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Happy Birthday

          I pushed open the outer elevator door, squeaking slowly on hinges broken in psychotic rage by my younger brother, stood in the foyer shared by our 87 year old neighbor Helene, stopped before the shining black lacquered front door to my apartment, and sobbed.  

          It was 2 am on June 25th.  My 23rd birthday. I had just walked the 17 blocks home from my cousin’s apartment, he having invited me over for a birthday joint.  I left shortly after the clock struck midnight, having forced myself to wait until then. I felt like being alone. I’m sure I was shitty company anyways.  He had a girl coming over which spared me the rudeness of a voluntary early departure, especially after he’d been loving enough to share my special evening with me.  We saw each other a lot, so this wasn't a special activity. Just a special occasion. Somewhere inside me (where, I didn't know) I appreciated the gesture.

         Now, after a meandering nearly two hour walk home, which included my favorite New York delicacies - slice of extra hot pizza, cannoli, and black and white cookie (vain attempts at birthday treats) - I stood outside my front door, eyes squeezed tightly shut, biting hard on my fist so I wouldn't make any noise, and felt what I’d been feeling for weeks, suddenly accessible to me because the weed had cut through the anger I’d been wearing as a shield, a shield from myself, mostly.  The vague reflection facing me in the shiny lacquer looked weak, watery, like it was about to collapse into a puddle on the dusty floor.

          Slowly my breathing ceased to be a halting, catching endeavor and I began to respirate somewhat normally.  I opened the door and stepped through the threshold, the silver and gold mezuzah winking at me as it caught the light from the hallway.  I took cautious steps, my confident gait eroded by the rhythmic, ceaseless bombardment of anger and hysteria from the mentally ill in my family.  My dog, a yellow lab whom I’d probably spent more time with than any human, ran, more like slipped and slid across the once polished, now scratched wooden floors. Claws clattering and excited panting; hello.  I knelt down and she stood on her hind legs, front paws draped over my shoulders, and licked my face. I felt, for an instant, a wave of…goodness, roll through me. It was as vague as that, and only for an instant.  A match struck but failing to light.

          I stood up and took two more steps into the living room.  My mom was asleep on the couch, waiting for my brother to come home because she needed to give him his medication before he went to sleep.  I stood there, in the soft glow of the lamp turned mostly down, and watched my mom, slowly stirring.

          “Hello?” she said thickly, slowly opening her eyes, maladjusted even to this dimness.  

          I didn't respond.  I couldn’t. Any attempt at speech would have resulted in a strange sob leaping from my throat.  

          “Hi Brian,” she said, so tenderly, the cobwebs of much needed sleep still thick about her.  

          I sat down in the chair closest to the couch and focused too intently on petting my dog so I wouldn't cry.  

          “Happy Birthday Brian,” she said after a minute, the cobwebs gone.  

          I tried to force the corners of my mouth into a smile.  I’d never felt so hideous in my life. I had never experienced that before. Brute, eroded ugliness. I nodded my head and tried to say thank you. A tear rolled down my cheek instead.  Then another. And another. And another, until within a few seconds streams were rapidly rolling down my already salty face, down my chin and onto my arm, still petting my dog.  

          “Oh Brian,” my mom said so gently it was little more than breath.  She came over and kneeled next to me, her hands and forehead on my forearm.  I stopped petting my dog. Deep rattling breaths racked my chest and the tears rolled faster now, fatter now.  They felt good rolling down. Warm and good.

          My mom lifted her head and looked at me.  I could see her eyes, red-rimmed. I couldn't look directly in her eyes though.  I knew I would lose it if I did. Looking back, I don’t know why I was afraid of that.  But I didn't look at her. I kept my eyes fixed firmly, albeit blurrily, on my feet. But I felt her looking at me, felt her strength and her warmth, and felt the words inside of her before they ever left her lips.  

          I wanted to tell her in that moment how grateful I was to be sitting there, on my birthday, heavy, comforting tears sliding down my cheeks, her kneeling next to me and her velvet iron grip on my arm, a torrent of unspoken thought racing between us.  I wanted to say thank you. I wanted to say I’m sorry. I wanted to say I love you.

          But I didn't say anything.  I sat there, still as a statue with a shallowly heaving chest, and felt cemented, unable to move in that moment, a moment where I felt all the pain of the last few weeks, of eternity, and the boundless love of a mother. Of my mother.

          I don’t know how long we stayed like that.  On a clock it was probably no more than 15 minutes.  But how inadequate are minutes to measure life. And though my mouth never opened and my lips never formed noise into intelligible sounds, I think, I hope, she knew what I was feeling.  I know she did, because in that moment she was feeling it too, we were feeling it as one. How much easier, more meaningful is this life when it is shared through love. Any other way isn't living.  It is simply measuring time tick by on a clock.

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