It is my ninth birthday.
I shiver under the covers and calculate how many steps I need to take to get to my bathrobe hanging in the closet; it’s frigid in my room. I can probably make it in six steps if I really hustle, so I do, grabbing a pair of socks on the way.
Why isn’t the heat on? Mama does that first thing when she wakes up—she creeps quietly down the stairs and cranks the thermostat before she even makes coffee. I hold the railing in my stockinged feet and make my way downstairs, clutching the neck of my bathrobe tight.
Daddy’s at the kitchen table, coffee and newspaper in hand, apparently immune to the cold—the man is like a lizard; he just adapts to whatever temperature he’s in. I must be awake really early if Mama isn’t up. I reach for the lever on the thermostat and then remember. Mama isn’t sleeping. She isn’t here.
It’s a school day, but I don’t have to go. Neither does my sister, which seems wildly unfair; it’s my birthday, after all. Why should she get the day off? I pour a bowl of Quisp, add milk, grab a spoon from a drawer and sit down across the table from my father. He doesn’t look up from his newspaper but he knows I’m there because he’s removed the comics section and put it at my place.
I scan the comics and search for Andy Capp; he’s my favorite. He’s always in trouble with his wife, Flo, because he’d rather be at the pub than at home with her. My sister comes into the kitchen, sleep-drunk and sour-faced. She’s not a morning person. She doesn’t say “Happy Birthday” and I don’t expect her to. As she pours cereal, I remove the Ann Landers column from my section of the paper and put it at her place. We slurp in silence, reading.
It’s stopped snowing but it’s actually worse—it’s clear and brittle outside and I know that it’s gotten too cold to snow. Daddy either doesn’t realize how cold it is or he doesn’t care, because he insists that my sister and I wear our Sunday dresses. We know better than to protest, but I grab my warmest Danskin tights out of the drawer and slide them on.
Daddy doesn’t do hair. That job goes to my sister. For the first time since I got it a few months ago, I’m grateful for my unflattering Dorothy Hamill haircut. My sister is ruthless with the hairbrush. At least now I have hardly any hair to rip from my scalp.
I allow myself to get zipped up in my bright yellow ski jacket—why the heck do I have to wear a dress if I’m bundled up like this? On go the white snow boots and heavy gloves. Daddy hands me a hat but I balk; I didn’t go through hair torture just to slap a hat on my head.
It’s a 15-minute drive and some lady is singing Don’t it Make my Brown Eyes Blue? on the radio and I have no idea what she means. How can brown eyes turn blue? I’m only in third grade but even I know that’s stupid.
We get to the hospital and Daddy makes us sit in the car, heater off, while he goes inside. I don’t know how long he’s in there but it feels like forever, and I have to pee but I know I’m stuck because Daddy won’t let us go into the hospital, even to use the lobby toilet.
He returns, opens the car door and tells us to walk carefully, because it’s a sheet of ice in the parking lot. The snowplows have been through and I end up standing next to a huge pile of snow, gray and icy and mid-winter ugly.
Daddy points to window—a window so high up that I have to tilt my head almost entirely back to see it—and tells us to smile and wave. The wind whips right up my skirt and my knees are clacking like castanets and I feel silly waving at a window with nothing in it but then I see a flash of white and yellow, and it’s Mama waving back at me. She doesn’t even look like herself, and yet she does, in the flimsy white gown, and there’s a tube coming out of her chest—it looks like that sucker-thingy we attach to the vacuum to get dirt out from underneath the couch.
I think she’s smiling at me and I wave so hard that I slip on the ice and tumble into the dirty snow, Danskin tights ruined. Things turn to blur and my sister hisses at me to get in the car, yanking my arm hard.
When we get home, we strip off our winter clothes and retreat to our respective bedrooms. My sister won’t look at me. I take the only present I care about, a book of Encyclopedia Brown mysteries, and crawl into bed with it, even though Mama would disapprove of loafing away the entire afternoon in bed. But everyone else in the house is doing it, so I imagine she couldn’t mind.
At some point, I fall asleep. Next thing I know, the doorbell’s ringing and I look at my digital clock; it’s after 5 pm. I open the door and it’s a lady who lives down the street named Judy. I don’t really know her but I know she has a son who’s older than me who still wets the bed at night and that she hangs her enormous brassieres out on the clothesline to dry in her backyard. She has a large, pink, store-bought birthday cake in her hands. I let her in and she bends down to hug me hard. It feels weird because she’s got little rolls of fat around her middle, and Mama doesn’t have those.
Daddy comes down and asks Judy to stay while he picks up dinner. She cuts me a piece of cake and even though I haven’t had dinner yet, I wolf it down. I tell her it’s good but it’s really not; the icing is bitter and cloyingly sweet at the same time.
When Daddy gets home, my sister emerges and Judy stays while we eat Kentucky Fried Chicken. Mama never lets us eat that junk, but Daddy says it’s a special occasion. While my sister and I eat, Daddy and Judy talk in hushed tones in the next room and I try hard not to listen.
Judy scrapes our plates and cuts everyone a piece of cake. I don’t want one but it’s ungrateful to say no, so I eat it. Judy puts her hand on Daddy’s arm, leans into him and says, “If you need anything, anything at all…”
Suddenly, I know I’m going to be sick and I bolt for the bathroom but it’s too late and then there’s neon pink all over the linoleum floor. Daddy orders me to my room and I want to brush my teeth, get the taste of ruined birthday out of my mouth, but I don’t dare.
When I wake up in the morning I make my bed, taking care to pull the sheet corners taut, just like Mama showed me. I will make my bed this way every day until she comes home; until I can show her those perfect corners and she’ll smile and say, “Well done, baby. Well done.”