I don’t remember much about my fifth birthday or any of my birthdays, really. I have vague images of cakes — a clown cake, a cake shaped like a guitar with frosting-painted strings, one resembling Oscar the Grouch made out of dyed green coconut. My best friend Brian from kindergarten eating an upside down ice cream cone with a face made out of gumdrops and red licorice…recollections more from family photos than actual memories.
My mother always handmade my birthday cakes. A stay-at-home mom, she thought it tacky when mothers served store bought desserts, and the cakes delivered something I wasn’t allowed to have most of the year — sugar. My mother was into nutrition and crystals in the ’80s and my grandfather was a dentist, which pretty much meant I only got sugar when I raided the pantries of friends’ houses during after school playdates. I fondly remember skateboarding with the 15-year-old kid across the street because he let me drink a lemon lime Hansen’s one day after making some sharp turns. But yeah…I digress. I was raised on carob. The trauma still hasn’t abated. Anyway, the cake was the part that came after the presents, the last hurrah before my birthday was over. And because my mom made my cakes, they impressed the crap out of all of my friends.
Aside from the cakes, my birthdays are a blur. I mostly remember the disappointments… a Double Dare– themed party that flopped when my friend discovered she could climb up the edges of whipping cream covered slide in half a second to claim the prize. A water park debacle where I got food poisoning. A Sweet Sixteen surprise party with an awkward group dynamic. All that stands out now was the last birthday I spent with my mom after her Stage IV diagnosis. My mom and dad flew out to L.A. and we all tried to pretend we hadn’t learned that afternoon that my mom was given two years to live and a terminal diagnosis. That evening, my mother put on her sarcastic charm and humored me and my friends by playing Guitar Hero (though she seriously didn’t get why anyone would play fake guitars when you could play real ones).
I remember my first birthday without her in 2009. I was still living in my parents’ home with my dad, shellshocked and exhausted with grief. It was five months after her death and everything still felt really raw. My dad asked me what I wanted to do. I decided to spend my birthday with him at the Fog City Diner in San Francisco, though I admitted to him I would rather skip it. But because he was excited to get to be the sole guest, I acted excited, though I didn’t know how my birthday would feel without my mom and I was worried about spending too much time in public in case I ended up involuntarily weeping in some fois gras.
That first birthday was an oddly sunny evening in San Francisco. We found a parking spot right in front. The meter was so full of coins that I scooped out an entire handful and pocketed it. I took it as a sign. My mother always said she thought my grandmother who passed away was saying hello when she found a penny on the ground. The coins in the parking meter felt like her, and when your parent’s just died, you see signs everywhere — in places where folks who haven’t experienced loss see coincidence. You look for comfort in parking meters. We went inside and I remember trying not to look upset as my father gushed about his new girlfriend for most of the meal.
Today is my fifth birthday without my mother, and given the way I’m feeling, it will still feel empty and lacking…of her phone calls, her cards, her presents that were rarely on my list but more stuff she wanted for herself or thought I would find cool. I tell ya, you will miss those dorky mom gifts more than you can imagine. You run out of granny panties and white socks and that day you go to Target and have to buy them for yourself is a sad day. And you miss the surprises — like the time my mom gave me a camera filled with film that I developed to revealed a bunch pics she and my dad had taken at arms length grinning like idiots. And the disappointments — a ceramic lantern with a piece of paper on which to write your wishes… already filled out by her. At the time I had been annoyed she’d had the nerve to write my wishes. She’d even burned the edges of the paper for authenticity (of what? The genie’s power?).
Now I cherish that silly hippy dippy piece of paper. I reminds me to wish for those things for myself as my mother once had.
Then there were the Runes she made me from stones she had collected from Stinson beach. She had used a permanent marker to write all of the symbols on the rocks and stitched together a burlap sack to hold them.
Too cheap to buy me a Rune book, she Xeroxed her own (how that was easier than buying another book, I never knew), three-hole punched it and put it in her old University of Minnesota binder. On the other hand, the stones for her Runes were from England. She’d sewn a bag for herself out of leather.
I felt slighted at the time. Why did I not merit a leather satchel or a real Rune book? Why did she always seem to go the extra mile for herself but not her kid? Now I realize all she did was go the extra mile for me but all I could see were the few times she didn’t. Now that she’s gone and I’ve inherited her Runes, I prefer the old binder and the burlap sack to her fancier personal set. Because she made them for me. She stood in Kinko’s Xeroxing every page of that Rune book for god knows how long — just for me. I can’t think of anyone else in my life who would Xerox an entire book for me.
Though it’s the fifth time I’ve done this, celebrated another strange year without her, I suppose there will always be this lingering sadness around birthdays, and that acceptance doesn’t make the birthday feel any better. When the person who gave you life is no longer around to wish you a happy birthday, the whole song and dance feels half-hearted. No one will ever be as excited about your birthday as your mother. And though in birthdays past you might have been shaking your head at your mom thinking, “What the hell’s the big deal?” trust me, once that person isn’t there, your birthday will never feel truly happy again.