Birthday Letters

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Welcome to the eight issue in Season Two of The Cure for Sleep: Stories From (& Beyond) the Book which you can read in full over on my free Substack. This month’s theme concerns birthdays: subscribers were invited to respond to the following prompt: Write a letter on the occasion of your – or someone else’s – birthday. Or perhaps it is the anniversary of an animal arriving in your home or a new life-stage you want to celebrate?

Any stories received on this theme will be curated below. Click on each name to go direct to that reader’s contribution.

A letter in anticipation of a birthday.

Five o. Fifty. Half a century. Big birthday. BIG birthday. What does it even mean? How do you comprehend half a century? What does it look like, this long passage of time? What does it feel like? I remember my mothers 50th birthday and what that meant. Old. Closer to death. Running out of time. Nearly retired. Menopause. Dried up. Past it. Invisible. But me? Have I lived? Like really lived? Have I felt truly seen, honoured, held before I vanish? What do I do now? Make lists, lots of lists about how to really live now? Have a party? I don’t really want balloons and cake. Will I answer the questions I have now? Will I face myself, really face myself? Will the world make more sense once I pass this threshold into adulthood? Am I too old now to do these things? Wear a mini skirt, get a piercing in my nose, go to a festival, change career, travel the world, have sex (lots of sex), read all the books, play all the records, dance, swim, walk, run and find out who I am. What am I too old for? What am I too young for? What am I for now? Five 0.


A recurring thought on every birthday is my birth day.

Not all the day long, but at some point I can’t help but pay attention to that day decades ago, when I was there for sure but only have conscious knowledge of it from my mother. And that is sparse and indirect, from overheard conversations with her women friends mostly. So there are gaps that I mix up a filler for, using imagination, my own experience as a woman, and that of my mother, now long dead.

A long labour, over twenty-four hours, and finally I was pulled out with forceps, actual cold metal forceps that left my soft infant head bruised and misshapen. They also left me with a droopy eye from cranial nerve damage. I was horribly self conscious about it for years, always turning one side to the camera or the mirror to hide it, growing a long fringe to obscure it. When I learnt it was a birth injury I somehow felt better about it, saw it as a battle scar perhaps

My mother was alone in hospital for the whole labour, fathers not admitted then and we’d moved far from her family. A first-time mother and an unwilling one at that, she had no clue what to expect, no help or support, and she must have been terrified and in horrible pain.

Once yanked out I was immediately taken away for several days to have my head ‘reshaped’ and our shared trauma separated us, meaning the bond between us was never forged.


Dearest me…

Today you watched clouds fly across sky. Standing still, eyes lifted. An eagle caught in current and seemingly so free. Later, you thought there might be a rainbow but didn’t go back to look.
You listened to an owl one night when you couldn’t sleep, risking dark to try for stars. You think you saw one and you might have made a wish.

Water was too cold; smoke burned throats; you saw a sea lion almost come to shore, and it was beautiful.

Someone made someone mad and there’s broken glass on the road now. You like to think about what happened and imagine a life being lived. There may have been love, there was definitely rage and now you have to swerve to miss the shards of it all.

The wind is empty sometimes. You are bumping into silence.
There is stillness and you are crawling, and you are walking in a line that moves like this, but a raven chased a hawk in that same sky clouds were racing and you almost believed in a miracle.
Rain has come again; the apples never ripened; a dog that was lost found home.

Another year has come and gone and you took the table to the other room.

Happy birthday.


An Anniversary

It is the 5th anniversary of our IVF journey. A year-long jagged labyrinth of needles and syringes, bloating, sickness, hospital gowns, soothing words and becoming an emotional and physical stranger to myself.

And then the freedom at the end. The closed doors, the pitying half-smiles, the letting go.

I had burned as a child for adventure, for travels to far-off lands, for exotic landscapes, foreign tongues, intoxicating smells and dense climates on virgin skin. Never motherhood.

When I met my love, we quietly agreed to take the next step, but somehow, I knew this path was not meant for me and the child in me who had spun the globe knew that too.

I am not broken by it, but I find myself lost in a foreign vista. I am brave but not tough and I am cast adrift to chart a course with a heart still so full of love to give and so few to give it to. My mum whose mind is fragmented, brittle and capricious, focussing long enough to share a moment and then lost again to seas of confusion. My love whose completeness for me is all encompassing and my darling dog whose life will most likely end before mine and for whom I will be riven in two.

And so, in my new life, every morning before the sun, I quietly slip off to feed the calves. In the darkness, my feet crunching on cobbled floors, they start their morning clamour. I fill their pens with straw, and give them their warm milk, I touch their noses for signs of fever, and there amidst the peace, with the sting of ammonia and muck in the air, I give my love – a secret before the sun.

louise ratcliffe

Dear Mum,

You’ll think it’s odd that I’m writing to you, and I know that I only saw you a little while ago, but there is something I want to say.

I’m so glad that you were able to visit us today on your 92nd birthday. I know it wasn’t easy for you – the wheelchair taxi is so tiring, and it takes a lot of gumption these days to steel yourself up for journeys into the outside world. Ninety-two is a big number, hard to imagine until you reach it, and you’ve told me before that you feel every bit of 92. Lots of things are much harder now than they used to be, I can see that.

I was glad that I could make you a birthday cake and it was lovely to sing to you and watch you blow out the candles. It made me smile to see you smile. When we’d finished clapping and the cake was cut, you said that you hoped that you wouldn’t still be here when your next birthday comes around.

I think I understand that. How many birthdays are too many? When do we realise that maybe we’ve had enough birthdays and we don’t want any more?

I am so grateful to still have you with us, but I don’t want to be selfish and keep wishing more happy returns for you if that’s not what you want for yourself any longer. I just hope that wherever you are next September 30th, you will be happy, peaceful and smiling, just like you were today.

With so much love on your birthday, Mum. xxx

Sue tanton

Waking early to make an orange cake for your birthday is a small act of love that I know (all too well) will replace the words:

I love you mum.

Irish mothers don’t go in for all that touchy-feely stuff, and you have shown me in your own way over and over again across all these years just how much you cared.

It just took me some time to understand the nature of the game and to play my part and to make my own transactions at our little bank of things unsaid.

Gone are the days I question or rally against why it is this way, and I’ve come to understand that we love so much of the time as we were shown by our parents. A parent myself now, I see sharply my own imperfections and think – not for the first time – of how this all played out for you growing up in that little sacred place in Ireland where we got to have all our summers.

Our brand of love is a tug of war so silly that it makes me shake my head to think of it, fully aware that when you are no longer here anymore it will hurt me the most.

But still I cannot say it.

So I bake you a cake and hope you enjoy the of taste it.

Monique Kennedy

To Blackpool, to me.

This year my birthday was hijacked by the Queen. It was the day of her funeral, so I decided to take a leaf out of her book and have two.

Birthdays that is, not funerals.

So here I am eight days later, on a train to Blackpool. There’s an acorn in my pocket, and the silver sparkly pen my son bought me for my birthday.

I chose it myself, he said. Happy birthday from your twat of a son, he wrote in my card. Love you mum.

The rain is heavy and persistent, streaking down the train windows. I trace the wobbling drops with my finger. I know it will stop by the time we pull into Blackpool. The morning has been fraught, my son telling me to go fuck myself multiple times as I try and get him out of the house by 7.30 to catch the bus to college.

As the train pulls further away from my home town, I feel the ties unravelling. At the moment, being in my house, in my life, often feels like being tangled in barbed wire. A year ago, when he admitted that he was seeing someone else, I asked my son’s father to leave the house, and he refused. The situation is ongoing, and somehow it is all my fault.

It’s not my fault.

But Blackpool. Blackpool, where the North Shore is a five minute walk from the station. Blackpool, where the skies are big, and something inside me expands and reaches out to fill the space, tunes into the tides, and listens as the waves crash. Blackpool, where I can reconnect with myself.

I am a grain of sand. I am the wind.

Next year, next year, things will be different. Happy birthday.

Kerry Whitley

Dear A,

A call to write about birthday letters arrived the day after your birthday.

As always, I’d thought of sending you a card on the first of the month, nearly four weeks early – much too soon, even with the increasing vagaries of airmail. As always, I then forgot, and instead had to send an apologetic email on the day. We’ve both been doing this for years, more birthdays than not.

This is a big one, the year you reach the age your father was when he died. The same age as my father when he died, both of them felled unexpectedly in robust middle age. Soon you and I will both be older, god/dess willing, than our fathers ever were. I see it’s weighing on you. So many odd ways in which our lives, lived on different continents since secondary school, have intersected and echoed one another. Makes it tempting to read meaning and portent in the patterns. Or to ask: how much were our paths laid by the shared circumstances of the children we were?

But becoming our fathers’ elders – just as each of us mothered our mothers, in their waning months – suggests to me we write our own way. That when we each post photographs of a flat grey sea on the same day – one looking east, the other west – or find we love a particular song or are watching a migratory bird in common, it is cultivated sympathy, not soulless fate. That friendship creates synchronicity, and habits of perception; that it continues to generate the food of its own further thriving. The scattered crumbs of digital contact and also the rich feasts of occasional physical presence. Cake, dear A. Until I can bake one for you, from a recipe I didn’t learn from either parent.

Love, Nicola

Nicola Pitchford
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