My mom would have celebrated her 63rd birthday today.
That fact has been on my mind a LOT lately.
I even picked up at CVS a Whatchamacallit and a Hershey’s With Almonds bar – even though I’m in the middle of an effort to peel myself off an addiction to chocolate. I just had to, because those candy bars (like the Diet Coke I also bought) reminded me of some of her favorite indulgences.
I have to confess, I am not the best son or friend when it comes to things like birthdays or staying in touch. It’s just one of those social skills I never picked up during my youth in poor circumstances while surrounded by most of the people I knew. The idea of sending gifts or cards to people never quite became a habit. So even though I probably got along with our mom best among the three of us kids, I have not been especially close as an adult. I think my obsessiveness about her first missed birthday is a bit of subconscious guilt over not doing a better job of staying in touch, and perhaps over how I reacted to her disability.
She had a stroke at age 47, about a month after 9/11 and in the middle of my senior year of college. It impaired her mobility on her dominant right side, limited her speech, and while it didn’t stop her from relearning or never losing certain skills like driving, life was never again easy for her.
I remember the night I found out as one of the worst in my life, as I was on edge throughout a meeting or three I was attending on campus as I awaited word from my brother about what was going on. Knowing everything up front, I’ve found, is often easier to process than the dribs and drabs that we all too often have no choice but get in such situations. Needless to say, despite a valiant effort at rehab, she never really worked again (although that didn’t stop her from trying, including a late effort to start a business flipping micro-housing). I put on a brave face, even showing up at a Student Government meeting a few days after finding out, but I was wrecked. I had to take a Portuguese midterm late, nearly forgot to take my GRE for grad school, missed the deadline for likely inclusion in the UF Hall of Fame, and turned in some of my worst grades of my academic career that semester. When I wasn’t in class or pretending nothing was wrong, I had the windows drawn and the lights out as I cried myself to sleep, sometimes crying and sleeping for 12 hours a night.
After a few disappointments with my extra-curricular activities, a growing financial pinch, and continued frustration at seeing my mom’s stalled recovery, all amid a mediocre final semester, I then made the seemingly rash decision to abandon the small college town I grew up in for a bold, risky plan to move to DC for grad school even though I had no friends or connections there and don’t drive. I don’t think I totally saw this that way at the time, but I must have felt I needed a fresh start.
Since I’ve moved, nearly 15 years ago, I have only visited Gainesville twice: for my brother’s high school graduation, and for my mother’s death.
Sure, I did make the perfunctory efforts at staying in touch, talking to her monthly early on and less so as time went on. She visited me in DC once, and we both went to Indiana for my sister’s wedding. But I don’t think I ever quite got over the depressive episode her disability sent me through or the family drama that was happening even before the event. I think I simply decided any stress from that part of my past was best avoided, especially when I had no news to share with them.
Given all this, it may not surprise you that I shamefully forgot her birthday last year. Didn’t even call. March 9th came and went just like any other day in the office for me. And now it’s the day I have been obsessing over all year. If only I had one more chance to do the right thing, and call her on her birthday. She’d enjoy hearing about my professional successes and my jokes about coworkers. And she’d reassured me she was proud of me. And I’d get one more chance to tell her I loved her and she should come visit.
** pause to get a Kleenex **
I think I’m going to save that Whatchamacallit for a special occasion. Maybe Mother’s Day.