“I know,” she says, throwing her hands helplessly up in the air, “I’m totally pathetic.” She pulls me into a hug and squeezes. Frosting gets into my hair.
My birthday is the one day of the year that we’re both most acutely aware of my illness. It’s the acknowledging of the passage of time that does it. Another whole year of being sick, no hope for a cure on the horizon. Another year of missing all the normal teenagery things—learner’s permit, first kiss, prom, first heartbreak, first fender bender. Another year of my mom doing nothing but working and taking care of me. Every other day these omissions are easy, easier at least, to ignore.
This year is a little harder than the previous. Maybe it’s because I’m eighteen now. Technically, I’m an adult. I should be leaving home, going off to college. My mom should be dreading empty-nest syndrome. But because of SCID, I’m not going anywhere.
Later, after dinner, she gives me a beautiful set of watercolor pencils that had been on my wish list for months. We go into the living room and sit cross-legged in front of the coffee table. This is also part of our birthday ritual: She lights a single candle in the center of the cake. I close my eyes and make a wish. I blow the candle out.
“What did you wish for?” she asks as soon as I open my eyes.
Really there’s only one thing to wish for—a magical cure that will allow me to run free outside like a wild animal, but I never make that wish because it’s impossible. It’s like wishing that mermaids and dragons and unicorns were real. Instead I wish for something more likely than a cure. Something less likely to make us both sad.
“World peace,” I say.
Three slices of cake later, we begin a game of Fonetik. I do not win. I don’t even come close.
She uses all seven letters and puts down POKALIP next to an S. POKALIPS.
“What’s that?” I ask.
“Apocalypse,” she says, eyes dancing.
“No, Mom. No way. I can’t give that to you.”
“Yes,” is all she says.
“Mom, you need an extra A. No way.”
“Pokalips,” she says for effect, gesturing at the letters. “It totally works.”
I shake my head.
“P O K A L I P S,” she insists, slowly dragging out the word.
“Oh my God, you’re relentless,” I say, throwing my hands up. “OK, OK, I’ll allow it.”
“Yesssss.” She pumps her fist and laughs at me and marks down her now-insurmountable score. “You’ve never really understood this game,” she says. “It’s a game of persuasion.”
I slice myself another piece of cake. “That was not persuasion,” I say. “That was cheating.”
“Same same,” she says, and we both laugh.
“You can beat me at Honor Pictionary tomorrow,” she says.
After I lose, we go to the couch and watch our favorite movie, Young Frankenstein. Watching it is also part of our birthday ritual. I put my head in her lap, and she strokes my hair, and we laugh at the same jokes in the same way that we’ve been laughing at them for years. All in all, not a bad way to spend your eighteenth birthday.
Stays the Same
I’m reading on my white couch when Carla comes in the next morning.
“Feliz cumpleaños,” she sings out.
I lower my book. “Gracias.”
“How was the birthday?” She begins unpacking her medical bag.
“We had fun.”
“Vanilla cake and vanilla frosting?” she asks.
“And you lost at that game?” she asks.
“We’re pretty predictable, huh?”
“Don’t mind me,” she says, laughing. “I’m just jealous of how sweet you and your mama are.”
She picks up my health log from yesterday, quickly reviews my mom’s measurements and adds a new sheet to the clipboard. “These days Rosa can’t even be bothered to give me the time of day.”
Rosa is Carla’s seventeen-year-old daughter. According to Carla they were really close until hormones and boys took over. I can’t imagine that happening to my mom and me.
Carla sits next to me on the couch, and I hold out my hand my for the blood pressure cuff. Her eyes drop to my book.
“Flowers for Algernon again?” she asks. “Doesn’t that book always make you cry?”
“One day it won’t,” I say. “I want to be sure to be reading it on that day.”
She rolls her eyes at me and takes my hand.
It is kind of a flip answer, but then I wonder if it’s true.
Maybe I’m holding out hope that one day, someday, things will change.
Life is Short™
Spoiler Reviews by Madeline
FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON by DANIEL KEYES
Spoiler alert: Algernon is a mouse. The mouse dies.
Alien Invasion, Part 2
I’m up to the part where Charlie realizes that the mouse’s fate may be his own when I hear a loud, rumbling noise outside. Immediately my mind goes to outer space. I picture a giant mother ship hovering in the skies above us.
The house trembles and my books vibrate on the shelves. A steady beeping joins the rumbling and I know what it is. A truck. Probably just lost, I tell myself, to stave off disappointment. Probably just made a wrong turn on their way to someplace else.
But then the engine cuts off. Doors open and close. A moment passes, and then another, and then a woman’s voice sings out, “Welcome to our new home, everybody!”
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