I stay up working on assignments until 1 am and then try to fall asleep. At 2:30 a.m. my oldest daughter rushes into my room. “Mom,” she says, “it’s time to go.” I’m like, “What? No. It’s 2 in the morning.” She says, “No, mom, it’s time to go. We are going to be late for school.” Again, I repeat that it is 2 a.m. and show her my phone to prove it. She goes back to sleep. At 4 a.m. my middle daughter wakes up, scared, and goes to look for her older sister only to find that she isn’t there (because she’s in my room). So, her scared sadness morphs into anger because someone is supposed to be somewhere and they are not there in the place they should have been found. I hear her coming across the house. Child number two in my room. I try to go to sleep, again. At 6 a.m. I oversleep my alarm, feel like someone literally spread glue all over my back and stuck me down on the bed. It’s hard to get up but wait, today is my birthday! School drop off times three. I’m wearing pajamas and pray Old Blue doesn’t break down and someone has to see me. This is a frequent occurrence now (the glue, the pajamas, the drop off of shame). When I get back home to take a shower, you would think I am turning 8 instead of 38. It just washes over me that my mom won’t be baking me a cake. In all honesty I can’t tell you the last time she made me a birthday cake, but it’s just that for so many, many years she did every single year, with the same little icing burst designs around the edges and “Happy Birthday Hannah” written in her pretty, scrolling handwriting across the center. And I feel like such a baby, but I know that what I am crying for isn’t the cake. The tears are because I didn’t know the last cake was probably the last cake. I didn’t want to see that. It’s funny how a birthday cake can represent so much more than you think it does when you are younger.
I gather myself up, no more tears, and grade lots and lots of papers. You know, the catching up that’s never caught up. One of my siblings calls to talk about moms meds, another calls about bills, moms having a hard day. It creeps up on me that I may not talk to mom at all today, push that down, no more tears. I decide to bake myself a cake. I can find no cake mix in the pantry except for carrot cake. I like carrot cake. Not really for my birthday but carrot cake is good – the box says “super moist” or something and carrot cake has the illusion of being healthy. So I make a carrot cake with my favorite childhood icing – the white kind with the little dots in it that aren’t sprinkles but are so good. I forget the name. I let it cool, then start icing it. My husband has picked up the kids for me and now watches as I am destroying the cake. All the cake is sticking to the icing and coming apart. I get it iced but it looks a mess. At least it’s a birthday cake and it’s my birthday so here’s a cake.
Class starts at 4:20. Dance is at 4:25. My babysitter (whose identity will remain a mystery) takes the kids to their class and will pick up food so I don’t have to cook. My husband is working. I see my parents calling me while I’m in a class on Zoom and I can’t answer the phone. I’ll call them as soon as class ends at 7:10 I tell myself. I don’t know it yet, but my babysitter has backed my van into a car. I’m serious – you can’t make this stuff up. Class is ending in 5 minutes, the kids and babysitter return along with my sister and her family who have come to surprise me. With birthday cake. A pretty, strawberry, perfectly iced, non-carrot cake. Wait – dad’s calling again. I will get to talk to him and my mom. “Hey daddy, I’m sorry I couldn’t answer before. I was in class.” “We figured you were,” he says, “Your mama is laying down already.” I missed talking to her on my birthday. And I look at the perfect cake, the pretty flowers in my favorite color, and the balloons, and my sister and her family and I cry again. Round 2.
Everyone leaves, no more tears. I get on the floor to play with my girls, something I haven’t done in a while. My 5 year old pretends with her medical kit that she has an injury. She puts the toy thermometer in her mouth and I read it, “Oh no! 400 degrees!?! Quick, someone call the ambulance!” She giggles. Her sisters, in perfect unplanned unison, belt out “This…girl…is on fiiiiyahhhhh.” Also known as “This Girl is on Fire” by Alicia Keys.
I get my girls to bed. I look at the mountain of clothes waiting for me to fold on the couch. I have more school work to do but I can’t focus. I tell myself not to forget this, this, and this plus the 2 sticky notes with that, that, and that. Why am I so sweaty? What was that sound? Just the ice maker. I’m back in bed by 1 a.m. I decide to read my birthday messages and realize I have a voicemail. I hear my parents, together, sing me Happy Birthday. And yep, you guessed it. Round 3 on the tears. My mom sings, “Happy birthday my little Hannah,” and she sounds so silly and sweet, so young. My parents sound so happy that you would never know how things have changed since the summer. You would never guess mom has Parkinson’s psychosis.
A single day can be filled with so many highs and lows. Small things that mean big things and big feelings. Sometimes small sadnesses stretch and build, they become heavy, smooth but smothering like a blanket that was supposed to keep you warm and didn’t. It was just a cake, a very small thing. And I missed it in a very big way. The cake my sister brought me was so wonderful, and special in its own way, and I love her for it. No other cake has mom’s handwritten lettering, and no other time in life has ever been quite like this one. This is 38 – a teary eyed, laughter filled day from Eminem lyrics with my nephew (Super Bowl prep) to “You backed into a car??? I have a backup camera.” When it’s your birthday, make sure you have a cake, and don’t feel bad if you cry. It’s your day, cry if you want to right, but I hope there is space left for laughs too. And if your parents are still living, make sure they know how much you love and appreciate all that they have done for you.