Birthday at the Home
_Frank steps out into the kind of late summer heat that brings children together to hunker down in the middle of the road, trying to fry eggs. The sun swelters, even by August’s standards, yet Frank finds it comforting. In a short while he’ll be chilled by the cold dimness of the nursing home where his mother lives. He’s visited her every August for the last seven years, when he first made the decision to send her to a home. As Frank is a man of habit, this year will be no different. Clutching a store wrapped gift under his arm, Frank climbs into his Sedan and backs out of the driveway, clicking on the radio as the front wheels hit the dip where his property meets the street.
The two hour ride is always the same, the sound of the tires on the road threatening to cover up the conversations that play softly on NPR. The point isn’t to actually listen; Frank finds the silence that fills the car when nothing’s on unnatural. He has long forgotten the pleasure of everyday noises. At home, the television is always on. Frank couldn’t sleep without it.
He doesn’t notice how the green of the trees alongside the road almost glow as if aware of the impending autumn. He’s lost in his thoughts, a dread building up inside of him as he drives on. He wonders if his mother will like the shawl he’s bought her. Red was a bold choice, but the saleswoman had assured him it was the most popular gift among older women. “And think of the money you’re saving by buying it in the summer!”
Still, Frank is sure his mother will hate it. She hates every gift he gives her so why would she like this one any better?
“Did I ever tell you how much I wanted a girl?” she always asks him. Frank could say anything, and it wouldn’t matter. “I wanted a girl so bad,” he imagines her telling him. “I cried for days when I found out you were going to be a boy.”
Frank will say, “That’s sweet of you, ma.” And then he’ll turn up the TV, wishing he were anywhere else.
Suddenly, Frank finds himself wondering how long it’ll be before she’s gone, and then he feels guilty because what kind of a thing is that to think about your own mother? Instead, he imagines arriving at the home and walking inside. He’ll go up to the desk and say, “Mrs. Morrison, please,” but this time, she won’t be there. “I’m sorry,” the nurse will say. “She checked out this morning. Said some friends were picking her up. She said don’t worry about looking for her. Go on and live your life like any normal grown man.” For a moment, he thinks this too might be a bad thought to have about your own mother. He tells himself she would probably go with her friends to some tropical paradise and so he shouldn’t feel bad.
The exit is coming up, and Frank feels sick. The knot in his stomach grows bigger. Maybe he should just turn around. No, she’ll be expecting him. It’ll be a lot worse if he doesn’t show up and just calls to say he can’t be there. “A daughter wouldn’t forget her own mother,” he pictures her saying. “No, ma,” he’d respond. “I would never forget you, I just got tied up.” But she wouldn’t understand so Frank flashes his blinker and turns onto the exit.
The nursing home is pleasant enough from the outside. Massive white columns rise into the sky, and sometimes Frank pretends they are elevators to the pearly gates. He knows it’s a silly thought and asks himself why he still thinks such silly thoughts at his age. He parks and trudges inside. His fingers are still crossed about the tropical island. The ladies at the front desk scowl constantly. Why would you work somewhere you were so miserable, Frank wonders? He decides no one would be happy working here, that it’s just not the nature of a nursing home so it’s crazy to think they’d smile all the time. He thinks, let them scowl. And he scowls back because he’s more unhappy to be here than they are. They don’t even have to visit someone on that person’s birthday. Someone who doesn’t even appreciate them.
Frank remembers a notice he received in the mail saying they had moved her to a new room. A room on a hall where they have the facilities to better care for her state. He walks up to the desk and says, “Mrs. Morrison, please.” The lady searches through the record book. She flips through the pages, then flips back some. Franks thinks maybe he drove to the wrong nursing home in the wrong city and thank goodness, he’s saved, but then the lady finds it.
“She’s in room 313,” the nurse tells him, pointing. “Down that hall on your right.”
He walks slowly down the hallway. Maybe he’ll get there and give her the present, and a nurse will walk in and say, “Mrs. Morrison. Time for your nap.” Then Frank will be able to slip away undetected.
He stands in front of the door and knocks, pushing it open. “Ma?” he calls. Her white hair pokes up over the back of her La-Z-Boy; Bob Barker is on the television, congratulating someone on their new car. “Ma?” he calls again, moving beside her. “I brought you a birthday present.”
“Whose birthday is it?” she asks.
“Yours, ma,” he says.
“It most certainly is not,” she says, finally noticing him standing beside her. Frank smiles at her, realizing he’s happy to see her, but there is no recognition in her eyes. “What do you want?” she snaps.
“It’s me, ma. Your son? Frank.”
“I don’t have a son,” she says. “My daughter will handle you, mister.” And with that she starts to scream. “Francis! Francis!”
A blonde nurse from the front desk strides in. “What’s wrong?” she asks.
Frank’s mother turns and sees the nurse. “Oh, Francis. Thank heavens. This man is being mean to me.”
The nurse turns to Frank. “I’m sorry. She’s been having more and more trouble lately. Perhaps she’d be more receptive on another day if you want to try her again?”
“Yeah, sure,” Frank mumbles. “Maybe some other time.”
“Mornings are best,” the nurse says.
“Sure, sure. Morning. I’ll keep that in mind.” He carefully places the gift on the corner of his mother’s dresser. He kisses the top of her head as she returns to Bob Barker and the happy owner of a brand new car, and he walks out.
Sunlight pours over him as he steps outside. The sweltering heat makes him feel sick. He wants to find a cold and dark place where he can curl up under a blanket and sleep for a long time. He leans over the fence lining the walkway and vomits until his stomach is empty. Frank climbs in his car. He pulls out of the parking lot. His tires hit the dip where the lot meets the street and for the first time since Frank can remember, his radio is silent.