My mom didn’t call me on my birthday each year at the exact time of day I was born, and tell me the story of my birth. She didn’t sing the Happy Birthday song to me over the phone, and she certainly did not send me to elementary school with little love notes tucked into my lunch bag on my birthday. She used to say that my father was a baby about his birthday, by which she meant that he liked for all of us to make a bit of a fuss over him each year. For her own birthdays, she told us not to bother, to save our money, that she didn’t need anything, and that she would cook her own dinner. We never listened, of course. For her 70th, she was particularly adamant, but we planned a fancy private dinner anyway. We ended up celebrating in the hospital, as she lay next to us in a coma. We joked --- because what else was there to do at such a time --- that she would go to any length not to celebrate her birthday. But, then, she baked the most amazing birthday cakes when we were little. There was Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch, a guitar, baby blocks –-- all homemade and elaborately decorated by hand. Most recently, she broke out her cake decorating tools for my nephew's first birthday, creating the perfect Elmo cake for him. Generous gifts turned into generous checks as we grew up and preferred to pick out our own things. I celebrated my 21st birthday in London, during my semester abroad. On my mom’s urging, I took my five roommates out to dinner, courtesy of my parents. I remember shrimp and sake, wine and great friends. The only low point of the evening was the bill, reflecting an exchange rate grossly in favor of the pound, and the fact that Benihana in London was a bit fancier than its American counterpart.
I celebrated my 34th birthday a few weeks ago, the first without my mom. It was a quiet day spent working from home, with frequent interruptions from friends and family via phone, text, and of course, social media. In the quiet spaces between each birthday message, I thought of my mom. Part of me waited for her phone call all day, because how could it be possible that my mom, the person who gave me life, who more than anyone else should celebrate my birthday, would never do so again? A silly thought, perhaps, after ten months of grieving and learning to live without her, but the knowledge that she couldn’t find a way to wish me a happy birthday made her death so much more real.
I have a Polaroid picture, taken shortly after my birth, of me and my parents. They look so young –-- only a few years older than I am now –--- and as I look at it, I realize I have so many more questions for my mom. At three and four years younger than my sisters, and arriving as my parents neared 37, my sisters have teased me forever that I was a mistake. My mom always reversed the negative, telling me that I was a pleasant surprise. Always petite, she gained 50 pounds while pregnant with me, and used to say that she never lost it. In short, she joked that I ruined her. But I also know that I was an easy baby, happy and content to sit in my high chair, while the older kids ran in circles around me. I know that as the baby of the family, and perhaps because of my striking resemblance to my mom –-- both physical and in temperament --– I got away with more than my sisters sometimes did. But there is so much more I want to ask, especially now as my husband and I navigate the start of our own family. I want to know about her own losses, and whether she worried about having kids later in life. I want to know if she compared herself to her peers, most of whom started their own families years before my parents did, as I find myself doing at times. I want to know what my birth was like, and how she felt having a new baby while trying to celebrate Christmas for my older sisters. And, of course, I want to know how she managed to raise three kids under the age of four, without losing her mind.
I sat with my mother-in-law this past week, fascinated as she told stories about the adoption process they undertook, in bringing my sister-in-law home from Korea, close to 30 years ago. The birth story she told is so different than many, as Kendra didn’t arrive until close to her first birthday, but the gist of the story was the same. Regardless of age, of skin color, of biology, Susan knew immediately that Kendra was hers. And that was it.
We’re connected to our mothers –-- whether by nature or by nurture –-- in the most intimate of ways. As babies, we're soothed by their touch, their smell, their voice. As adults, that connection runs even deeper, and I daresay, the loss even more overwhelming. It's a daily work, this loss, continuing to humble me with each passing month. As I enter a new year, in more ways than one, I thank you again for traveling this road with me. Here's to light and love in 2013.