by Julie K. Curtis
Yesterday was my mother’s birthday. I thought of it fleetingly all day long—in the quiet moments between worrying about my math assignment and the midterm paper in my modern lit class. I meant all along to get a card, write it, and send it. That’s what I’ve done every year for six years, when I was last home for her birthday.
The truth of it is that usually I send the card late. I let a couple of days or a week pass of those in-between-the-moment reminders. Finally, I search for a card that’s blank inside and elegant and unusual outside, and I spend another day contemplating what to write on it. Then I do write in the card and send it; a few days later I call on my dad’s calling card to tell her that I love her, even though I forgot to send the card in time.
It isn’t something my mother expects—the card, I mean. She doesn’t even expect the phone call. For her, birthdays aren’t such welcome time markers anymore. They aren’t exact, or quite as valid, somehow. I remember someone asking her how old she was in the year she turned forty-nine. “Fifty,” she answered. Later I asked her why she’d said that. “To get used to saying it next year,” she told me.
I didn’t fully understand her reasoning then, and I’m not sure I do now. But I do miss sharing birthdays with her. We were both born in September, and from the time I was old enough to realize that other people besides me have birthdays, I was privately quite proud of having my birthday in the same month as my mother.
Because there are five children in our family, I always made a great deal of anything that might distinguish me from my siblings, that might draw me especially close to our beloved mother. So we had this affinity for each other, I thought then.
Now our “affinity” is something I’m beginning to understand as a young woman—the affinity of womanhood, of nurturing, of the organic and spiritual growth process. It’s wrapped up in these abstractions, but really it traces back to a stunning moment in my life, the moment I realized that my mother bore me. Out of her womb and blood she bore me. Out of her body and soul. In biology class I was watching that film, “The Miracle of Life,” and I saw a woman giving birth. It was bloody. It was painful. Birth ripped her apart, but she bore it willingly. Then it was my mother, and I was the little wrinkled child emerging into life.
Not long ago I was visiting the city of my birth, up on a hill looking down upon it. That city always makes me brood at least a little bit—something of my organic beginnings there, I guess. From above I wondered which building was my birthplace. I couldn’t pick it out, but somehow felt I should have been able to, even though I haven’t lived in that city for twenty-one years. Once I asked someone to point the building out. At the time I thought I would always remember, but many things have come between me and that day.
There is a year when birthdays stop being so celebratory because other days become more significant markers of one’s life. I think my mother’s lying about her age has to do with this. I think I’m beginning to feel it too. My birthday is no longer the holiday second only to Christmas; it isn’t so important as it was when I was small. But as I grow older, even Christmas isn’t always one of my time-marking days. One begins to mark the years with other events: “the day I graduated,” “the day I married him,” “the day she died,” “the day he was born.” I mark not my own first beginning so much as the second and third beginnings of my life and the anniversaries of the events of those I love. In fact, my own birthday consisted only of my brother stealing me off to dinner at an Italian restaurant, and my postponing my homework until the next day—not so momentous at all.
Each day brings its prospects of a new beginning, a new birthday. Each day has its turn of events, its new balance or imbalance. Each day can be a beginning or an ending. It’s exhausting to think how much change and variation this implies for our lives. But it’s beautiful, too.
The British poet Matthew Arnold wrote, “We live between two worlds, one dying, and the other powerless to be born.” When I first heard this quotation, it stopped me dead, because I was experiencing just the sort of interworldly death and birth that Arnold describes. I had just returned from Hungary, where I spent eighteen months as a missionary. I was struggling to re-adapt myself to family life at my parents’ home, then to social life and academics when I returned to college for my last year of undergraduate study. I was trying to find again a life I’d been absent from for a long time.
During that late summer and early autumn, I felt exquisitely the death and birth of those parts of myself, those worlds. I had lost the well-defined sense of purpose that missionary service brought me, and I searched in vain for the strong motivating purposes that had directed my life before my mission. Self-consciously, I reminisced about my missionary experiences, as I was painfully and guiltily aware that they were my only frame of reference, my only familiarity. I couldn’t go back, and yet I didn’t know how to move forward. At the time I thought I was supposed to rid myself of the old world and immerse myself in the new. But that wasn’t working very well; I couldn’t simply divorce myself from my other half. Arnold’s words made me realize something I hadn’t imagined before: you never quite leave, and yet you never really arrive. In limbo, that means, the times between.
But it isn’t so nondirectional as all that. It isn’t simply floating. Rather, it’s the wayfaring, the journey that takes you through the worlds, but you’re never allowed to simply stop and settle. Not quite.
Wayfarers have different birthdays, and many of them. Reincarnation is a fact of life, with each new phase and fancy. I felt like I was dying that day those years ago, leaving home openly with tears, knowing that my parents wouldn’t live there when I returned. I died when I said good-byes to my most-beloveds and got on a plane to Hungary. Again, when I returned, I felt my funeral. My countenance wore black those first days, and I saw nothing. But each time I found a new birthday-January ninth, March fifteenth, September sixteenth, July eighth.You have to be born again, although that hurts too.
There is pain in birth. They say time heals. They say when the joy comes, you forget. My friend Krista told me, “But I didn’t forget the pain. When they’re sewing up three layers of me and the epidural didn’t take, it hurts. When they put her into my arms, I didn’t forget like they said I would. I loved her, yes, but I didn’t forget.”
I don’t think you forget. The pain passes, though, and the triumph of birth comes when you know you’ll live on. The pain passes the same way the pain of an ended love affair ends—when you realize that you will someday love another person just as much; when the uncertainty of “Shall I ever love again?” is answered in the heart. It’s the wayfaring passage from world to world. It’s the miracle of life all over again.
So as we are wayfaring between two worlds, the old world lingers and the new has yet to be explored. The dazzling beauty is in the array of choices they afford. Even the simplest things are full of rich meaning. Take me, as I stumble between languages and cultures. I read the word hold, and I can’t for some moments decide whether to choose the English meaning, “keep,” or the Hungarian meaning, “moon.” Each sends me into a sweet reverie. This is life between two worlds: one dying, yes, but it will never die completely, just as the other will never be completely born. I will never wholly belong to either, and so I will never wholly lose either. We need not refer to simply one death or one birth. We are wayfarers. We have many.
Until the end come our birthdays: birth-of-era-days, birth-of love-days, birth-of-faith-days, birth-of-birth-days. But even beyond the end, we continue. My grandfather died some years ago, but my first Sunday in October is always his day, anniversary of the tearful morning when I knew he had passed, a birth-of-death-day. People have a way of living on.
For my birthday six years ago my mother sent a tape of children’s songs by the Simon sisters, a tape I loved as a child. Now I’m thinking of the last verse of the last song:
“I love you ‘til Heaven rips the stars from his coat,
And the moon rows away in a glass-bottomed boat … And
I love you as long as the furrow of a plow,
And so ever is ever, and ever is now.”
It is a most fitting end to a declaration of love: the cosmic, organic, and spiritual dimensions of love—and not just of love, but of life. That we love is why we are born, and why we live, and why some live on. Love has to be this sort of holistic conception, for it is the substance of life, just as the absence of love is life’s emptiness. Love is the continuity that paves the wayfarer’s road; one can’t help following one’s deepest heart.
As I wayfare along my chosen path, I carry threads and ribbons and banners declaring my travels. These mementos bind my wounded spirits and trace my wanton loves. They are my birthright, my continual inheritance. They are my reminder that births and deaths are temporal parts of a spiritual world.
My Aunt Tina, my mother’s sister, wants to carry a sign that reads, “The world begins tomorrow,” as opposed to its ending. “Every day we’re beginning again,” she says. “People ought to realize that.” Someday I’ll join her and we’ll picket the sidewalks in the city of my birth. People really ought to know.
And, of course, happy birthday, Mother.