Tomorrow is my birthday. It’s 9:40 pm and I’m sitting alone in my house, my favorite Philadelphia radio station streaming in the background, a citronella candle burning nearby to stave off the omnipresent mosquitoes, quietly and peacefully writing a blog post.
Did I mention that tomorrow is my birthday?
Now saying that may not seem like a big deal, but it kind of is for me. You see, birthdays in most of my adult life (ie, since I was old enough to legally drink) have been greeted with much anticipation and fanfare, with me not-so-subtly reminding my friends in the weeks before to save the date while also pretending that I couldn’t care less about doing anything on the day of.
In reality, what would actually happen is that I’d usually have weekend or week-long festivities with different friend groups–dinner with some, drinks with others, still Sunday brunch with another group. There also would usually be much ado about having some kind of celebration or at least an adult beverage with friends the midnight I turn whatever the next year of my life it happened to be. One ex-boyfriend and I passed two of my birthdays traveling in exotic locations–one in Italy, one in Hawaii. It was kind of a big deal.
So it’s pretty significant that I’m spending the night before this one alone. (Especially since I’m back with my recently estranged boyfriend, who you may remember from a previous post.)
But tonight although I don’t have to be, I am choosing to pass the evening in my own company. I mean, let’s be honest–birthdays in your 40s aren’t what they used to be, and it seems a bit uncouth to be celebrating bang on at midnight a birthday in which I will become closer to 50 than I am to 40. (You do the math.) I have some modest plans tomorrow for a mellow dinner out with friends after a day of going about my normal business (dance class, possibly a surf, a bit of work), and another year of life on earth will be done and dusted.
Birthdays also took on slightly less (or more, depending on how you look at it) significance 13 years ago today, the day on which my mother passed away at the age of 71 after a two-month battle with esophageal cancer.
I missed saying goodbye to my mother in person because I was celebrating my birthday at a karaoke bar in San Francisco while she lay dying in a hospital bed in Pennsylvania. There, I said it. I’m still ashamed of myself that this was the case, and over the years I tried not to blame myself for any number of reasons, but this is the truth, plain and simple.
My mother was diagnosed with cancer in August 2004–by October 16 of that year, she was gone, despite undergoing several rounds of chemotherapy that only served to make her last months on earth fairly miserable.
At the time I was living in San Francisco and working a full-time job as a technology journalist, and telecommuting was still a new thing, so I didn’t go across the country to see her straightaway. After the diagnosis, I think I knew very quickly that it was a death sentence. Esophageal cancer is one of the “bad ones,” and usually only surgery gives a patient a chance at any significant remission or recovery.
My mother–her body weakened and partially paralyzed from a stroke two and a half years before–was not a candidate for surgery. Although I knew in my heart she would die–I think my sister and father also knew, but we’ve never spoken about it–I didn’t realize how quickly it would happen, nor what impact it would have on me.
My mother and I were never particularly close–we were both too sensitive and tended to rub each other the wrong way. She also was very conservative in her mindset–a devout Catholic–and I was a liberal who’d moved 3,000 miles from home and was co-habitating with my boyfriend in a life far from where I grew up. This, among other things in my lifestyle, was basically unheard of in my Italian-American family in which everyone married, had children, and stayed more or less close to home.
Still, though we had our differences, she was the only mother I would ever have, and her relationship to me was a significant one. Though I felt closer to my father, my mother was the only one out of my parents who ever said “I love you,” and that meant more to me than I ever had a chance to tell her.
I only saw my mother for a week in the two months I knew she was dying, and it was three weeks before she passed away. I arranged with my company to work remotely from my parents’ house in Pennsylvania so I could spend some time with her–at the time she was undergoing chemotherapy–and help out around the house. We still we’re aware that she would pass as quickly as she did.
I wish I could remember more of that week, but only a few things stick out in my mind, mainly sad memories. The one thing that pains me the most to this day is I can’t remember the last time I actually saw my mother, or how I said goodbye to her in person.
The Monday before my birthday, which was on a Saturday that year, my father put me on the phone with my mother. I was at work back in San Francisco, and she was in the hospital because she wasn’t able to eat properly–and thus receive nourishment–because of the tumor in her throat, and so was being fed intravenously. (This is often how people with esophageal cancer die–basically by starving to death.)
“Happy birthday, Liz,” my mother said to me, sounding like the woman I’d come to know over the last two years, who had changed after her stroke but was still someone resembling the woman who raised me. She never forgot birthdays.
“My birthday isn’t until Saturday, Mom,” I said to her. “But thank you!”
“I know,” she said. “I just wanted to say happy birthday now.”
I guess I should have realized then she knew she wouldn’t live out the week, but it didn’t occur to me. When someone as close to you as a parent is dying, you’re pretty much in shock the whole time. Not recognizing significant things you should have known in the moment but don’t realize until much later is normal.
The weekend of my birthday that year I was meant to fly to southern California to appear on a panel at a business conference, but my sister called me Thursday evening and said she thought I should come home; that my mother–who’d slipped into a coma by then–wouldn’t last the weekend.
I found it difficult to believe (still in shock, obviously), but hastily arranged a last-minute replacement for my business trip and booked a one-way flight to Philadelphia for first-thing Saturday morning, not wanting to change my plans to celebrate my birthday with friends on Friday evening.
I feel a hot flash of shame even writing those lines right now. Let’s get this straight: My mother was dying, and I didn’t book a flight right then and there to rush home and see her–even in her incapacitated, unconscious state–because I wanted to celebrate my fucking birthday. In a bar. With my friends. Getting drunk. Singing fucking karaoke.
Again, I can make excuses for myself, and I have, and others have made them for me. “You didn’t know exactly when she was going to die.” “She wasn’t herself by then anymore so she wouldn’t have even known you were there.” “You were in shock; people do crazy things and don’t think straight when they are in shock.”
While these things are all true, it has taken me a long time to get over the fact that I was in a bar drinking vodka and singing “Me and Bobby McGee” in San Francisco only hours before my mother died around 11 a.m. Saturday morning in Norristown, Pennsylvania.
I cried at the bar that night–or rather, outside it, on the shoulder of a friend, standing on a dirty sidewalk while the busy city did its usual song and dance around me. Then I went home, crawled into bed with my most recent ex-boyfriend–who came over to hold me while I slept in the several hours I had before I was to leave for the airport.
The next morning, I boarded a flight from Oakland to Philadelphia, not knowing that as the plane lifted its nose and left the Bay Area behind, my mother was taking her last breath in a hospital bed, my father in a chair beside her, holding her hand and telling her how much he loved her.
13 years is a long time to get over something, I guess. Then again, it’s really no time at all when time is so fluid–when memories of things that happened so many years ago can appear in the same room with you and trick you into opening your mouth and speaking to people who aren’t here anymore, as clear and vivid as if no time has passed at all.
I wasn’t close to my mother the way I wanted to be, but I loved her, and she loved me, and she was my mother after all. I still miss her every day, especially every year the day before my birthday when pangs of regret I swear to myself I won’t feel surface anyway, despite my best efforts to tell myself after all these years that I didn’t do anything wrong.
So this year, instead of distracting myself with friends or drinks or some kind of ridiculous hedonistic birthday ritual celebrating the precise minute I turn another year older, I am going to let myself feel that regret. I may even wallow a bit. And finally forgive myself for my behavior 13 years ago once and for all.
I miss you, Mom. My birthday this year, for once, is not about me, but about you. Because no matter what I’ve tried to tell myself all these years–no matter how important I tried to make myself to drown my sorrow and convince myself I was someone worth celebrating–I know this now: It always has been.