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For You, on Your Birthday

There once was a year when I could not make my mother smile.

The money was too tight, my sister too wild—everything was hard except my mother herself. It’s one of the things I love about my mother and I hate about myself—she never let the world make her hard, not when cheated on or rejected, not when there was never enough money, not when she lay down like a doormat and was tread upon by all those who would take advantage of a woman whose heart was kind. And there have been many through her sixty-six years. Despite it all she repeats to me, “I believe that everybody is doing the best they can.” My mother sees a little light in people and does her best to turn it on.

I did not inherit her enduring sweetness. I woke up hard at the age of seventeen, granted some newfound power I could use for villainy or virtue. I never noticed the slow metamorphoses that made my stare stony and calloused my soul, that changed the plump bright child I was into something all razor-sharp edges and teeth. It’s a good combination to get you through high school, but leaves much to be desired when navigating other realms of life. At school I took my tests and largely ignored the thousand petty worlds swirling around me, but at home I could not make my mother smile.

It is difficult to watch someone gentle be broken by the world. My mother cracked open like an egg each evening, the sunny yolk of her heart dripping onto the floor. Night after night she sat at our kitchen table weeping. She cried and said that my sister and I would be better off if she was dead, that life wasn’t worth living anymore. My older sister was never home—she was compacted in her own ball of fury, always at her boyfriend’s or out getting up to small town trouble. So, alone, I made jokes and showed my mother my good grades, told her I loved her and that we would make it through. And still she wept.

A not-insignificant portion of my time was spent trying to figure out how I could help her, but I was running out of ideas. There is only so much a penniless, anti-social, rage-filled teenager can do to bring someone joy. Yet in March of my seventeenth year it seemed like the world might have been conspiring to help me when it was announced that our Spring band concert would fall on the evening of my mother’s birthday.

I had been in band since the fifth grade, a dutiful little clarinet player, hardly the best but far from the worst. Like closing your heart to the possibility of goodness in the world, belonging to a large group is another good way of making it through high school relatively unscathed. I was in the band without being in the band—that honor was reserved for the prodigy students, students whose parents participated in boosters and drove our buses, and kids who were friends with the band director’s daughter. On Friday nights in Fall I marched in our red wool uniforms, played our fight song under the stadium lights, and slipped away unnoticed at the end of the evening. But through the years I had observed from a distance that family-like community, the inner circle of involved parents and well-adjusted students. I had the desperate, wild idea that if I could make my mother feel like a part of that family, perhaps it would make her smile again.

My plan was a simple one. I would ask the band director if before or during the concert I could stand up and wish my mother Happy Birthday. Everyone would applaud, and she would blush. I would catch her eye and we would both smile as I sat back down again. I was sure that this would work—I had seen all kinds of bits and jokes and dedications performed at band concerts in the past. This would inconvenience or surprise no one. The only problem was asking my band director. There was a mutually understood agreement that I was not one of the students who talked to him, or him to me, unless he was asking me to play a tuning note.

It took me days to build my resolve. Among my other admirable personality quirks, I am almost entirely incapable of asking for help. My heart beats faster, I agonize over my words, which, when it comes down to it, I can barely get out of my mouth. Add this to an almost paralyzing shyness, and asking my band director a simple question was, for me, an almost impossible task. It didn’t help that there was so much at stake. I found my courage the day before the concert.

From the moment I opened my mouth he looked at me strangely. I hoped he could hear in my stammering request my true and silent question—not if I could have two minutes of the concert’s time to wish my mother Happy Birthday, but if he could please help me. I knew before I stopped speaking that his answer would be no. Shame bloomed in every part of me as he answered dismissively that he didn’t really permit that kind of thing. I was a being violent regret as I trundled back to my seat, repentant both for the mistake of asking and for the sin of hope.

The next evening’s performance blurred by. There were, as I had expected, jokes and affirmations of praise and thanks to members of the band community. The songs sounded fine. The audience listened politely. I could barely look at my band director without feeling sick, but unfortunately looking at the director is an almost constant necessity of performing in any musical ensemble. I played my clarinet in a haze of unhappiness, ready to bolt off stage as soon as we were dismissed. On the car ride home my mother and I sat mostly in silence.

Not knowing what else to do, I eventually croaked out, “Happy Birthday,” holding my breath as I watched her face.

“Thanks, sweetie,” she replied, the corners of her mouth slightly downturned, eyes still on the road as we drove on into the darkening evening.

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P.S. I've been looking for a good workshopping group since I left college, and haven't found one yet. If you are looking for a nonfiction critique partner, let me know and maybe we can exchange emails!

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