Mr. S turned three. For weeks leading up to the day – since his sister’s birthday in February – he planned his cakes: a cake with Smarties to eat at home, and a Rice Krispie cake to be sent to preschool. He held up the requisite number of fingers when asked how old he would be, and said with solemnity, “Free.” He is so tall, whizzing down the sidewalk at terrifying speeds on his balance bike, and genuinely helpful. He planted radishes for me last weekend, squinting at the tiny seeds, spilling none, and he stuck his Smarties into chocolate buttercream with contented absorption, eating hardly any in the process.
Oh, the nights are still prone to interruption thanks to his final, intractable molar, and he did attempt to celebrate the actual moment of his birth at just past five in the morning, but truly, I felt more nostalgia than annoyance as he wiggled between us in the big bed, thumb stuck firmly in his mouth. Later in the day we took a nap together, and I remembered spending his very first afternoon the same way, though I was considerably more shellshocked – he had arrived almost two weeks early, and in such a hurry that I’m not sure I’d have made it to the hospital, had that been the plan. It was a marvellous time, not without its challenges, but happy.
S’s birthday falls within a week of my mother’s. This year she would have turned 70. I don’t know how to mark it. Her absence feels a little less like a phantom limb than it used to. I’ve written about my grief before, and it’s aged, mellowed, to be sure. It’s no longer as acute as it once was; now, it’s a non-life-threatening heart condition, and I know the kinds of exertion I need to avoid in order to prevent its aggravation.
When we first bought our house – the fifth anniversary of our purchase is in a few weeks’ time – she had only been gone a few months, and I was terrified to move. Partly this was due to logistics. Baby N was three months old, and had only just gotten over being throttled by two months of colic. The house was filthy, reeking of mothballs, and the foyer wallpapered lavishly in gold. We had two months to get it ready for tenants before we left to spend a year in Germany. In reality, I was terrified to move because then my mother wouldn’t know where I was. This is the worst kind of Didion’s magical thinking. I was afraid that she would come back, and knock on the door of the century-old duplex we were renting in a different neighbourhood, and the new tenants would answer, and she would not be able to find me. Impossible; irrational. For we couldn’t have bought the house at all without her legacy, the sum of money that was meant to fund her retirement. To be spent on food, rent, a camper, plane tickets to visit her grandchildren. The incompatibility of these stories – of our house, and of my mother, visiting it – is the source of that time-muted heart-cramp, that familiar ache.
What do I do? I order perennials. I plant my garden. I let myself say ridiculous things that she would say without hesitation if she were here, things that make my husband laugh in recognition and possibly horror. I scrub five years’ worth of black fingerprints from the stairwell walls, no longer papered gold, despite being a modern woman who should have better things to do with her time, because I feel she would approve and that feeling is the closest I will come to her approval. I bake birthday cakes. I celebrate with those who are here.