Remembering My Son on His 26th Birthday

It doesn’t matter how many years pass, each year as Elijah’s birthday approaches, I find myself moving closer to him. The body remembers and the mind is drawn to our beloveds who are gone even as our arms reach round to find them absent.

This year, Elijah turns 26. I say turns because he feels a part of the fabric of my heart even as his physical remains lie in a little cemetery on the outskirts of a town. I haven’t been to that cemetery in over a decade. I don’t feel the need to visit Elijah’s grave anymore. I did at first, and I am grateful to all who helped us keep it manicured for so many years.

Eliah as a toddler (c. 1999) (Photo Credit: Desi Richter)

My son’s memorial has moved from a monument to the lives we live

Sometimes, I imagine that anyone who walks by it might wonder why people aren’t there. I think the memorial has moved from the beautiful headstone we created to the lives that we are trying to live.

But this post is not about the end of Elijah’s life. It is about the beginning. Elijah opened my heart. He made me a mother. There is no way I was ready to mother. No one ever really is. But I brought my best mothering instincts to Elijah and to all my kids even as I brought my immaturities, my failings, and my neuroses. This is what parents do. We muddle through with skills that are in no way comparable to the love that we feel for our babies.

The love of a parent is vast

It is a vast love. It is an imperfect love. It is a love that we have to learn to shape in the ways our kids actually need. I do not think that parenting ever gets easier – maybe in the physical, but there are still days where I am up early for the school run and late with a little TLC for kids who are coming of age in a world that is amazingly tumultuous.

Was it any less so when I was coming of age? Maybe not. But I was certainly less aware, and I was comforted by the certitude that God was in control. Then I started thinking, “If this is God in control, no thank you.”

What I didn’t leave is the sense that mystery exists. That faith involves not certainty but a humble acceptance of the absolute wildness of our existence. I can bow to that wildness. I see it in the storms that just blew through much of our country. It’s a wild world, and lately I have found it pretty grounding to right-size my expectations about this existence. We are so small. And that’s really just fine.

My son’s birth awakened vulnerability and joy in me

Elijah’s birth brought to bear both our vulnerability and our propensity toward joy. He awakened curiosity in me. The kid loved the water . . . and stones. And crayons. I was telling my other kids how Eijah would sit and intently make marks on the page with crayons and pens. He seemed in awe of his ability to put those marks down. So human. So aware somehow of the magic of his own agency. And just so dang sweet. Yeah, that’s my boy; sweet and sure to find his way into a scrape.

This weekend, I will take some time to honor that birth, likely a bit on my own. Then, I will turn the page and glory in his sister’s birthday the very next day. The see-saw of emotion used to be pretty extreme. But I think the day has softened over the years. We always miss our loved ones. But how can I not celebrate this little one that set me on the journey of motherhood?

Parenting is a journey I’m still on and I celebrate the one who started it for me

It’s a journey I am still on. Let me tell you, labor is just the beginning. The work is lifelong, and I am convinced that our job is to help our kids be born not to us, but into themselves. And what selves they are if we will just sit back and observe. What a gift to stop trying to control their emergence. I absolutely give a little push now and again, but what I enjoy the most are the moments when I just sit back and watch them take on some new endeavor.

My youngest plucking a guitar last night, Oli popping off a witticism at light speed, Ana intuitively paring heels with her (okay my) bell bottoms.

All of my kids coming to me with a “Dearest Mama.” (A sure sign that my credit card is about to be requested). 

Yeah, Elijah started all this business, and I celebrate that, all the while holding that crevice of ache very gently today. Gently, gently, we go. Love to all of you who have had the joy of loving deeply and the honor of holding a loved one who has passed on close in your heart. 

More Great Reading:

My Daughter Died from Ewing’s Sarcoma Cancer: What I Learned From Our Devastating Loss

About Desi Richter

Desi Richter is a New Oleans based writer, musician and educator, and she writes about bereavement, fundamentalism and parenting (often the intersection of these three things). Her first book, The Presence of Absence, will be published in 2024. Her mission is to normalize talking about grief in everyday spaces. It is her belief that loss is the tie that binds us all and that, especially in these times, writing about loss in honest ways can help us to heal.

Read more posts by Desi

Don't miss out!
Want more like this? Get updates about parenting teens and young adults straight to your inbox.