I’ll get to the point – it’s Cleo’s birthday on Friday. She should be 12. Not yet a teenager but certainly in possession of enough sass, sparkle and secret giggles to make it clear that adolescence is on the horizon. She’s always on my mind, of course, and I have begun to get masochistic enjoyment out of the painful squeezing of my heart whenever I notice it. But, as a birthday gradually looms (what a terribly sad thing that is, for a child’s birthday to ‘loom’) and I find myself compelled to thoughts of parties, cake, presents, joy, we find ourselves once again having to work out how to survive the day without Cleo at the heart of it all.
I rather enjoy fantasising about what Cleo’s birthday might have looked like. She’d be pretty annoyed that celebrations would need to be curtailed due to this pesky virus, though stoic. No doubt her Trump assassination plans would also now extend to PM Johnson – she was such a peaceable and loving creature, but Trump brought out a justice-seeking killer instinct that I was supremely proud of. I imagine that she’d make the very best of a lockdown birthday, What’s Apping all her mates, designing her birthday cake (she always talked about the one I made for her 7th birthday which had layers of caramel and chocolate cake, that one really stuck with her!) and being characteristically modest about her birthday gift wish list. Lovely girl.
Last year, the first birthday without Cleo and so soon after her death, we ran away, as far away as we could reasonably go. It was terribly hard, but we did get through the day with some shards of happiness – dammit, we were, are, a happy family. This year there’s not really anywhere to retreat to. Maybe that’s a good thing, I don’t know, I’m not overthinking or making any ‘plans’ (planning is banned in our house these days, far less painful when things have to change. We only aspire. Much safer).
I’ve called this blog post ‘Punctuation’. This is partly because there’s been so much emphasis on home learning/ home ed during lockdown, thoughts and opinions shared on the well-being of the nation’s children during the strangest of times. Like any family, we have done our best to juggle all the competing demands of work and learning. The measure of whether or not I feel we have done a good enough job is ‘are my kids ok?’ And they are. They already battle every day with a dimension that is mercifully rare; also the worst possible thing that any family can experience and endure. Lockdown is nothing. It barely moves us. Being able to stay home, not have to face the cheery, quickly-forgetting world and all its demands – what a bonus for us, ha! Big sis and little bro #1 miss their friends, but they still keep in touch with enough balance between frequency and distance for it all to be ok. The grown ups? We desperately miss family, friends, playing music, the pub! but we are faring well since we’re best pals, which is always handy.
The other aspect of punctuation is those moments where you are drifting along in one universe and something comes along to puncture whatever place you’re in and catapult you back into grief. Those experiences are fewer these days, but just as powerful. Half listening to BBC Radio 3 on Sunday as we often do (you never know when Kaufmann might turn up) an interesting programme comes on about a forensic scientist choosing her favourite music. The conversation turns from her working life to talk of her own experience of the death of a child; to paraphrase, I think she said the worst thing possible in life had already happened to her. The gear change, as you realise where the conversation is heading, is shocking; a punctuation. I found myself laughing briefly in horrified solidarity. What is there left to fear? The worst thing imaginable has already happened to us. So. There we are.
Cleo, in your honour this year I have adopted a llama in your name. And we’ve all got fluffy llama socks to wear on your birthday. We will light candles, we will make a cake and we’ll try to smile and laugh as much as we can for you. Your baby brother, temporarily resident in your room, has rather annoyingly picked off some of the stickers from your door sign that says ‘Cleo’s Room’. I haven’t really told him off, because I know you’d quickly forgive him. He knows who you are, my darling. He recognises your face even in pictures we haven’t shown him before. Sometimes he calls you ‘Kylo’ but he’s getting there. It means the absolute world to us.