Category Archives: birthdays

Sixty Five

Two weeks before you died, we curled up in your bed and watched “The Golden Girls.” On the TV across from us, four women huddled around a kitchen table, nibbled cheesecake and laughed fake theatrical laughs. I was too young to lose you, and old enough to sense your going. We never said death, dying, dead. If we spoke them, we’d make them true. Denial can be a life preserver. We preserved hope.

The summer before you died, we walked BWI together, and you whispered something shocking in my ear. At first, I didn’t understand. Travelers crushed around us. And I’ve never been good at walking and talking. You stopped moving. You put your arm around me. You said, “My pancreas rejected. It’s okay. I can live without a pancreas.”

I nodded, like I believed you. We walked toward baggage claim. My vision blurred. The airport looked like something under water.

I’d come home to visit the deathbed of your stepfather, the man I knew as a grandfather. I came home to play Sinatra while he took his last breaths. I came home to whisper it was okay to let go. I came home to bury him in Newark beside his first wife.

You couldn’t get out of bed the day of the funeral. We pretended you were just tired.

A month after cremating you, I marked his first yartzheit.

____

Your ashes. My God. Do you know what it is to be 21 and hear a package thump on the front stoop, make the sound of a body hitting cement? Do you know what it is to see the address stamped on the box and know your mother is inside that box?

Only, your mother is not merely your mother. She is your first god, first home, your mirror, your map, the blueprint of everything.

And then, one day, your mother is in a black box inside a cardboard box with a crematorium address stamped on the lid. Your mother is dust and splintered bones and sooty grit, a shadow you can never touch.

You remember denial is a life preserver.

Then you carry the box to a bedroom that still smells like your mother. You ignore a hairbrush holding remnants of hair that never went grey. You open a dresser drawer and tuck the box beneath a stack of sweaters. There, a burial.

____

Seventeen years later, you write before work, at night. Pronouns get confused. You are you. She is you. We are she, her, and me. You do all the mixed-up pronoun things you tell your students not to do. You tangle, untangle, tangle again. You make up for lost time. Grief makes a stern knot you don’t want to untie.

____

You read shitty self help books that say there’s a finish line for grief, say grieving too long is pathological, say sorrow and love are not proportional. You stop reading these books because they make you suspicious. You are not a pathology. You are devoted.

At a lecture, a famous writer talks about desire. Desire is the engine of literature, he says. What we want never adds up to what we have. All books, he says, are actually about crushes.

Okay.

So you have a crush on your dead mother. There are worse things. But what would it mean to stop desiring her? Would that make it okay that she is dead?

Who would you be if you didn’t want her alive?

____

You move through your twenties and thirties without her. You are effective, efficient at steering through life without a mother. You have a solid husband, a good mother-in-law, Google. You can find an answer to any question.

And yet, you delay childbearing because you are afraid to mother without her. Your friends have mothers who watch their grandchildren a few times a week. Still, your friends complain about their mothers to you, and you nod. Because what can you say?

You wonder who you will call in a childcare pinch.

Your sister hires a full-time nanny, manages to juggle a high demand job with graduate school, with two children under the age of five and one on the way.

A nephew has your mother’s eyes and all her facial expressions. A niece has her “whatever” attitude.

One day, your nephew asks to see pictures of your mother. He asks for these photos the same way he asks for Harry Potter Legos — he must have them. But there’s not enough time to show him everything, and you pull out a few photos you know he’s already seen.

You recognize the hunger in his eyes, the downturn of his shoulders when you cannot fulfill his desire to know her.

Still, a ghost grandmother is better than no grandmother at all.

____

You wish you had something wise or prophetic to say on the second week of May when her birthday and Mother’s Day intersect. For so many years, you say nothing, as if silence can erase her absence.

You graduate college on your second Mother’s Day without her.

You mark major milestones on her birthday, May 10: first day of your first job after college, the day you meet your husband, the day you decide to date him, the day he and you buy your first house together.

You mark all the birthdays she didn’t get: 49, 50, 51, 52, 53, 54, 55, 56, 57, 58, 59, 60, 61, 62, 63, 64, 65.

And all the birthdays she didn’t see you mark: 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37.

And all the events in her grandchildren’s lives that she didn’t see: brit milah, Hebrew namings, Kindergarten graduation, first steps, first words, first Siddur.

As if by marking, you can somehow take something back. Not her life. But the right to tell the story of your desire. Her desire.

Desire, from the Latin, desiderare, means “long for” and “wish for” and derives from the sadly out of vogue expression “await what the stars will bring.”

She used to sing a song of desire to you, a Karen Carpenter song about dreams coming true, stardust, angels.

When you mark her birthday, you remember this song. You remember the gift each line intones, the burden.

She no longer trails your dreams. But nothing stays gone forever.

She finds her way back to you again and again, always in a different form than what you expected.

You watch, wait, listen.

On her birthday, she used to blow out candles, then tell you to make a silent wish.

You can’t say your wish out loud, she said, because then it won’t come true.

Once you gave her a journal and asked her to write down all her desires. She left every page blank.

You fill in the pages for her. You become every wish ever wanted, every wish she never saw come true.

Sixteen Mother’s Days Without You

I don’t remember my first Mother’s Day without you. You died a month before, when cherry trees opened the season’s first blossoms. I remember unrepentant forsythia, dogwoods, and azaleas blooming along the street where you once lived. I remember standing in your living room and drawing the curtains closed. I remember I could not bear the sight of flowers or blue skies.

Surely the mundane and the beautiful could not exist in a world without you. Surely they would not go on. But they refused to disappear. I refused to stop wishing they would.

On my second Mother’s Day without you, I was 22. On this day, I graduated college.

I wore a dress I bought the day before, without you there to tell me whether the hot pink floral print was too much. I wore a matching pink lipstick. No one who looked at me that day would have thought mourner. I was good at hiding, good at pretending everything was normal. As if normalcy could exist on this day, as if normalcy could have been my aspiration.

After the ceremony, I shook Bill Clinton’s hand. (I remember nothing of his speech). Then there was a lunch with a few relatives. But I excused myself from dinner that evening. I cloistered myself in my apartment, ordered takeout. You certainly would not have approved of this behavior. The thing about grief is that it erases social graces, changes all our rules. People pleasing was the first rule I let go.

Still, I did everything I could to avoid thinking about you, which meant I thought about you constantly.

On my third Mother’s Day without you, I slept on the sofa of a woman I barely knew. I had nowhere to live & was starting a new job the next day, which that year was also your birthday. You would have been 51, but I didn’t buy a cake. No one celebrates a dead woman’s birthday. Not even me.

Four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten Mother’s Days without you. I don’t remember what I did on any single one of them. Eleven, twelve, and thirteen are foggy too, like the edges of a dream.

On my fourteenth Mother’s Day without you, my husband drove me to a house that was the same shade of storm-blue paint as our first house, the one where he and I lived after we married. This house we went to see had the same street number as our first house too. Weird, I thought.

What magic were you working from beyond the grave? I had this question even though I do not believe in magic or clear categories of afterlife. I know dead means gone. I know dead means never coming back.

Our realtor met us on the porch. Five minutes in, I knew this house was our house, the one where he and I could live, the place where I hoped your grandchild would soon live with us. We already had the nursery picked out. (Top of the stairs. Looks out over the backyard.)

We moved in the same weekend as yours and my father’s wedding anniversary, which also happens to be the same weekend as my in-laws’ wedding anniversary. But I have never known my father-in-law. Like you, he died too young. Still, I am searching for a photo of him, so that I might know him better.

The week we moved in, I placed a framed photo of you on the fireplace mantel. It’s your senior yearbook photo, the one where you are smiling through open lips and your hair is ironed straight.

But I could not bring your clothes –– the ones I saved –– into the room where your grandchild (I hoped) would one day sleep. After 14 years without you, they smelled of mold and rot.

So I did what I did with all your other clothes. I stuffed them in black trash bags bound for Goodwill. Then I went into the backyard and cried. I felt scared and certain at the same time, the way I always feel when I make a hard but necessary decision.

As much as I wanted you to exist in your shoes and sweaters and skirts, I knew you lived beyond them. You lived in me, the same way I once lived in you.

On my fifteenth Mother’s Day without you, I started this blog. You don’t know what that is, and I don’t know how to explain, other than to say these words are my heart living outside my body. These words are you living beyond me.

Writing has been the closest I have come to procreating. This is not because I do not want a child, but because my body has been hostile. You know something about that. And I wish we could talk about it, but dead means silent too.

Neither mother nor daughter, I’m feeling a little uncertain as I face my sixteenth Mother’s Day without you. What stake can I claim in this day? What bouquet or card or brunch date could possibly compare with the brilliance of your life? I am a woman who has no biological or adoptive claim to a child. Do I even matter on this day?

I suspect you’d answer “yes” to that last question. Just as I suspect my sixteenth Mother’s Day without you will be like every strange and ordinary day I’ve lived since you died. Exactly 5,513 days without you now. That’s 132,312 hours, or 7,938,720 minutes, or 476,323,200 seconds without you.

I have counted them all, which is how I also know we had exactly 7,720 days together. That’s 185,280 hours, or 11,116,800 minutes, or 667,009,000 seconds of existing in this world at the exact same time.

Seems like plenty. Seems like not enough.

My sixteenth Mother’s Day without you will be my 5,517th day without you. I have chosen to mark that day not on a calendar, but here, right now, on my heart blog, which belongs to you as much as all the construction paper cards I once made, all the burnt breakfast-in-bed toasts, all the poems with simplistic A-B-C-B rhyme schemes once belonged to you.

Today, by the way, is also your birthday. I know: I get the double whammy of your birthday and Mother’s Day in the same week (sometimes the same day!) every single year.

This morning, when you would have turned 64, I have no gift. But I will say what I said on every Mother’s Day of your life as a mother, what I wish I’d said in every moment we shared, all 667,009,00 of them. I will repeat the only words we ever needed, the best ones we could say.

Thank you. I love you. Thank you. I love you.

I will say these words as if you can hear them, as if you can whisper them right back to me.