Until a few years ago, my grandmother used to take down an old, silvery angel from the top of her shelf, and place it on a birthday cake. My cousins and I- red-cheeked from playing soccer in the cold outside, our little eyes hungrily eyeing what was often our fifth dessert of the day- knew that the angel meant quiet. We stood around the wooden table, shifted uneasily so that the boards beneath us creaked, and folded our hands together.
We would watch as all the adults gathered around that birthday cake to think about Uncle Dermott. I used to wonder what they were telling him. Karlie’s gotten so big, you can’t even imagine. Or perhaps, I wish you were here, Dermy. Mom made that pudding you like. I used to wonder about how he managed to hear all those thoughts at once.
After the silence was inevitably disturbed by someone’s cough or the landline, Andrew was ordered to shut off the lights. And for only a moment, the room appeared to be made from darkness.
Uncle James would light the candles. It looked like church on Christmas Eve, with the orange flickering off the walls and slipping into the air. There was something magical about those two little candles, because I would stare at them as their flames unfurled until Karlie blew them out.
After that, the Christmastime mourning was over, and the cake was sent around to the kids. Cassie and I would go downstairs to play dark hide-and-go-seek until we fought or hit our knees on the table. The older kids would hang out on the couch, discussing their presents. Mary would nap upstairs.
And one year, it all stopped.
No one said anything. None of the cousins knew why. Perhaps it was because Karlie stopped coming all the way to the city for Christmas. Perhaps it was because the pain became to much. Perhaps because that was the year that baby John was born, and his lungs hadn’t gotten better.
But we never stopped mourning. Even though my grandma never takes down the angel from the highest cabinet anymore, the cousins know to stay quiet. Everyone’s eyes are a bit muted with loss. Dermott, we all think, unwrapping our presents in front of the tree that’s decorated with ornaments touched by his hands. Come back, we miss you. It is the most terrible thing in the world, to eat your birthday cake all year long without you.