Happy birthday to you too, I whisper back. We’re on a patch of grass beside my grandpa’s grave. My heels threaten to pierce the soft earth near a wreath of yellow flowers as I straighten up from bending to her wheelchair, kissing her cheek, my hand still in hers.
Three of us in every birthday photo. I flipped through picture books to prepare for the ceremony, finding a little girl, chubby cheeked with blunt brown bangs, forcing air through pursed lips toward a candle. Grandparents are on either side, smiling not at the camera but at me. October 14, 15, and 17. Shared joy around a cake.
These pictures show love directionally, following their eyes. Hers most of all. You’re drawn to her first, her hair dyed red like a maraschino cherry, then wherever she looks.
Her hair turns white. It’s October 16, either 2013 or 2016. She buries her husband on this date, and later, her first son. Both times, she wishes me happy birthday, and both times she means it.
She’s mostly silent here. We interpret it as strength.
Wander a rose garden in the fall. I find myself doing this the afternoon she’s gone, when suddenly the earth feels empty and I’m driving aimlessly, searching for beauty in an Ohio November.
No proud bursts of pink petals wait for me as I lock my car, walk toward the garden and brace myself against the chill. Yellow dried leaves still carpet the ground, and big red trees above me are glassy in the sunlight. Gorgeous, really.
But the roses are wilted. Those that remain are shriveled, and dry, and cracked.
In each bed, beneath the headless stems, there are plaques.
The signs are green and small enough that I bend down to read the font, seeing the name of each rose strain. There’s “Cherry Pie,” “Caldwell Pink.” “Love Grandiflora,” with petals both deep red and silver.
Beneath each descriptor is a dedication, submitted by park sponsors. For Mom, who gardened every day. A good pup, Mara. Jack, who fed his roses catfish.
Flowers will stretch to the sun and unfurl in their honor come summer, casting shadows across each plaque and swaddling them in fallen petals. Here, at the ugliest, unfairest time in the life cycle, among dirt, before growth, there are only names. Those who are missed.
The plaques could look lonely. I interpret their silence as strength.
A calmness resilient to seasons. Those who are missed but not lost.
I lean back. My heel pierces the earth.
I stand up and release my grip on her hand to leave. She squeezes mine, a moment longer and tighter, not quite ready.
Nikki Lanka is an artist and writer based in Seattle, WA.
Photo by the author.