In America, we tend to celebrate birthdays as a triumph over the sneaky, dark forces of mortality. One more year! I survived another year! As the saying goes, “Getting older is better than the alternative.”
When people die and stop getting older, often we keep celebrating their birthdays. Each year ceases to be a tick mark of longevity and becomes a tally of absence. So many years without a loved one. So many years since a celebrity departed. If you’re famous enough and dead long enough, eventually maybe we’ll turn your birthday into a national holiday. Later we’ll rearrange it to suit our schedule.
As you get older, the collection of ghost birthdays in your life grows larger and larger until you risk bumping into one at every turn. In October, I’ll observe my pop’s birthday for the first time without him, and my grandmother’s birthday after more than a decade without her. In November, my granddad’s birthday, two decades gone now, a thing unfathomable to me when that first ghost birthday came.
Today, the 29th of September, I observe the ghost birthday of Rilya Wilson. Today is her 18th birthday, the 14th since she went missing. I never met her, but I have spent a lot of time thinking about her, since I first read about her disappearance from a Florida foster home. At the time, I was working at a domestic violence shelter in Tampa, and my day-to-day interactions with victims of abuse gave me little hope that Rilya was alive. I’d seen how a flash of anger could break a child’s arm, or black her eye, or permanently damage his spine. I could imagine the ease with which an adult could purposefully or negligently kill a child. A kick, a punch, a “punishment” that went to far.
In some ways, it is this ghost birthday that clings to me more fiercely than any other. My grandparents are safely buried after long lives. My pop is still a fresh grief, but I keep part of him in a little jar on my kitchen window sill. Rilya is lost, her life cut short, and I want to be sure someone thinks about her on her birthday. Thanks for reading this and helping me do that.