Tuesday, October 4, 2011


"My stomach is killing me. Do you ever get this before seeing her?"
"I get headaches," he says. Something about that sounds so severe. We pull up outside her house and put our game faces on. When she greets us, she is sweating, she is talking fast, her hands are moving quickly. She has chopped all of her hair off and let it turn to a browned out blonde. She is still to heavy for her five foot three inch frame but she is here and she is making us brunch. We step into her very decorated apartment and she has hung a "Happy Birthday" streamer and dressed the table in a vinyl "Happy Birthday" tablecloth weighted down by china she received for her wedding to my father over 30 years ago. There are "Happy Birthday" napkins and two "Happy Birthday" gift bags and the whole thing makes me want to burst into tears. This is the birthday I should have had when I was eleven.
"I made crab cakes," she tells me.
"I couldn't remember who couldn't eat what," she continues.
"That's me. I'm allergic to shellfish," I remind her. Have been since that day when I was six and my eye had closed shut and I was taken to the doctor.
My brother grabs crab cakes with a pair of tongs and then grabs a roll out of the pan with the same pair of tongs.
"No!" I remind him. I can't even eat food that has been touched by shellfish, it's that severe.
We finally get to eating and my stomach is in my throat and the breakfast lasagna is not sitting well and I force myself to eat fruit salad, careful to avoid the cantaloupe which is pointless because if it has listeria so does the rest of the fruit. We get on to opening presents and she has given me a jewelry box and a mother of pearl necklace. The mother of pearl is assembled into a daisy, my favorite flower, and I put it on to match my white dress. I tell her I love it, but a part of me knows I will not wear it again. Something about it just feels too heavy. She tells me about work and to keep the conversation going I continue to ask questions. Both my brother and I are good at filling in the blanks. It occurs to me that while she doesn't really ask me anything about my life, I don't offer anything either. I am the queen of putting people in no-win situations. She is damned if she does, damned if she doesn't. But is it a situation she helped create?
We take a picture, the three of us in her new condo, paid for with an unimaginable loss, much like most of the attributes my brother and I gained as children. We put our arms around each other and flash smiles.
"Do you want to take the Happy Birthday napkins?" she asks.
I take them.
"And the cake!" so we pack that up, too.
She gives me a hug goodbye. "My big girl!" she says and I recoil a little at the sound of "my."
As we drive off, we both fall extremely tired. We try to wake up by cranking the music before we flip sides and see my father and all of his family, the family that feels like family- nosy, loving, informing me they expected a different kind of announcement at this birthday party. The food is bbq and the cake is my favorite, carrot cake. There is swimming and kids and margaritas and gifts with stuff I really like, like cash. There is my overly-muscled cousins singing inappropriate versions of the Happy Birthday song and a little princess on my lap telling me how much she loves carrots! There is the conversations where I'm pulled aside and told about this secret or that. This worry, this fear, this sadness, all told with a laugh somewhere in the sentence. I want to wrap them up each individually and tell them all we are going to make it. We are going to survive this economy, this depression, this mistake, this gripping fear, this absence. We are going to pass algebra and be reunited with missing dads and missing daughters before we know it, only to have it happen again. We are going to have weddings and there will be more babies and there will be inevitable loss. But we are going to make it the same way we always do, by telling stories in a scorching backyard somewhere in the valley. There is not enough time with all of them. And by the time I get on the plane the following morning, I realize I am completely drained.  I get home and immediately get to work until I crash at about 10pm and realize how much I miss "my" family. All of them.  But how damn lucky am I? Not many 30 year-olds get Happy Birthday napkins or carrot cakes with princesses.


daleboca said...

wow! a lot to process in a little time.

Carmen said...

i want to write a blurb on the back of your published memoir (not sure if they let nobodies do that...) i am ready for your book deal. you are a beautiful writer.