Mary drifts into the kitchen. Hair rumpled and frowsy, her tummy protruding beneath a too-small pajama top. “What’s my belly button for mama?” she asks, examining the wrinkled sworl on her stomach.
The house is unusually quiet, and I’m so filled with love for my sweet little sprite that I take my time in answering. I pluck an apple from a basket on the counter and pull her onto my warm lap.
“See the stem, baby?” We examine the brown stub together. “That’s where this apple was attached to her mama apple tree. She drew food and water through the stem until she became a fresh, ripe apple.”
I twist the stem and it releases into my hand, “See the apple has a belly-button too.” Mary laughs and compares the apple’s indentation to her own.
“When you were a baby in my tummy, you had a long stem—a cord, that connected to me. Your food and water and more came through that cord until you grew big. And then, on the day you were born, daddy cut the cord. The end shriveled and fell off and left you with this cute little tickle button.”
My fingers play across her tummy and she laughs with her head thrown back, her beautiful baby teeth displayed in two perfect rows.
Beaming, she looks into my eyes, “So my button is a memory of you, mama.” With a child’s familiarity, she pulls up my shirt and searches for my center. Finding it, she muses, “And this is where you were connected to your mama.”
Last February, as I anticipated this birthday, I planned to throw myself a grand party with all my friends and most especially, the women who had influenced me through my forty years. Thai food was on the menu: shredded papaya salad, green curry, spicy Po Tak soup, Pad Thai for the less adventurous; buttercream cookies and chocolate ganache cake for dessert. We’d eat off real china and talk late into the night and I’d hug every one of you and thank you for your patience, your kindness, your tutelage, your friendship.
But as the day grew closer, I found myself dreading it. Not because of my age; forty feels just right, especially since I’ll have an eighteen year old son next week. But because it is literally my birth day– the anniversary of when my mother brought me into this world.
And this year I want nothing. No presents, no dinner, no chocolates, no parties. I’m afraid I’ve been a bit rude (maybe more than a bit) to my friends as they try to plan a birthday lunch or breakfast or something and I protest that I simply want to curl up in bed and let the day pass me by.
Sunday, I talked and cried with a few friends and they assured me that they’d felt the same way on the first birthday after their mothers’ death. I felt understood and a little less crazy. What would we do without our friends? But I didn’t, couldn’t tell them my dark secret that I really didn’t deserve a birthday. That I hadn’t appreciated my mother enough while she was here.
And yet, this morning, as I ran with my friends in the blue black dawn and came home to the kisses of my children and an email box full of sweet words I could feel the refrain, “Let yourself be happy. Let yourself feel loved.”
So consider this your invitation to my party– I’ll be right back with cake and balloons. Thank you for being my friend, thank you for all you teach me, thank you for your patience, thank you for knowing my flaws and loving me anyway.