There are few dates I remember specifically unless I write them down, which I seldom do. January 28, 1977, is one of them. I was 15 years old, it was my mother’s 58th birthday, and my father didn’t come home.
I realized today that 31 years have passed since that night. I think I finally convinced my mother to blow out the candles and to cut the cake. It was an anxious, sad occasion, minus any joy, and then we didn’t know that she would celebrate only six more birthdays.
At 15, I think I really believed that parents lasted forever. A couple of my uncles by marriage had died by then, but I never thought of my cousins as being without fathers. I didn’t think of such things at all.
At 58, my mother knew that nothing lasts forever, or even very long. She’d lost her parents, she’d lost siblings in both childhood and adulthood, and she’d lost a husband and child. Life had programmed her to be anxious, and had not as yet programmed me at all. While her determined anxiety and fears troubled and even annoyed me, my uninformed optimism undoubtedly disturbed her. How could I be so sure that everything would be all right and that my dad would be safe in the storm?
I couldn’t, and probably I wasn’t. But I wanted to be, and therefore I was.
Two years later, a boy in my high school band was hit and killed by a drunk driver. We had been only nodding acquaintances, but he was intelligent, talented, and friendly. I was shocked. I went to the wake and met his parents, but it was months before I accepted that he would never play the trumpet with us again. It felt wrong. How could someone alive suddenly not be alive, not show up for practice? And when would this absence end?
My dad turned up the next morning, not entirely understanding the consternation and stress that his enforced absence had caused. All’s well that ends well, but there was nothing happy about my mother’s birthday in 1977. We were trapped by the weather and by fear.
My mother had me when she was 42 and died when she was 64. Of all our birthday celebrations, my dad’s, hers, Virgil’s, and mine, her 58th birthday is the only one I remember, the one during which an awareness of loss and what it could mean must have crept into my consciousness. At 46, I now know all too well the effects of loss and fear of loss and find myself fighting not to become my mother, sure of the worst. Children and adolescents can afford to be optimists; I can’t afford not to be one. I want to believe.