After Sudha Balagopal’s “Life Times Nine”
That was the birthday you hired the ponies. Never mind that I thought ponies were for babies. You grinned, delighted with yourself, dark circles cradling your eyes, oblivious I was withering inside. Even then I knew you were making up for the year you spent crying in your bedroom after Tommy died. Making up for all the grilled cheese sandwiches I burned to keep us fed when dad was on the road. For drifting around as a phantom mother who longed more for the child she’d lost rather than the one in front of her.
I’d been waiting for this birthday for years, ever since a girl in third grade returned from winter break with dainty amethysts dotting her earlobes. As her studs turned to hoops and dangles, I wheedled more for my own pierced ears. Twelve, you said, spinning a tale of this rite of passage that would begin with Chunky Monkey pancakes. A girls’ day, you said. Finally, I thought, something my dead brother couldn’t overshadow. On the day I officially out-aged your firstborn, you popped two blueberry-flavored Eggos into the toaster for me. You stood at the counter while I ate, drinking coffee in your faded blue bathrobe. After a few sips, you told me to wipe the scowl off my face. You’d forgotten your promise. Or maybe you remembered but hoped that I hadn’t. We drove to the mall that afternoon in silence, the windows rolled down in the unseasonable heat. As we walked across the parking lot, you said my hair was a mess. I combed it with my fingers, pulling at tangles. The piercing gun sent the gold vermeil post through skin and soft tissue. Such relief. Tears ran down my face and I didn’t have to explain myself.
I was rinsing my juice glass of pulp when you asked if I had any special requests for my birthday dinner. No, I answered. I told you and dad last week that I had plans with my boyfriend. He can join us, you said, it’s your last birthday at home. My jaw set, choking back a torrent of words. Your need hung in the silence, your eyes somehow sad even when they were smiling. Then I saw it, the flicker of judgment, the unspoken comparison to your sainted boy Tommy who would have grown up to choose family over a significant other. I stormed out.
I’d been home for two days after ten months in France, crabby from jet lag and forming my mouth around clunky English words. My internship wouldn’t start for three weeks, and this would mark the longest stretch I’d been at home since the summer after my freshman year. I’d picked a school on the East Coast and time abroad to put miles between us, between the way I’d never live well enough for two. Before you even offered birthday wishes, you sighed and said you wished Tommy—never Tom or Thomas—could be here with us. Merde, mom, don’t you ever get tired of clinging to your grief? You have no idea what it’s like, your voice scalpel-sharp. You’re right, I said. But it wasn’t as if dad—as if I—didn’t miss him too. Yet we moved beyond carrying just our grief. You? That’s all you have to show for yourself.
I was in the full-bloom of pregnancy, counting down to birth day. The baby I already loved beyond words kicked and pushed as though trying to create more space within the tight embrace of my belly. I dialed your home number, both familiar and foreign. I’d only called dad’s office in the past two years, the one channel of communication carrying news big and small: my elopement, dad’s hernia surgery, your volunteer work in the NICU, the neighbor’s cat scaring off the songbirds. I rubbed my bulge—unsure which child inside I was attempting to soothe more. You answered. Heart in my throat, my voice unnatural, I said, Mom, it’s me. I heard muffled sobs on your end of the line.
This year marked milestones for both of us: I now qualified for “Over the Hill” cards and you qualified for Medicare. You suggested we celebrate my birthday with a long weekend in Chicago, mother and daughter. After check-in, you went for ice. I found you thirty minutes later, sans ice bucket, at the far end of the opposite beige wing, trying your key card in every door. The next morning, as I was putting earrings in, you said that Tommy had been coming at night to steal money from your purse. I sat hard on the bed, treating you as I treated my daughter Amalie, now a teen, asking careful questions, marshalling myself to stay calm as I listened more than talked. That afternoon, after our stroll to Lincoln Park, you napped. I stepped into the hall, called dad and said, something’s terribly wrong.
You remembered. I’ll never know if you did it on your own or if you asked nursing staff for help, but you called to wish me a happy birthday. You sounded cheerful, your voice warm and honeyed. I told you that dad had sent me a beautiful bouquet of tulips from the both of you. I’d already dropped in pennies from the year Tommy had been born, the kind with ninety-five percent copper, into the water to prevent drooping stems. I glanced at the arrangement, the soft pink petals catching a shaft of sunlight, an emergence akin to hope. I told you that Amalie was driving down for the weekend and, along with her father, promised me breakfast in bed. You told me how lucky I was to have such a loving daughter, how sorry you were that you hadn’t remembered my birthday. But mom, I said, you did remember. You called me. You said you didn’t think so though you hoped I didn’t feel like an afterthought. You said, happy birthday, I’m sorry.
Elizabeth Fletcher writes and teaches yoga in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Her work has appeared in Leaping Clear, The Nonconformist, Tiferet, Gone Lawn, Flash Frog, and more. She can be found online at www.esfletcher.com or on Twitter @esfletcher.