear Valerie,

Today is your birthday. Yesterday, I brought home your remains.

On the morning of Monday, January 31, 2022, not long after you were declared dead, I had to send a couple of text messages, and to have to write the words, “Valerie died this morning” was almost physically impossible — and it feels the same today. (On the way home after hearing your cancer diagnosis on December 29, 2021, you had said yourself that it “just doesn’t make sense”. It still doesn’t make sense to me, and quite possibly it never will.)

I have been doing my best to follow your oft-repeated advice to trust my own instincts. Even on the day that you died, I started to feel very strongly that I would be better off being alone as much as possible. I’m sure that flies in the face of what most people would think, but all I can say is that I know myself well enough to be sure that if even one other person was around me, I would inevitably be more concerned with taking care of them than myself. And if there is one time in my life when I believe it really needs to be all about me, it’s now. To say that I am grieving your loss is to hideously understate the reality that I am in by far the worst pain of my entire life. It’s indescribable. I’ve been searching for a metaphor, and am now convinced that an adequate one does not exist, but I might give some sense of what I’m experiencing by saying it’s like having open-heart surgery with no anesthetic and a rusty scalpel: I may survive it, but the pain and trauma and scars will be with me forever.

Valerie, when you died, I lost my daughter, my only child, my housemate, my companion, my adventure buddy. We’ve been through so much together, wonderful experiences and some pretty rocky times too. Remember me saying you were the one person I’d want with me on a desert island? You agreed, saying that even though you might drive me mad now and then (true), life with you would never be boring (also true). And I realized recently that we have actually lived together for fully 30 of your 38 years — I was married to your father for 23 years, and at my age now, it’s unlikely I’ll ever live with anyone else for as long as I did with you. I was so lucky, and I hope you thought so too, that we were able to be together that much, and to be able to benefit as much as we did from all that time.

And it wasn’t just being physically under the same roof; there was a unique quality to our relationship and the time we spent together. We’re quite different in many ways, and though we both sometimes found that challenging, we were good for each other on some pretty deep levels, as we acknowledged during January conversations. You have always believed in me, accepted me, and loved me. And I hope, especially during your last conscious hours, that you knew how much you meant to me, how much you’ve inspired me, and how very much I believed in you, accepted you, and loved you.

In these first few weeks since you died, I have become excruciatingly aware of just how much your presence meant in my life. I don’t think five minutes ever go by without something making me think of you. Right now I’m sitting on your bed, seeing what you saw every night when you went to sleep, and every morning when you awoke: your cat curled up peacefully by your side, the orchids you’ve been nurturing for years, the blanket I knitted for you long ago when you were away at college, your dream board with images of your favorite things: horses, airplanes and hot air balloons, chateaux in France, New York City, and Markham Caerus, your research project on its way to being your own company. Mostly, of course, I’m surrounded by your books, which range from Art That Changed The World (representing your education in archaeology and art history) to The Little Book of Incredibly Useful Knots (a nod to your passionate interest in sailing — I’ll be forever grateful that you taught me to be your first mate). Your amazingly wide range of interests, along with limitless curiosity and profound knowledge, will always inspire me.

Even though I made a conscious effort, as I know you did also, to be aware of the value of your companionship, I still feel now the difference of not having you here to share things with. I see something on TV, I want to pause the show and tell you about it. I have an idea for an article or a YouTube video, and I want to run it by you. I think of a new color palette I want to develop, and want to consult your discerning eye. And right now, every time I think maybe I could try talking to this or that person, I keep coming back to the feeling that you are really the only one on whom I could always rely to be both brutally honest and lovingly supportive. I suppose at some point I may have another close relationship like that, but no one will ever be able to replace what I’ve lost with your passing.

I keep using the word “lost”… I’ve lost you, my beloved daughter, and now I feel lost myself. Since the moment your doctors said they had to take you off life support, I’m suddenly on another planet, where nothing at all is familiar, I don’t know where I am, where I’m going, what language to use… How do I get back home? For that matter, what and where is home? I’m completely, utterly lost.

Today I drove out to the Oregon coast. I wanted to visit the beach you loved so much, just south of Cannon Beach; when you and I were there in October 2021, that’s when I spotted a bald eagle and pointed it out to you, remember that? It was soaring just above the waves breaking on the shore, and occasionally landed on that particular rock, south of the famous Haystack Rock (and quite a bit smaller); I took as many photos and videos as I could before my phone battery died, including some of you looking at the eagle. And when it finally flew out of sight, you threw your arms around me (which we both know is unusually demonstrative for you) and just said, “Thank you for bringing me here today.” You were so happy that day.

So today, on this beautiful, sunny winter’s day, I went back to that rock, where you had been happy. This time, the tide was quite far out, so I was able to walk up and place a beautiful lily on its barnacle-encrusted surface, just where you had once stood and waved to me on a previous trip. (I always loved that your middle name, Suzanne, means “lily”, and that lilies were one of your favorite flowers before you even knew that.) When the tide comes back in, it will carry the lily off, but I didn’t wait to see that happen. I was with you all through that last long night after your life support was removed, with you when you took your very last breath, and that is enough.

The lilies I left on the beach today, on the side of “Eagle Rock” (our name) facing the ocean. (Photo is my own.)

In early January, I bought a birthday card for you. You would have loved its archaeology theme: “Archaeologists just unearthed an amazing ancient artifact… your birth certificate!” (With painful irony, I received your death certificates in the mail earlier this week.) When I picked out this card, your birthday was still almost two months away, so I never did get to show it to you. On the envelope, it says, “To Valerie, for the birthday that never was.” Here’s the note I wrote inside, dated February 4, 2022: “Dear Valerie, I bought this card before you went into the hospital for the last time. I intended to write this and give it to you early, as a sign of faith that you would have another birthday. I am so sorry — I tried everything I could think of. All my love goes with you.”

You were always so brave, my bold, brilliant, beautiful Valerie, especially during the January that turned out to be your last. I‘m not sure yet if I can be brave without you, but I am sure that I will always, always love you.

— your Mum

1/31/23 update: See the video version of this letter on my new YouTube channel, Dear Valerie: Remembering My Daughter:

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