I almost forgot that today was my mother’s 71st birthday.
I say almost because I finally remembered at 11:16 p.m. And I was presented with a dilemma.
My parents, objectively speaking, are old. They live in a retirement community in Port St. Lucie, Florida. And there’s not much to keep them up late at night, other than arthritis, Turner Classic Movies, or the occasional ambulance dispatching a soon-to-be-former neighbor. Do I call at 11:16 p.m. to wish my mom a happy birthday and run the risk of waking them up – or worse yet, giving them both heart attacks? Because in my parents’ world, any phone call received after 11 p.m. means somebody is dead, dying, or arrested. (Don’t ask me how I know about that last option.)
Or do I wait until tomorrow, when my birthday wishes would be tainted by belated – a word that practically shrieks, “I am self-involved and thoughtless.” (Both of which are true, but that’s beside the point.)
Cynics might think: “Will, you’re adopted. What do you care? It’s not like she’s your real mother.”
In fact, it’s just the opposite. While many woman can get pregnant and have a baby if they chose to, my mother could not, despite repeated efforts. And while conceiving (for some) is effortless (and fun, or so I’m told), adopting is not – especially in in the analog Dark Ages of 1969.
My parents had to fill out all manner of government paperwork, sit through countless interviews and inspections by social workers, and go through extensive background checks before they became my proud new owners. They even fostered kids, and had to fend off at least one troubled father who wanted his back. The process of acquiring the Smartass Who Became Known as William McKinley Jr. took years, and generated more than a few disappointments.
And why did they go to all this trouble? So they would have someone to call them on their 71st birthday.
It’s not really that much to ask. They took me in, fed me, clothed me, put up with my teenaged obsession with Dark Shadows, paid for me to go to private school and NYU, and continue to lend me money as I approach the age of 40. And I’m not even technically related to them. That’s a pretty sweet deal. And all they ask for in return is a phone call on their respective birthdays.
So I decided to call. Thankfully they were both still awake, probably watching something on TCM.
“I just got out of work,” I lied when my mother answered the phone. “Sorry I couldn’t call earlier.”
I wished my mom a happy birthday, told her what I had been up to, and asked what she was doing to celebrate.
“Talking to you,” she said.
Today would have been my mother’s 80th birthday. She died on December 28, 2007. An earlier version of this essay was originally published on March 14, 2006. She thought it was funny, but didn’t appreciate being called “old.”