When I finally earned a decent paycheck – seven bucks an hour, used bookstore clerk, Seattle, 1996 – I started buying my mother flowers on my birthday.
Once cheap celebratory sheet cake grew tired and presents could only disappoint – cue the Fugazi, the Cobain – I decided October 11th was about her, not me. So long as I had access to Camel Wides, a studio apartment, and a daily Big Gulp, I was a content half-starving half-artist. All the indulgences would come down the road when Someone from Somewhere Someday discovered me and spit-shined this diamond screenwriter-to-be.
The first time I bought them for her was the same year her father died. They were delivered to her home in Florida in the late afternoon. The voice on the line was irritated, confused. “I don’t get it. It’s your birthday. Why the hell would you do that?”
“I dunno. Because you did all the work, Ma.”
And she had – twenty-four hours of labor and a breach baby to boot. No way she didn’t give up some life bringing me to be. “What?”
“Son.” (I can still hear the lilt in her voice.) She paused and then began to cry.
Lest you think I’m trying to earn my angel wings, my motivation was complicated. I’d left home two years earlier and my mother struggled significantly with that change. We were close enough that I had to weigh the pros and cons of the thing: I knew she would suffer significant psychic anguish if I moved 2,000 miles west and I knew I’d suffer the same if I stayed. She and I carried a similar discomfort in being – both seeing that struggle reflected back in the other, all the way to end. Together, there came some element of balance, but the brew was impermanent.
Someplace between the apathetic thrift-store cardigan costume I donned and the deep connection I felt for Shelby Charlene Deal, this curious expression of flowers-for-mom-on-son’s-birthday came to be. As the birthdays ticked by and each layer of bark was stripped away, she cried less and laughed more and for that we both were the better. We transitioned into the next versions of ourselves, essential and equal anchors. There was always a number the other could call.
This week, I face my first birthday without her. The sole being with whom I shared an umbilical cord – I’m here and she’s not. My brain, my heart, my spirit are silent and exhausted. Incapable. The all of “I” simply cannot.
There will be no gravelly voicemail greeting: “Hey, my soul son, just want to wish you a happy birthday, old man” followed by silly statements of goodwill for my cats and my husband. No shiny Hallmark card with words underlined and Dad’s name signed in her handwriting. No emails reminding me to eat more and work less.
Year forty-four will be different.
This morning, Mom and I are talking, sitting knee to knee – as we often would. It’s one of those early morning dreams where you wake up, then shut your eyes quick as you can in the hopes of diving back into the sideways of it all.
“You need to take care of those tulips in the basement,” she warns. The setting – a bus depot or train station, a place of transition and movement. I’m slightly miffed by her tulip nagging, slightly miffed at my own procrastination. But she’s right – I do. The tulip bulbs down there, they’re from the hospice room where she died this spring. Yellows and purples and pinks, all bought week after week at the Publix in the same shopping center as the Hospice by the Sea.
A woman with teased blond cotton candy hair in a pink sweatshirt crosses the terminal, just brushing the two of us. “Oh, oh – ” I stammer, sit up swiftly, my skin crawling with a cold medicine sickness. The hairs on my arms and neck rise.
Then, everything slides and tilts.
“But. That can’t be, she…” I looked at Mom with wet eyes. I’ve just mistaken a stranger for her and now I’m fumbling for words to explain that impossibility to… her. I’m justifying a ghost to a ghost.
“I know, Son,” and that knobby left hand of hers with those rings from my forever-before-now days with her – worn all those birthdays and the in-betweens – she places it on my knee. “It can’t be me. You’re right.”
I wake up, desperately try diving back into the dream, and fail.
The floor vent hisses, forcing dusty heat up my side of the bed.
I close my eyes, turn away from the window, spoon into my husband. In the quiet of the dawn, I seek to make sense of the celebration and sadness of a braided mother and son who, somehow, are – and are no longer allowed to be.
Happy birthday to us.