Today is my mother's birthday. 6-0. For real this time.
Last year, her friends took her out and made her wear a plastic tiara and gave her a bunch of joke gifts. She didn't have the heart to tell them that official documents say she was born March 15, 1950 instead of 1951 because she was precocious and the family wanted to get her into school early. She never tells people that she went on to skip two more grades before high school. The only reason she even told me was because she wanted to deter me from skipping during elementary.
"The kids your age won't play with you because they think you're oversmart, and the kids in your class won't play with you because they think you're a baby." I guess book learning isn't all that counts after all.
I went over there after work with two gifts: a humongous one wrapped in a plastic bag with a bow and a small one in a gift bag with a fat rose printed on the side and decorated in glitter. The latter is for her, I was very clear to explain, and the former is for the house. I learned this lesson the year my father presented to her on her birthday a brand-new microwave and couldn't understand why she didn't take it out of the box for a month.
The smaller bag had another bag in it, one she can take to the gym after work every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. I've been hunting down gym bags for weeks, and most of them are big enough for my mother to climb into--but all she needs is a place where her little T-shirt, yoga pants and size 5.5 wide-width New Balances can go for the 12 second commute from work to the fitness center. So I purchased a general craft-supply bag from the fabric store that's the perfect size (individual pouches for shoes!). It has a cute flowery pattern in cream and light blue, which are her favorite colors. I had carefully removed the tag because I was certain she would make me take it back because the promotional backpack embroidered with Hinckley and Schmidt suits her just fine and I ought to save my money, especially this year. I was right.
When she opened the big bag with the gift for the house, I mentioned that all of us pitched in together for this and got it on a tremendous sale. It's the 14-piece stainless steel cookware set a coworker had seen her looking at in the Macy's catalog. I made sure to find the exact one she had lingered over. She started going down the I'll-just-to-give-this-to-you-and-I'll-keep-the-old-stuff road, but I could tell she's thinking about maybe hanging onto this one for herself. I've got the receipt, just in case.
She says that the fact that I come home and let her feed me and watch Sasural Genda Phool* with her most evenings is a way better gift to her than anything I could buy at the store. I know she means that, because I feel the same way. I tried to explain that my trying to find a gift for her that will inevitably turn out to be something she doesn't need or even really want is my lame attempt to show her how much she means to me. Then the calls from India begin. I kiss her forehead and let myself out.
During the last couple of years, I've been listening to the podcasts from This American Life. From the beginning. In order. Tonight, as I stir the mushrooms and the onions at 12:30 a.m., I happen to be on the episode from September 14, 2001. It's the first show they did after the 9/11 terror attacks, and listening to how shell-shocked everyone sounds just takes me back to how I felt after it happened. One of the people interviewed had been on a floor directly hit by a plane and had somehow, by the light of someone's cellphone, found her way down the stairs and out of the Twin Towers. She had called her boss, her boyfriend and her mother from the office when the the door to the emergency stairs was locked, but after someone opened it and they were rushing down, there was no way, and no time, to contact them. What struck me hardest was that her family in Pennsylvania gathered with their minister and watched the towers fall on television--in their words, they had "watched her die." Her brother had even brought a suit and white shirt and tie with him because he expected there to be a memorial or funeral.
What kind of nightmare that must have been for so many people: To see the building where your loved one was sending a fax or typing an email just crumble to the ground right before you on your living room tv. And to truly believe they were dead, even if it was just for half an hour. I've never had to deal with a major loss. But I catch myself thinking about it all the time. In fact, the fear of someone I love being snatched away from me is like a shadow, constantly following me around, tapping me on the shoulder every time people talk about something tragic on the news or in the lunchroom. I don't foresee myself being able to keep on living, let alone get out of bed if something like that were to occur. I was made aware of how fragile life is when I was four years old; and I don't care if I tell them 400 times a day but the people I love will never wonder how I really felt about them.
It's 1 a.m. and I'm stirring the vegetables. Jon has likely been eating beef stew for lunch every day for the last week. He can wake up to something new. If the chopping sounds haven't awoken him already. Ira Glass is talking about how everyone is United We Stand right after the terror attacks, but it's weird how in a few years things will get closer back to normal. Ten years later, they have.
The phone rings. My aunt is calling my mom from Mumbai, where she's in the store hunting for wedding outfits for me. I had thought, oh I'm going to be all Indian-y for my wedding, my aunt can get the stuff from India! No brainer, right? Except I don't live in India, so I conveniently forgot that the Hindu-to-Christian ratio there is pretty much exactly the same as the Christian-to-Hindu ratio in the United States. Translation: Not a lot of white saris available in India because Hindus wear them to funerals and Christian Indian brides have started wearing western gowns these days. I've essentially made my aunt go looking for a needle in a haystack. I think this will have more than made up for having missed all those birthday parties in the backyard and all the birthday parties I may have in the future. She describes the outfit in general terms and I start to panic. I ASKED her to do this. She's put effort and love into the task. I am going to wear whatever she picks out, and I'm sure it'll be nice... I stopped myself from that line of thinking and said, "If my cousin approves of it, go ahead and buy." My cousin has great taste.
So here I am, rambling on as I used to do at 3 a.m. in college when I had a paper due the next morning. My mom is 60, but it seems like she's still 45. That would make me 17, which is about right when I stop and think about how confused I STILL AM about my career path. At this moment, my Aunt is probably in that labyrinthine mall we went to that one time with all the sariwallas sitting on cushions unfurling stuff that will probably take an hour to re-roll later. She is finding my wedding dress. And I'm totally OK with it. Because, honestly, as long as I get to marry Jon, the only thing that matters is that I have the people I love around me that day. So I can put my arms around them and tell them that I love them so very very much. And how I'm thrilled that they will be sharing my happiness, and I hope they will be there to share in my sorrows as well. Because I know those will be there, too. They're just hiding around the corner, ready to strike me down on a random Tuesday morning.
But for today, I am thankful for what I have. God bless America. And God bless my mom.
*My foreign-language soap opera is the only thing exempt from my Lenten No-TV vow this year. Jon can watch sports.