Tomorrow is my mother’s birthday, the day after St. Patrick’s. My older brother’s is the day before Halloween. A girlhood friend’s is two days after mine. My son’s is the day before my father’s. Had the staff at the hospital in Gijón been less determined to tidy things up before the shift change, I think my son would have shared a birthday with his grandfather, and that would have been even easier to remember. Is that it for the handy coincidences? I have a friend whose birthday falls on Valentine’s Day, and another whose comes the day before, but who has which? For all the rest I’m on my own—19th or 21st of August? Tenth of November or the day after? August 3rd or not August 3rd?
I also no longer always remember the ages of different people in my life. Sometimes I forget my own age—that’s how fast the years go by. Decades last a little longer, and so with confidence I say that my mother is in her 80s. She was born in Baton Rouge. But in a hospital or at home? After a long and difficult labor or quickly and easily, as she gave birth to my brother and me and I to my two sons? And my grandmother—where was she born and under what circumstances? I’ll have to ask, but for that I’ll need more leisure than a weekly video chat provides. I’ll need a visit.
My mother was in Gijón for the births of her two grandsons, had visited before, and has returned several times since. That’s not extraordinary: lots of mothers help out similarly with their presence for the birth of a baby. Or for other events, big and small. In student essays from my time teaching freshman composition, presence was what mothers were most extolled for, more than good advice or food on the table or comforting hugs. Their mother, wrote student after student, was always there for them. How those students, girls more than boys, loved the cliché to be there for someone. Best friends were there for one another, sometimes grandmothers for granddaughters, but most often it was mothers. The boys wrote about a lesson they’d learned from their fathers, brothers, or uncles, and these essays were interesting for the details of fishing or taking apart an engine or getting drunk. But for the girls, it was their mother and her simple presence that counted, essay after essay. “I cried and cried,” a student might write, or instead, “I was so sad,” before the clincher: “My mother was there for me.” The end.
That’s it? I thought. That’s all you can say, as much as you’ll reveal, as deep as you can delve?
Yes, that was all, as if the presence were as clear as the Biblical appearance of light.
This past pandemic year when watching American TV, I didn’t hear that phrase, but I did hear another, over and over, that in its ubiquity was new to me. “I’ve got you,” people said to employees, bosses, clients, colleagues, and friends, usually using it to declare they were watching out for the other person, they would take care of them, a phrase you might also use for an elderly parent who’s beginning to question her powers, who’s beginning to fail, and who is in decline. It’s a more active promise than to be there.
When my mother came for a few weeks in the summer four and a half years ago, she said it would be her last visit, though six months later she was back for Christmas. This is now really it, she said. And so far, that’s held true. But a picture of Gijón at Christmas, with a church she recognized in the background, put her in mind of walks she’d taken over the years and squares, streets, and buildings she’d enjoyed. On a video chat, we ran through the names of some of the churches: San José near the old train station, San Pedro on the beach front, San Lorenzo at Begoña. Maybe, she said, maybe she’d come back. Whenever you’re ready, I told her. Then, with my former students in mind and their earnest message of deep debt and gratitude, I said, “I’ll be there for you at the airport.” For now that’ll do—just devotion, none of the follow-through yet necessary.
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