In the middle of the night in downtown Paterson, New Jersey, 30 years ago, a young woman sat upright in her bed, all alone. She had a phone for the night nurse next to the bed, but aside from her nerves, there was nothing wrong with her. The doctors would see her at 8:00 AM. Until then, her only company was the seven-pound, two-ounce baby softly kicking beneath her hands as she caressed her belly.
She was convinced this child would be a girl. Daughters ran in her family, as sons ran in her husband’s. Their first son, Nicholas, was home with her husband. This time, it was her family’s turn. At 25, this young woman shared a very special bond with her own mother.
In the darkness of her hospital bed, she whispered with certainty to the restless baby in her womb that they too would have that same connection, the same special relationship that only exists between mothers and daughters.
There was only one problem. The next morning, that anxious 25-year-old gave birth to me. A happy and healthy baby boy.
Last night, as Nick and I drove out to see her on her 56th birthday, I thought about that story. We shared a laugh over the two cards I’d picked up: one “From Both of Us,” and one just from me, “Happy Birthday from your Daughter.”
Nick laughed because our whole family is in on the joke. I’m masculine enough to handle it without embarrassment. Mom waited until I was well past puberty to tell me how sure she had once been of my femininity, but I was never really bothered by it. Mama and I do have a very special relationship–not many other guys are as close with their mothers as I’ve always been with mine. Besides, being a daughter is a big deal for my mama. Even if I’d wanted to, I couldn’t possibly refuse the honorable title of “daughter.”
I thought about how rough she’s had it these last few years. I reflected on how similar our personalities are. I like to think that I am a tough, fearless, indefatigable guy who can handle anything this world throws at me. Yet, my mother puts me to shame. She was brave enough to leave my father and move back in with her parents, carrying one baby boy on each hip. She was fearless enough to fall in love again, and to marry her soul mate with her two boys at the altar as ring-bearers. She went back to school and earned her degree in four years, despite having as many jobs as she had kids.
Did I mention that my 98-pound mother made the old man (our stepfather) teach her to ride a motorcycle, so she could buy herself a pink Harley Davidson? Oh. Well, she did.
The flip side of my mama’s bravery is her fiercely stubborn and occasionally spiteful side. After her mother, Gram, passed away at 57, my mom became the de facto matriarch of her five siblings and their families. My mama has bent over backwards, unnecessarily at times, to accommodate our sometimes infuriating family. She’s been taken advantage of and, in some rare cases, blatantly insulted. Still, Mama can handle any slight, any indignity, any insult, as long as she knows that she’s done her best to keep her family all together. That’s what Gram would expect from her daughter.
And I know that I’ve inherited her flaws, as well. We both hate to bother people, and we never ask for favors. We’d much rather listen to somebody else’s problems than burden them with our own. We both believe we have everything under control at all times, that we never need any help, and that everything will turn out all right (as long as we’re handling everything!). We love my brother and we love the old man, but ultimately, Mama and I are the only ones who can see through each other’s smile and know when something is wrong. We can hide everything from the world, but we can’t hide anything from each other. I know all of her tricks because I’ve seen them a thousand times, and she knows all of mine because they’re really just imitations of hers.
That’s why it’s been so difficult to see her get beaten by life these last few years. My mama’s been hurting, for various reasons, since 2007: my uncle moved in; his two dogs moved in; his girlfriend moved in; my old man lost his job; my cousin moved in; my dog passed away; my brother lost his job; my brother moved in; my uncle and his girlfriend whelped eight puppies in my mom’s basement; my old man’s unemployment ran out, and now it’s been over two years since he’s had a job. She hasn’t been happy or satisfied with her finances, her relationship with the old man, or the random cast of characters using her home as a halfway house. As her daughter, I had to be there to pick her up when she needed it.
I made my brother set a date for when he’d move out, and I took a day off of work to help him relocate. I helped my cousin and my uncle move out, too. I’ve even helped the old man with side work and odd jobs after work and on weekends. But that’s what a good daughter does: always help your mama to handle all of the dramas and traumas life throws at her, until the one day when life stops throwing them at her and starts throwing them at you.
As we pulled into the folk’s driveway, Nick filled out the “From Both of Us” card, and I wrote in the “From Your Daughter” card. We sat down at the dining room table and asked Mama how her birthday was. When I asked her if the other teachers were jealous of the flowers Nick and I had sent, she confessed that she hadn’t gone to school that day.
She told us about a routine mammogram she’d had the first week of February.
She told us that she spent her birthday making her fourth trip to the doctor in a month.
She told us that she had cancer in her left breast.
She told us about upcoming procedures and treatments and biopsies and percentages, but she didn’t tell us why she waited until last night to break the news. She didn’t have to. I knew she was protecting us. She was protecting me. I know because if I were her, I’d have done the same thing.
Nick held both of her hands across the table. The old man already knew, so he stayed in the kitchen making dinner. I got up, walked around the table to her chair, and cradled her head into my chest. I felt her sniffling against my arm. I told her how much I love her. I whispered that everything would be all right. I almost believed it. I thought of how certainly she’d whispered to the little mystery moving inside her belly thirty years ago, how sure she was that I was going to be her daughter. Caressing her hair and whispering all the encouragement and love in my heart, I wanted to believe as much as she had that night in 1980.
After the initial shock worked its way through me, I quickly moved on to disappointment. Not sadness, not acceptance, not pre-emptive mourning, but disappointment.
How could I not have known? How could I have let her do this all by herself?
I wanted to be there for her, I wanted to protect her, but I hadn’t even noticed how badly she needed me. I had let her down. I had let her convince me, along with everybody else, that everything was ok.
But now, I have the chance to be strong for her, like she had been for Gram. Holding her there at the kitchen table, I decided that I can finally be the daughter she needs. And deserves.
30 years ago, my Mama gave birth to a baby boy. But on her 56th birthday, she got a hand-written card from her daughter.
And from now on, she’ll keep getting one for all the rest of her birthdays.