Today is my dad’s birthday, but I’m writing about my mom’s birthday. But he doesn’t read my blog, so it’s cool.
“What’s she doing here?” my brother Toby asked in a supremely displeased tone – the sort used by coddled, 20-something kids who still live with their parents for expressing disdain and jealousy when their more accomplished and clearly better looking siblings who share their lives with awesome cats return to the roost.
“She’s surprising Mom for her birthday,” Dad responded. “Except Mom’s not here.”
Mom was at the house when Dad left to furtively fetch me from the airport. I suggested we make one short stop to buy flowers on the way from the west side of Cleveland to their home in the east-side suburbs. Handing me a $10 bill and four singles and insisting that he wait in the quiet car in the company of his Big Gulp, he pleaded, “Tell Mom they’re from me, too.” We’ll see.
She was born Feb. 13, although she tells everyone her birthday is Valentine’s Day. Chalk it up to her friggatriskaidekaphobia. Or her pathological lying. One of those. Personally, I think it would be way cooler to have your birthday fall on Friday the 13th every so often. But I can’t really lecture anyone about coolness, as this was the first Valentine’s Day in three years that I wasn’t single and yet I still spent it with my mother.
When we pulled into the driveway at about 11 a.m., we noticed that her Mazda was MIA. I stashed away my luggage before setting the bouquet on the counter by the door, along with her gift, topped with a purple ribbon. And then I waited.
In the 36 hours leading up to my surprise visit, Mom had left me seven voicemails, each one more cranky than the next. “I hope your father has nothing up his sleeve for my birthday tomorrow because I really, really don’t want it,” she asserted in the fourth message. “I know it’s my birthday, but I don’t want any gifts. Don’t send me anything. Save your money, you need it. Just call to wish me ‘Happy Birthday,'” she pleaded in the fifth. “Your father seems to be up to something. Why haven’t you called me back?” she asked suspiciously in the seventh.
After throwing a load of whites in the wash, Dad crashed on the couch with The Plain Dealer as Toby milled about in the kitchen, eating my parents out of house and home one bite of banana at a time. I settled into the leather love seat directly across from the door, so Mom would be sure to see me when she arrived.
The whir of the garage and the sound of the poodle’s nails as she skidded across the parquet floor signaled Mom’s return. In poor spirits about living long enough to achieve the age equivalent of a long-running investigative TV show whose name is terribly misleading because it actually runs for only 42 minutes, she quickly spied Dad on the couch and instructed, “Don’t talk to me today. I want to be left alone.” Before Toby could get a word in, she demanded, “It’s my birthday, give me peace.” Then she squeaked and squealed with glee at Layla, the dog that she refers to as “my little sister,” never once noticing that I was sitting right in front of her.
Mom soon began to retreat upstairs, where she likely planned to barricade herself in the guest room with self-help books and her new, age-defying, battery-powered skin buffer which “isn’t what you think it is because I know how your sick mind works, Jessica.” Touche. She again warned the man of the house and the freeloader who took over my room when I moved out, preventing it from becoming a shrine to me, to steer clear. “I mean it,” she said curtly.
Dad and I exchanged eye rolls. Using my cell, I dialed the home phone.
“Hello?” she answered from the kitchen.
“Hello-ello,” I said from the living room.
“Hold on. There’s an echo on the line,” she snapped.
I couldn’t stay silent any longer. She heard my giggles in stereo through the ear piece and from a few feet away. “No way!” she exclaimed, as if she’d just been invited onstage by Rod Stewart to dance during an encore. Which happened once before, and I pretended not to know her. Just like when we go to the movies together.
“Why are you here?!” she asked incredulously, bursting into tears.
“To surprise you for your birthday,” I gasped between her squeezes.
Uncomfortable with the attention being lavished on someone other than himself, Toby piped up, “Mom, I got these flowers for you,” pointing to the ones Dad previously tried to piggyback on.
“Don’t start! I’m warning you …” Dad growled.
“They’re from the two of us. Shut up!” I barked, uniting with Dad against a common foe.
“This is the best birthday ever!” Mom trilled happily.