by Zinta Aistars
Sorting out files, cleaning closets, digging through moldy boxes in the crawlspace, I am in the process of purging the detritus of a life half a century lived. I do this partially in celebration of my daughter’s birthday, 28 years old on this July 5th, and from time to time throughout the day, my cell phone sings on the kitchen counter, bringing me to it in a run. I leave a trail of that detritus in my hurry to catch the call. Every day I miss her vibrant and bubbling presence, but most especially on this day. Whatever closet I’m in, whatever box I am digging through, in whatever room I am running the vacuum, I am thinking of her. Of her and that day 28 years ago. When she calls, in bits and pieces and random scenes, I replay that long ago, or not so long ago, day back to her … and she updates me on this day, today.
The normal scene would have been paaaar-teee! But that, she tells me, gets old. I know, I say quietly, nodding in memory of my own youthful parties, at least as many years ago as she is marking today. The ink on my college diploma was barely dry when she was born. Her existence was a stunning surprise. I had given no thought to children; the realization of my newly minted state of marital bliss was still a concept I was working to absorb. I went through stages of denial, anger, panic, and finally acceptance as my body underwent its dramatic metamorphosis. My body, yes, but my heart, too. Once I accepted that I was no longer alone, that some other life had taken over my own, an even more stunning, second realization was dawning on me. I was falling in love.
Perhaps , then, this was not the time to pursue the writing of that first novel. Preparation for motherhood was fast taking precedence. But I wrote a story, nonetheless, in my native tongue—Latvian—and titled it, “Sieviete gaida,” or, “Woman Waiting.” Twenty-eight years later, I still look at that story as one of my best literary efforts. It was published in a prestigious literary magazine in Latvia, “Karogs,” and later included in my collection of short stories, “Ievainots Zelts,” winning an award. All I had to do to be able to write something of lasting quality was to allow myself to be transformed. To shed the old and comfortably known and take on the new, uncomfortably unknown.
As now. I fill bag after bag with old manuscripts, receipts, owner’s manuals, letters. My files thin. My life grows a little lighter.
“I was thinking,” she says over the phone she holds to her as she walks some street in Chicago. I imagine the cityscape as I listen: the street noises give me clues. “I might check into a hotel downtown, the Drake maybe, overlooking Millennium Park, and pamper myself for the day.”
“I’ve done that sort of thing,” I offer. “Order yourself room service and put it on my tab.”
“Maybe a spa. A massage? A manicure.”
“That would be nice.” I draw a deep breath, closing my eyes in my kitchen to open them to the skyline of Chicago, two states away. I wish I were there, with her. I say so.
“I know, Mom. And now I regret turning you down. I had thought—"
“Now, no. I mean, I was out with my friends yesterday. We watched the fireworks from a rooftop. I figured the whole weekend that way. It was quite incredible…”
And I remember a rooftop in Kentucky. My mind’s eye blacks out Chicago and instantly transports me to the roof of our house in Kentucky, the glow of the Cincinnati skyline a distant, pale glowing arc to the north. Her father and I have climbed through our bedroom window onto the gentle slope of the roof, our babies in tow. My baby boy sits in my lap, wobbly head knocking back against my chest, mouth a round open oval, as he stares wide-eyed at the exploding sky of July 4th. Our little girl sits under the protective arm of her father, leaning into him, pointing at the shimmering and falling stars overhead. He tells her the city is celebrating her birthday, which will begin at midnight. So happy is the world that she was born on the 5th of July. She is nearly breathless in wonder, dazzled by the show of colored light, and by the importance of her birth.
“It’s still and always for you,” I say into my phone. “The fireworks.”
“I mean it. For you and for me, too. This is my day, too, you know. I declared my independence on this day 28 years ago.”
“On this day, 28 years ago, I discovered my true love. You. And later, your brother. In giving birth, I finally understood that to love someone else more than myself, to know another life more important than my own, really was the only kind of independence we can ever know. To be free of the bonds of self. I was no longer the center of my own universe, and I had never known myself more free than I did at that moment.”
“I’m not sure I understand.”
My girl has grown up to earn two degrees in social work. Her life now centers on working with abused and neglected children, children who are homeless. She is beginning to understand, even as she loves many, yet has yet to find that one love that transports her beyond the constraints of self. I look forward to witnessing that discovery.
I return to my sorting and cleaning. I rip and shred, taking a certain pleasure in obliterating testimony to my own past. So many years have gone by. So many experiences transpired. Standing at this point in time, I realize there has been, certainly in the past some years, more pain than pleasure, but I know a measure of gratitude for my gift of a half century, nonetheless. Not for what it has given me, but for the moments I was allowed to give back to someone else. Those moments of blessed forgetfulness. To look upon another sun, free of my own reflection.
My daughter calls again. And again. The last call comes late in the evening, as she opted for a friend’s rooftop garden rather than the downtown hotel. Her friend is gone to visit family and offered a key. My girl sits alone somewhere in Chicago, watching a sky lit up with skyscrapers and fireworks—and the love of a mother two states away. My heart aches to be with her. But I am with her. I have been all day. I remind her to light a candle and make a wish, because we must never stop believing in the making of wishes, even if we lose faith in the wishes themselves. Her holiday weekend has been filled with the cheerful noise of friends, but for her birthday, this year, for the first time, she has chosen to be alone. With perhaps only a silver thread, a little like an umbilical cord, leading back to a second heart whose beat she once shared.
Happy birthday, baby. To both of us.