My backyard birthday present

Soon after Nico died, I was introduced to the concept of a "calendar of grief," the idea that certain days of the year take on deeper, darker meanings in the aftermath of death. For instance, March 19 will always be Nico's birthday, although he'll never grow a year older. Father's Day brings to mind the family Nico will never build. New Years Day, in the secular and Jewish calendar, will herald the start of another year without Nico. And on and on, with so many other emotionally charged dates - the day he died, our anniversary, Mother's Day...

In that context, as May 24th drew closer, I knew it would be a complex and challenging day, full of potent symbolism. It would mark the start of my 29th journey around the sun, a journey on which Nico wouldn't be joining me. An acquaintance of mine, a woman I rarely speak with about personal issues, reached out to me out of the blue with a timely message: "I know what it's like to have that first birthday after losing someone. I'm here if you want to just scream into the phone."

As the day neared, I didn't know what to do or how to prepare, because I didn't know how I would feel. I was torn between completely incompatible ideas for how to spend the day. Would I do best to invite all my friends over for a celebratory party, work a normal day as if it was just another Wednesday, or hide in my house and ignore all communication? There was only one thing I knew I needed to do: attend the ceremonial re-opening of my adopted backyard.

For those who have been to my home before, you know that my building has a pretty sad backyard. I love my apartment, but behind it, there's just a big slab of concrete, with a depressing strip of grass running across the back. It gets very little sun, and there's not much alive back there. Luckily, I live a block away from Alamo Square, the iconic hilly park that sits across from the Painted Ladies and provides gorgeous views of San Francisco in all directions.

Over the six years I've lived around the corner from this park, I've spent countless hours walking around it, playing bocce with friends in the grass, and reading books on quiet afternoons. And notably, on March 12, 2015, as our first date came to a close, Nico walked me across Alamo Square and kissed me goodnight at the corner closest to my house.

A little over a year ago, on May 10, 2016, the whole park was fenced off for an extensive renovation project, primarily for the purpose of rebuilding its wasteful irrigation system. The project was supposed to be completed by the end of 2016, but the rainy winter and construction delays kept pushing the re-opening date further and further back into 2017. Although I'm glad the park got the TLC it needed, it was tough to be without the convenient outlet to the natural world I relied on. Every time I walked past the park, surrounded by an unforgiving chain link fence, it felt like my backyard was in jail.

And then, just over a month ago, the official re-opening date was announced: May 24. My birthday.

When I read the announcement, I knew that it wasn't a coincidence. I was getting a birthday present from my city! Or maybe from the universe. Or maybe from Nico.

And so I knew the re-opening of Alamo Square would play a significant role in my birthday. When I woke up on May 24, the first thing I did was go for a run. The park wasn't officially opening until 11 AM, but I noticed some of the fencing was already down, so I ran through, for the first time in over a year. The park was bustling with Rec and Parks workers getting ready for the opening ceremony, and a few other neighbors who had ventured into the park a bit early. New trees and plants dotted the beautiful grassy fields. It felt amazing to be back.

I returned home to a home-cooked waffle breakfast, beautifully prepared by my roommate David, and started my work day. Around lunchtime, David and I walked back over to the park together, and were joined by a few other neighborhood friends to watch a group of city officials and cute local kids cut the ribbon and officially re-open the park. After so many months without the central gathering space that gives my neighborhood its name, we were all delighted to be back, and the mood was jubilant.

Despite all the pomp and circumstance, I couldn't help but notice that the park was still a bit rough around the edges. Not all the landscaping was completed in time for the opening. The tennis courts were covered in plants awaiting planting. The concrete steps up from the street were badly cracked. Piles of gardening tools were still scattered around the park.

But even this incomplete feeling to the park seemed oddly appropriate. My backyard wasn't totally ready for its grand opening, but the date arrived, and they opened it anyway, warts and all. I felt a sense of kinship with the park. I, too, reopened myself to the world before I was totally done with my own internal renovations.

In the final hours of May 24th, my friend Ariel arrived at my apartment. In addition to sharing a deep love of Nico, we also share the same birthday. Two years ago, Nico had hosted Ariel's birthday party at his home in Oakland, and the 3 of us had celebrated all together, so we wanted to do something to bring him into our shared birthday again this year. Although it was late, dark, windy, and cold, we packed a bag with some symbolic items that connected us to Nico, and walked around the corner to Alamo Square.

It didn't take long for us to identify the right spot for us to invoke Nico's presence. A huge, beautiful, complicated tree, standing alone at the center of the north edge of the park, beckoned to both of us. As midnight approached, we circled the tree, and called out to Nico, sharing pieces of our love and our pain out loud with whatever and whoever could hear us. We dedicated the tree to him, closed the ritual, and walked back around the corner to my apartment. It was May 25th. Our birthday had ended.

Nico died less than five months ago. There are still seven months to go on this first cycle through the calendar of grief. But now, as I move forward through this year and the years to come, whenever I'm seeking a connection to Nico, I have a tree I can visit in the freshly liberated park that serves as my backyard.