Birthday Candles

February 17, 2017 at 5:58 pm (Uncategorized)

My son turned thirteen on New Year’s Eve. He’d been talking about his birthday for months.  On the big day, not only would he qualify under family rules to sign up for Instagram, but he would finally be a teenager.  He wanted to eat his favorite special meal of homemade nachos piled onto grilled bacon cheeseburgers, which he named “Nacho-average-burger,” (as in “not your average burger).  As in past years, he wanted to stay up as late as he could keep his eyes open.  Maybe he’d have a few friends over, or maybe he’d just binge on playing NBA 2K with his Dad on his Playstation.  We might go to the pool, or a movie.  Whatever happened, it was going to be a great day.

But then I got stuck in the hospital. On his birthday.  His thirteenth birthday.  I was devastated—or as devastated as one can be when you’re getting pumped full of chemo and pain medication.  What were we going to do?  It’s not as though I could ask Andrew to spend his birthday with me in my hospital room, with the blinds closed tight on the window so the light wouldn’t aggravate my headache and vertigo.  I resigned myself to spending the day—his day—on my own.

But the problem was that Andrew’s day was also my day.  I had carried him for nine months, felt him squirming and restless within me.  Thirteen years ago I had labored for 26 hours to bring him into the world.   His birthday felt inextricably bound up with me.

It didn’t help that it felt like he was slipping away from me. Gone were the days of past hospitalization, back when he was a toddler and a young child, who would run into my hospital bed and snuggle so close if felt like we were merging.  Now he came along dutifully for the dinners Jay organized every day for the months I was an inpatient.  Andrew was polite, even kind sometimes.  But distance grows when you’re not bumping elbows in daily life.  The easiness between us felt taut and frayed.

And now I was going to miss his birthday. I berated myself for being a chronically ill mother.  If I could just get out of the damn hospital bed and return home, even for only a day…  But I couldn’t.  Like it or not, I was sick.

Mothers have a way of knowing when you’re in pain. Even through my fog of medication, I could feel the dull throb of it from my son.  And my own mother, who’d been by my side in the hospital for weeks, must have felt my sorrow rising off me in a damp, teary fug.  She came to my rescue—to hell with the seemingly iron-clad boundary between sickness and celebration, between the hospital and family, we would make a birthday where we were, in the sterile hospital room.   She ran out on a bitterly cold day and bought balloons and thirteen presents for Andrew’s thirteenth birthday.  She coordinated with Jay.  They agreed that Andrew would have the day at home with his Dad, but in the evening he’d come to the hospital.  Jay would bring the cake and candles, but we would provide the venue.  She decorated the room, wrapped the presents, and perked me up.  We checked with one of the kind nurses and got permission to light candles despite all the supplemental oxygen on the ward.

When Andrew walked into the room, I could feel his edginess. He expected something routine or perfunctory, perhaps a slice of cake, the usual quite murmuring that characterized our dinner.  He was certainly not prepared for his grandmother and his mother to welcome him into the room with the rallying cry of “Happy Birthday.”  His eyes took in the balloons and came to rest on the mound of presents.  “Wow,” he said, with a distinct glimmer in his eyes.  Jay was softer too, less constrained by having to be the person in charge all the time.

We had a real birthday party in Room 2112 at St. Peter’s Hospital. Champagne isn’t appropriate for thirteen year olds or mothers on pain medication, but my mother had two bottles of sparkling cider for us.  We toasted the birthday boy—rather, birthday young man.  For me everything felt loosened—the fear and loneliness I’d been carrying for weeks, the distance between Andrew and me.

We turned off the lights to let the birthday candles shine in the winter night on the cusp of a New Year. Who knows what Andrew wished for when he blew out his thirteen candles?  All I know is that he was smiling.  In the candlelight he looked both older and younger, part child, part man.  I felt the past turn within me, and caught a fleeting glimpse of the future.  He must have felt my eyes on him, because he looked up and held my gaze for a few seconds.  Then he smiled, and turned his attention to slicing the cake.

It wasn’t ideal by any stretch of the imagination. It was a party in a hospital room.  When it was over, my husband and son left, and my parents soon after.  I stayed, with the nurses and the I.V. dripping into me.  Still, it was a party in a hospital room.  That’s quite a feat.  I will always be grateful to my mother for making it happen.  For the time they were there, we were together.  I got my birthday wish for Andrew and myself.  We were together.

3 Comments

  1. LARRY STANFEL said,

    Your posts are always the work of a fine author and beacons to those that follow them. Bless you, daughter.

  2. Theresa Boyar said,

    I just want to tell you that it is absolutely lovely to read your fine words again, and I’m so happy for you and yours that your mom found such a wonderful way to help everyone celebrate Andrew’s milestone birthday. (And I’m totally craving a Nacho Average Burger — or 3 of them – now.) 🙂

  3. reasonablesandra said,

    Touching. The years are so fleeting.

    So glad you are back. I’ve been worried.

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