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Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Bad Son Letter

I made the mistake, yesterday, of asking my mother how her arthritis was doing.

"Honey, I'm going to be sixty tomorrow," she said with a derisive snarl, "I've got arthritis in my hip, and in my back, and in my hands-- but I'm doing a hell of a lot better than most people my age. There's nothing wrong with me, for Christ's sake."

And now I know never to inquire about my mother's arthritis. For Christ's sake.

Today is her sixtieth birthday, and chances are good that I won't be seeing her for any of it. She has efficiently snuffed out any of her children's ideas for a celebratory dinner and I'm working until at least 7pm tonight. When your mother begins preparing for bed at 9:10, that makes popping by for a cup of coffee and a slice of birthday cake a bit of a challenge.

As far as I know, my father isn't taking the day off from work, which he easily could-- because he runs the fucking place-- but, truthfully, I don't think my mother wants him to. Sometimes I feel that they work best when they're not in the same room together. Or time zone.

They can be frequently spotted in the kitchen together, but I wouldn't say they're "cooking together." They operate in the kitchen like two out-of-control vehicles operated by intoxicated individuals, careening this way and that, getting in each other's way, and eventually leading up to a catastrophe. He always does the wrong thing with the sauce. She always does the wrong thing with the bread. Happy Birthday.

Neither of my parents have ever been into their own birthdays at all. With my father, I think it's more of a cultural disconnect. When he was a boy in Israel, the only birthday that mattered was Israel's. My mother learned early on that her birthday wasn't important in the eyes of her father. Only her brothers' birthdays mattered. You know, because they had penises and, to the best of my knowledge, still do.

I suppose this is partly the reason why my parents routinely made such a shitstink about our birthdays growing up. The dining room was always heavily decorated in crepe-paper, streamers, balloons, Winnie the Pooh or cars and trucks paper plates and napkins, the ceremonial dimming of the dining room lights as my mother would enter with a beautiful cake from Viking Pastry Shop (she ain't no baker, kids) complete with chocolate shavings on top.

Even though their oldest child is forty-two, and their youngest child is me, they still decorate the goddamn dining room for us. And we still do it for them. My sister did it for my mother yesterday evening, in fact, even though she was practically pooping herself from a colonoscopy she had endured that morning.

I love my family. I love our imperfections and our fumblings and our desperate attempts to reconcile the past and brighten the future for each other, in spite of a seemingly impenetrable cloud of depression, cynicism and brutal fatalism that we all seem to have inherited. I love that we still try. My eldest sister is the unsung champion of trying. Her efforts are always unanimously unapplauded. Her gifts are met with stares and crossed arms.

"What did you get Mommy?" I whispered to her while my mother was in the other room, cooing over our nephew.

"I got her a new mirror for their bedroom, because that wicker piece of shit they've had in there forever is, like, falling off the goddamn wall."

"Oh," I said.

"I showed it to Daddy, and he laughed. 'Mommy will hate that,' he said."

Unfortunately, she probably will. Not that he's any expert on her tastes-- she's returned practically everything he's ever given her. Except for us.

I usually don't get my mother anything for her birthday. I've always had the excuse of being "the poor college student" or "the poor grad student" or "the poor emergency medical technician" or "the poor non-profit slave." I could still claim that last title, the last two titles, actually, but I got her a $50.00 gift-card to the Ritz Movie Theatres, the hoitie-toitie cinemas she attends with my father every weekend-- their one sweet release from the world in which they inhabit. At least I know they'll use it.

I usually spend the day of my mother's birthday hastily penning her my traditional "Bad Son Letter," where I self-indulgently wax rhapsodic about how we're drifting apart as a family, how I don't see her as often as I should, or call as often as I should, about how we never have time to really look at one another.... you know what I mean. Every year, I pass the business-sized white envelope over to her at the dinner table and she rolls her eyes and smacks her hand to her forehead.

"Oh, Jesus-- this isn't another one of those letters, is it?"

Well. Not this year.

I love you.

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