Today I call you to tell you happy birthday. The rates to the States are cheap from here; I should call more often. I go into the little stall with the glass walls and the phone that counts how many minutes I talk. I breathe in, breathe out, imagine the way your voice will sound. Maybe no one will answer the phone, I think to myself, but I know my odds are pretty good; it’s lunchtime there.
You answer. You can’t believe that it’s me on the other line—Kate? you ask incredulously. Kate? Is that you? I smile and the tears don’t come, even though I miss you so badly, more and more every day, so much so that I can’t even bear to think about how it will feel to see you again. Happy Birthday, I tell you. Happy Birthday, mom, and when you tell me thanks for calling, I can hear the smile in your voice.
You tell me that the day is steamy hot; you haven’t had too many days like it yet this summer. As for me, I tell you, it’s winter down here; even the days are cold unless you’re in the sun, and the nights are nearly freezing. But I forget to tell you that the hostel I’m staying at makes the beds with layers and layers of Andean blankets, and that they offered me more, if I need them. You would have wanted to know that. I forget to tell you that I make the bed here the way you used to make it for me on cold Adirondack nights, tucking a blanket right over the fitted sheet because even flannel wasn’t always warm enough. I forget to thank you for the socks you insisted I take with me, the heavy woolen ones that save me during the cold nights and long bus rides.
I don’t tell you that last night I dreamed about one of your birthdays many years ago. Dad bought you a dozen roses that year, roses and a thin gold necklace. He let me carry the flowers to you while you worked in the garden. You spotted me coming, the bouquet almost as big as I was as I crossed the lawn to you. You were so surprised that you wept, first at the red blooms and then again when you opened the box that dad carried to you and saw the glint of gold lying there on the velvet. Last night, I could smell the grass, the turned-over earth, and I could see how clear and blue the sky was above us, how green the white pines were in the woods. When I woke up there were tears in my eyes. You never take that necklace off; besides your wedding ring, it’s the only jewelry you ever wear.
I don’t tell you that I have thought about you all day, mom. I’ve thought about all your other birthdays; the cakes I’ve made for you, cakes from boxes and cakes from cookbooks, cakes made with or without David’s help. I’ve thought about the years I mixed up your birthday, calling you on the wrong day, or the times I mailed your card too late. I think about the years I forgot altogether, and even though you told me, days later when I realized my mistake, that it didn’t matter, I still felt bitterly guilty. You never made much of a fuss over your birthday, never asked for anything special, never bought yourself gifts. Make me something, you always told us when we asked you in advance what you wanted.
You come to my dreams all the time, mom. Sometimes I don’t see your face, I just hear your voice, or your footsteps in the hall outside of my bedroom. I smell the bread you bake; I see our backyard that slopes up towards the woods, and the garden that blooms with lupines and daisies, poppies, sweet peonies. I can smell, in my dreams, our house in every season: the woodstove in winter, and the wind through the open windows when it’s warm.
In your last email, you told me you think about me every day. You said you go into the garden and think about David and I there when we were just little children. I hang up the phone with you today, and I wish I could go back in time, back to the days when you still made your own birthday cake. Back to the nights when you knelt beside my bed and repeated the prayer that I still remember, that I still say to myself sometimes, always wondering whether you're whispering it too. Oh mom, oh mommy. I can't wait to see you again.