When it comes to weddings, I think of breakup songs. And when it comes to birthdays, I think of death. I’m still the girl who smears her name with her pinky, and wears the cake icing on her nose before making a wish, but somewhere down the line, I’ve begun to value life, so much so that it makes me think of the end of it. I guess that’s what aging is about: no longer thinking you’re immortal but risking and living as if you are. I will spare you the ass-twitching “love like you’ve never had your heart broken” crap, but I am, I warn you, about to unapologetically take a turn into a marsh of maudlin.

Sometimes I hold the possibility in my mind, because one day it might be a reality, that you’ve died. I feel a deep ache and most of all an extraordinary sense of missing you. A fear of forgetting details about you, an anger that you won’t be there when I need advice, an unfairness that I didn’t know every last thing there was to know, a guilt that I could have tried harder, could have spent more time making memories, savoring, giving me more stories to tell, and more to hold on to of you. The comfort of you. The peace and security I feel simply knowing you’re in my life. At every touching moment of my life after you’re gone, I’ll be overwhelmingly saddened by the fact that you’re not there to celebrate it, to cry over it, to curse it, complain about it, make me laugh about it, or to experience it deeply.

I’ll have to remind myself that while you were here, in your own timeline, however long or brief, you felt love and joy. And for me to experience those things fully in my own life, it means enjoying the moment as it’s happening, savoring my own joy and not clouding it with the sadder thoughts of unfairness. Of “why didn’t I?”’s. Of “what if?s” Because they’re useless, really, and always lead us to the same place: that we can’t take it back. We can only do it better the next time we have a chance.

One thing I’ll always know is that you loved me unconditionally. You loved me when I made mistakes, when I failed, when I was chosen last, and when I wasn’t the best. You loved me win or lose. With or without a job. Without the makeup, with the extra weight, even when I smelled. When I was cruel or reckless, when I flat out chose wrong, you didn’t give up and made me believe and know I was capable of more. Whether you know it or not, being loved so fully by you has made me who I am. I’m a mold from that love, which enables me (it’s a gift from you) to love in the exact same way: win or lose.

I think the key to a happy life, a full life, is to love all you have, to feel lucky for each interaction, to watch and interact and learn from the people in your circle, but to realize that they’re not yours to keep. When you go at life with this outlook, you take responsibility for your own happiness and don’t overstep your bounds and force your shit onto someone else. You have to love deeply, but loosely, knowing each of us has our own journey and that those in our path will forever change it, change us, but they’re not ours to keep. We all have to embrace the unknown. And one of the hardest things to realize is that it’s not disloyal to move on. I think so many of us allow guilt to discolor our happiest moments because we think we’re betraying the person who’s gone. We worry that if we aren’t constantly grieving and missing and aching that it means we loved them less. We wrongly equate the severity of our pain with the depth and sincerity of our love.

The truth is — and it’s hard to always live it this way — that it’s a cycle, and one day when it’s our turn, we’ll leave behind loved ones who’ll feel angry that we’re not there to experience things with them, angry that we didn’t have more opportunities to experience the highs. It’s why in honor of those we love, we have to commit to eating the marrow, to live without the self-inflicted guilt, to live our lives out loud while they’re ours to live.

I’m not saying it’s easy to love loosely. The truth is we can’t live our lives in prevention mode, keeping our feelings under lock-down, hoping to escape the inevitable pain one day. Because it never fucking works. But it has to make it easier seeing each moment as a loan.

As a mother, I remind myself that I get their spirits, am allowed to witness their joys, see and come to understand the way they make meaning of things, watch as they handle change and heartache, see them grow. I remember when Abigail was just able to pull herself into a stand. I watched as she toyed with the idea of gripping onto an activity table with one hand while testing the limits of her body. How she learned to bend to the side and still hold on, to pick a toy off the floor while still standing. I love that I’m able to observe their lives, that they’re mine on loan.

All that I love is a part of who I am. Those moments together are mine, but THEY are not. Each of us has to let go and let one another live our own lives.

So if you ever die, if it ever seems like I’ve moved on, know that you’ve changed my life and I’ll forever be changed because of the life you lived and allowed me to witness. You’ll always be a part of me. I’ll try to imagine that you’re there with me, experiencing it all with me, every last drop because no matter what, you really will always be with me. Out of my love for you and all those loved ones I’ll one day leave behind, I owe it to all of us to make the kind of memories that last a few lifetimes. And I hope you’ll do the same while you’re here.

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