Here’s another scene for my book (maybe!). This is true and so true about my mother! I love thinking back to all the birthday gifts she gave us when we got older. The older we got, the funnier it got. My dad once estimated there were “at least 250” gifts under the Christmas tree. Birthdays weren’t much calmer. Today is the 5th anniversary of saying good-bye to her. I miss her so much.
Lainey was secretly dreading her birthday. Every milestone without her mother was sharp and bittersweet, another year without her, another year closer to her mother’s age, age 42, when she’d been diagnosed.
On the surface, she made a lot of fanfare about Thursday, when she would turn 37. Oh, the spoiling she would receive. She ribbed the boys, asking for pink Legos and pink Beyblades. She had decided, again secretly, that because she could not beat them, she would join them, this houseful of boys. If she couldn’t convince them to sit and read a book or bake a cake, she would at least infiltrate their world with color.
But when Thursday came, she woke at 6 a.m., an hour before the alarm would sound, and stared at Nick, willing him to open his eyes and wish her happy birthday, willing him to open his eyes and forget. She felt a rise of panic in her chest when he rolled and sighed and pulled up the covers. It was a strange sensation, one of stirring and fear, one of inevitability.
He awoke then and saw her face, just inches from his. “Morning, birthday girl,” he said and smiled halfway before going back to sleep.
She felt a full, happy, rushing love, so grateful was she to have this man next to her on this day, every day. But she fought it, held it in check. She was afraid to breathe too deeply, to take too much.
The boys came romping in then. They jumped and elbowed and kicked their way under the covers. Lainey liked the distraction. They had forgotten it was her birthday and it offered her a reprieve.
She kissed and snuggled them until Nick woke again and pulled their ears close and whispered. And the boys complied, belting out the birthday song and looking under the bed for her presents, betraying that they knew where she kept theirs.
Her presents would wait, Nick declared, until after school. And with a thunder they were gone. Nick headed to the shower but he stopped when he saw her still there, not following the boys to the kitchen.
“What are you doing today?” he asked.
She didn’t answer and when she didn’t, he sat on her side of the bed and put one arm over her.
The tears came then, tight and harsh. But they stayed inside, in her throat, in her eyes. Lainey looked at Nick and said nothing. He looked at her and saw everything.
“I’ll go shopping with my sisters,” Lainey said. “Like we used to.” Lainey barely got this out, her voice pitching with tears. She looked away, out the window. Nick nodded, quiet.
“Go shower,” she breathed, anxious to rid herself of witnesses.
And when he was gone, she lay there and let the days with her mom come into her chest, her face, her fingers. She tried to feel what she might have felt on this day five years ago. She didn’t let herself go back like this very often any more. She stayed above it, in front of it, as much as she could. To let the slide start was tricky business. Yet it felt delicious: to allow herself the sweet memory of her mother and her sisters, a merry jumble of women and laughter and bitchiness and, on days like this, shopping and fuzzy navels.
She lay still and took it then, head on. The loss and the longing. The feeling built in her chest and still, she held on. She closed her eyes and imagined lunch with her mother, or dinner. Her mother buying too many presents, the kitchen table full of bags and tissue paper so deep it was hard to see who gathered round it. Her father grumbling and watching the news at the far end of the party, out of sight. Her mother would fuss and forget, just one more, that’s right, there was still one in the bedroom, Lainey, wait, there’s one more.
The memories made her nervous at first, to know the crushing sadness that would come with them, after them. But she stayed with it, through the butterflies in her stomach and past them, until she felt her mother, with her family, dinner on the stove behind her, her daughters setting the table. Lainey would celebrate her birthday in this way, by letting herself remember.
And she found, as she lay there, that she could hold more sadness now, the happiness cupping it, bearing it, reaching around it. She leaned into the space, seeing how far she could go, relieved to have found a spot she could curl into.
She stayed like this until she heard the boys start to fight in the next room and then wrestle, followed by the contagious sound of one’s laughter and the thump of another falling off the horseyback of his brother.
Lainey rolled out of bed, then, sat on the edge and let her eyes dry. She stood and walked to the closet, the boys deconstructing the couch in the distance. Lainey decided she would make breakfast wearing the last pair of slippers her mother had given her, red and fuzzy.
And as she dug through the closet, she found it.
A sleeping bag. For Nelson. One she’d bought for his birthday a month ago. A present she had forgotten to give him, the thought lost in the gift wrap that garnished the length of the bed the morning of his birthday.
Mom, she thought. She dropped to her knees and pulled the sleeping bag onto her lap, hugging it against her chest. She laughed into the quiet of the closet. Age 37 and here with her boys, with their jumble of shouts and jumps and Legos.
And, with her mother. Yes, she thought. My mother is here, with me, with my family.