Friday, September 8, 2006

The Other Birthday Girl

Growing up, I enjoyed telling people that I was born on my mother's birthday. I didn’t know many others who could say that, and I liked feeling special. But really, that was almost my only childhood acknowledgement of her birthday. The fact that she was part of my birthday story made her birthday slightly interesting. But only slightly!

My paternal grandmother used to tell the story of how I once said to my mother: “Guess what? We have a surprise for you!” To which my mom replied, “What is it?” My enthusiastic answer: “We didn’t get you anything for your birthday!”

That story has not improved with age.

As I grew older, my mother and I cherished the occasional birthday we celebrated together. Usually we lived far apart. We would talk on the telephone, though, and tell each other about our day—what we had done, who we saw, how we celebrated.

And my mother always said, before we ended our conversation, “You were the best birthday present I ever got!” I can still hear her voice.

On her last birthday—when she turned eighty—she was sitting up in her bed in a hospital room as she laughed, talked and opened cards and presents. As a joke, we had signed the name of her quiet, humorless physician on one of the cards. She loved it. Smiling nurses wandered in and out of the room, sometimes leaning against the wall for a few minutes to talk. My mother said, “Everyone wants to be where we are, because we're having so much fun.”

I think all of us knew it was her final birthday, herself included, but I couldn't bear to think of it then. After being her favorite birthday present for so many years, how could I have imagined a birthday without her?

Now she’s gone and, of course, I miss her and what she said to me every September 8th. For the first several birthdays after she died, I didn’t want to celebrate. The other birthday girl wasn’t there.

But time and memory can re-ignite the imagination, often out of necessity. Now I can picture a special birthday card just for me. It’s from my mother. You can guess what it says.

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