First Birthday Without Mom

In retrospect, I probably should’ve taken the day off. I wasn’t sure how it was going to hit me, only that it was going to hit me. How could it not? For the first forty-two years of my life, I’d wake up every August 20th to a phone call from Mom singing “Happy Birthday” to me. This year I didn’t. Next year I won’t either. This is just how it’s going to be from here on out, and it fucking sucks.

After losing a parent, one of the first things you start thinking about in your grief are the holidays and special occasions that they’re going to miss. The first family get together. The first bit of exciting news you can’t wait to tell them. The first Halloween. The first Thanksgiving. The first Christmas. Their next birthday. And of course, your next birthday. Each one feels different than the rest, but no matter what, they all hurt.

I can’t remember exactly when, but after a certain point, my birthday ceased to feel important to me. Getting older wasn’t fun anymore. I’d traded in my He-Man action figures and baseball card collection for annual doctor visits and the joy of living from paycheck to paycheck. I didn’t want to celebrate my birthday anymore. It didn’t mean anything to me. This drove my mom nuts. She’d get so excited about my birthday, and I’d Eeyore all over it. “Well, it still means something to me!” she’d say.

No matter how much I resisted, Mom refused to let me ignore my birthday. “I don’t understand what happened. You used to love your birthday,” she’d say. This was true. As a kid, Mom went out of her way to make my birthday feel special. My birthday parties had a template: invite the neighborhood kids, rent a movie, organize games, and the coup de grâce was always her cake.

One year she made a Cookie Monster-shaped cake, which my uncle insisted for years turned his poop blue. One year she made a Pac-Man cake, which remains my all-time favorite. Somewhere in the family archives exists a photo, but for now, you’ll have to use your imagination. It was a peanut butter-frosted sheet cake. Pac-Man was a cookie, and she drew the ghosts and game board by hand with different colored frosting.

Mom loved being a mom, probably more than anything else in the world, and her family was her most prized possession. She only ever wanted us to be happy, and if devoting hours of her day to a Pac-Man cake could put a smile on my face, she’d do it without a second thought. That’s just who she was.

One year she took me to see the live-action Masters of the Universe movie, just me and her, even though she had no idea what was happening. To be fair, I didn’t either. Something about “not Orko” hiding a magic Casio keyboard from bad guys, and Courtney Cox and her boyfriend using it to start a sweet synth band?

Even though my recollection of the movie itself is hazy at best, what I remember clear as day is the ending. He-Man defeats Skeletor, and as the triumphant music dies down, Dolph Lundgren turns toward the camera and declares, “Victowy” in his thick accent. My mom laughed so hard. She said He-Man had seemed so tough up until that point. It tickled her so much that it became a running joke between her and I. For decades, we’d randomly say “Victowy” to each other for no reason whatsoever, and it never failed to get a laugh.

So, today I sit in front of my keyboard, now forty-three years old, sipping an iced coffee and hating my birthday as usual, but this time, wishing with all my heart that Mom was still here to sing to me.

Mom, I just want to say, from the bottom of my heart… victowy.

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