January 20, 1980 was Super Bowl Sunday. I spent the day moving into the thirteenth floor of a dormitory on the campus of Northern Illinois University in Dekalb, Illinois, where my ex-husband was in pursuit of his MA in geology. In addition to his studies, he was employed as one of the campus’s Head Residential Advisors. I was pregnant.
The 20th was also my due date. Being an A+ student, I dutifully went into labor. Contractions began mid-morning. By three in the afternoon, they arrived every ten minutes. I said nothing. We needed to arrange our piddly belongings in the furnished apartment, set up the crib and unpack the adorable baby clothes before the Los Angeles Rams kicked off to the Pittsburgh Steelers— the ex was a sports pool junky.
We dined in the cafeteria. I’d never been so hungry and filled my tray wide and high and ate every morsel as if I was going to join the players on the field of the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California. Up with People sang during halftime and cheered my contractions down to a vigorous five-minute interval, where they politely stayed until Terry Bradshaw earned MVP and the Steelers became the first team to win four Super Bowls.
Hunger refused to subside. At eleven-thirty we drove to Wendy’s, bought a large chocolate Frosty. Back on the 13th floor we worked the Sunday crossword and shared the Frosty until a tiny burst of cold washed the inside of my belly. I got to the bathroom just in time for my water to break. It gushed all the way to the hospital, and I joked about being the one to break in the cloth diapers.
My first son arrived by emergency C-section on the 21st at 10:56 pm. Happy Birthday, Perry!
Today you’re 41, or walking on 42 as my mother used to say. I want to whip up a lemon cake. Watch you eat every ginormous wedge in two bites. I’ve never known anyone who could put more food in their mouth at one time. I never understood how you could possibly taste the flavors, but you remained adamant— the bigger the bite the bigger the flavor. You must’ve absorbed that mindset when we lived in New Orleans, where more is more-better.
I want to win our Happy Birthday Call game.
Happy Birthday, Mama!
Perry. It’s your Happy Birthday, not mine.
I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for you. You did all the work.
Love you, Mama. Love you, Perry.
The win will never be mine. Not a breath of a chance because you’ve taken your last. I wish I could say it isn’t so. Last year, I sat in my reading chair with the iPhone by my side waiting for it to ring. It’s beside me now— my version of a candlelight vigil— as I gaze at your photos and escape into the hope in your eyes. Daydreamers— we two.
Poet and novelist Andrei Codrescu whose writing could sway a dyed-in-the-wool Canadian to fall in love and move to New Orleans says the city is overrun with wrong numbers.
People call the old numbers, believing that the dead to whom that number once belonged will answer.
Sometimes the wrong number caller will carry on a conversation as if they reached the party to whom they wished to connect. Yeah, me too. I ring the number that says, “The person you have dialed is no longer able to receive calls at this time.” So, I call the other, “Please leave your message for 8xx-2xx-8xxx.” And I do because…
There is a telephonic voodoo cult in the city. It’s an old New Orleans practice, based on the belief that a person’s phone number passes with the person’s soul into the beyond.
It’s a longshot. I’ve never been a gambler. But you were, so I think the odds are in my favor.
In the meantime, I’ll keep writing because that, too, is a long shot. A dream we shared. To write a story people would love to read, and share and read again. It may be an impossible dream but there are worse ways to spend my time than chasing dreams à la Don Quixote. I write because you are no longer able. I write because of my belief in writing voodoo— that the words on the page have the power to travel through the ethers into the beyond, where they will ring through to your heart. And you will, in one way or another, reach back to me…
Keep doing the work, Mama. I’m listening. I love you.
Today and every day— I write with the healing love of mother and son.