This year on 9/11, I plan to eat cake. Chocolate cake with chocolate icing—my mother’s favorite.
My mother turned 67 on September 11, 2001. It was a time in her life when she went to a lot of doctors. Accompanying her in the weeks and months—and even years—after the attacks, I felt wary whenever I provided her date of birth. I tried out September 11th, rather than 9/11, hoping to skip the beat of stunned silence before a receptionist, a pharmacist or a health professional would ask, “What was the year again?”
On that blue-skied September morning ten years ago, I planned to fly to New York. I’d meet with my clients—who published law books—and by late afternoon, I’d be back on Cape Cod. Just in time to pick up a cake and prepare my mother’s birthday dinner.
For reasons I no longer remember, I postponed my 9/11 meeting, opting to catch up by phone instead. Strange, I thought when I made the call: no voice mail, no receptionist, just a fast-busy. It wasn’t until I made another call--to a friend in Chicago--that I learned why I couldn’t reach anyone in New York.
“Do you want to come over to watch my TV?” my mother asked me, when she called a few minutes later. I didn’t. I didn’t feel any need for video verification. Instead, I wanted to make phones calls and send e-mails and perform a sort of virtual-shepherding. I was especially worried about my friend Tina, a Boston-based flight attendant for American Airlines.
“Should we still have the cook-out tonight?” I asked my mother when I called to report Tina was fine—or at least on the ground.
I hoped she’d postpone. In the face of so much loss, it felt wrong to fire up the grill and keep on living. Maybe by the weekend, I thought, we won’t feel so numb, so sad. But my mother did not favor a change of plans.
“This is not a time,” she said, “for us to sit in our separate houses.”
Traffic was eerily absent when I ventured out to pick up a birthday cake; the whole world seemed to have stopped. My errand felt absurd and almost sacrilegious, disrespectful of the dead. At the bakery, I was the only customer. A yellow-haired woman about my mother’s age was patient with me, pointing at each cake, repeating as I failed to take in the information. The one with the white and yellow roses, I finally decided. The baker loaded her frosting pen and squeezed, spelling out Happy Birthday Mom in green cursive before she pushed a tiny candleholder and a single yellow candle into the center of the cake.
“It feels so strange to get a birthday cake today,” I said.
“It is a terrible day,” she agreed. Like me, she had been listening to the radio since she first heard the news. “But even so, your mother still has to have her birthday.”
A few hours later, my mother, her companion, Bill, and I sat on the deck, eating hamburgers spiked with chopped tomato and onions, miso, beer and black pepper. We shared reports we had heard; we swapped theories and we shook our heads. Both Bill and my mother had memories of Pearl Harbor; both Bill and my mother agreed we’d witnessed another act of war. But none of us knew exactly what war it was. Not then. Not yet.
After dinner, I carried the cake to the table, placing it in front of my mother, instructing her to make a wish before she blew out the single flame. One wish did not seem enough that night. I should have loaded her cake with candles.
We moved indoors to eat the cake, and for a few minutes, we were lost in its goodness, and in the memories of cakes past—all delicious, and all from the same yellow-haired baker who wanted my mother to have her birthday.
I wonder now whether my mother already knew—or feared—that something was amiss. Did she depend on Bill to drive that night because her always-challenged sense of direction was morphing into an inability to find her way? Did she notice she was losing her car keys more often, and forgetting how to use the coffeemaker? Or did she inherently understand that that every day, every moment spent with those we love is precious?
Four and a half years after our 9/11 cookout, my mother moved to an assisted living residence. She participated in the selection process; she agreed to move. At least that’s my version of the story. Hers was much different. “You had no right to just pack me up and send me here.” For many months, she was angry with me. “You are the only kid in the family who put her mother away. You took the path of least resistance. You should be ashamed of yourself.” My English-teaching, Latin-speaking mother could no longer spell—even her signature was hard to write, but she hadn’t lost her ability to string a sentence together. Sometimes, we exchanged harsh words. But I came to realize she never remembered them.
It was about this time that my mother—a lifelong reader, writer, and promoter of language arts—embraced the role of editor. She blue-lined the less pleasant elements of her life story. As her memory grew less reliable, her disposition improved. It was as if she were happier, as if her living were lighter when freed of her old sad stories, freed of the memory of her younger, troubled selves.
Visiting, we laughed together; we had fun. I might show her a picture: the black and white shot of a glamorous young woman directing a high school play—or share a story I remembered from her bouffant-hairdo days.
“Well, wasn’t I something!”
“You still are something, Mom.”
The next day, she would complain on the phone: “You haven’t visited in ages.”
Eventually, I stopped reminding her that I’d visited the day before. I came to understand what she meant to teach me with her birthday cook-out: we must not only seize the day, but make the moment matter. Even when we know the moment will be forgotten.
As my mother changed with her forgetting, I considered how many variations compose a single life. “She just wasn’t herself anymore,” said an unthinking mourner at my mother’s wake.
Who are we, anyway—any of us, at any time? If we are lucky to live long, we are all—a hundred, a thousand—different people. I am not the same person who picked out that birthday cake 10 years ago. Minutes after the attack, no one in our country could claim to be unchanged.
When I light my mother’s candle this year, I will think of all the souls who left the planet prematurely, of their friends and families, who begin another decade of living without them. I will think of my mother—in all her versions and variations. And I will not eat my chocolate cake alone. My mother and the bakery lady were right. In joyfulness or in sorrow, in celebration or in mourning, in remembering or in forgetting—now or then—this is not a time to sit in our separate houses.
Copyright 2011 by Kate Whouley
This essay originally appeared in Obit Magazine