Birthday Flowers – Katherine Brown

I miss your flowers.
They were unwavering, even when the phone calls became more and more distant. When the sound of your voice, thick with liquor, was interfaced with static. When mom took the receiver from my hand or when I just gave up calling. But I never seemed to miss the crackle of the intercom at the end of a school day, because, despite everything, I knew you had managed to remember me.
My birthday wasn’t usually extravagant, we couldn’t afford it to be. There wasn’t an annual party with balloons and cake, confetti and streamers. People milling about, their arms extended with shiny packages, their mouths sounding silent congratulations. When I woke up I was alone and when I got home from the bus, my apartment was just the same. Not warm and open and lilting, but dark and heavy with shadow.
It didn’t matter though. The mysticism started with my mom’s fingers winding through my hair, pressing against my scalp. I would sit and think, while she folded my hair into something poignant, maybe an apology that she couldn’t keep her face from drooping or the fact that outside it was charcoal grey. Something like:
“I’m sorry that this year didn’t work out. I’m so sorry that I can’t really be with you, because I’m so so tired. That your father couldn’t be here.”
I didn’t care. I liked the pale skyline, the smoky silhouette of the moon sinking below the trees and the sun, a warm pink basin, rising up. And even if my mother’s eyes were rimmed with shadow, I knew your flowers were coming. There was an unspoken promise, an expectation that would carry itself with me as I marched to the bus stop and then across the yellow linoleum, waxy and blossoming under my sneakers.
I would imagine that you were there with me, like when I was little and you would stay home from work just to make me breakfast. The most precious thing for me wasn’t anything you did, but just your presence. The safety in your footfalls on the carpet, the sound of the shower in the hallway, the hum of the percolator slowly pulling me up out of sleep.
When you were no longer with mom and I, traveling and drinking yourself asleep, I would imagine those early mornings. The sharp february mist and the pancakes you slid on a plate for me, smiling like you knew a secret that I didn’t. And maybe you did. Maybe you knew those mornings would be exhausted, that there was something darker lying just under the surface. Because my mother could only pull herself up long enough to comb my hair, to press me to her and whisper that it would be okay. That it was my birthday after all that didn’t happen every day.
That someday you wouldn’t be there to send me flowers. I wish, looking back, that I hadn’t start to hide them in my locker in middle school. That in my freshmen year of high school, I hadn’t told you to stop sending them to school. There was something sad about a purple writhed bouquet perched on the stoop of my apartment when I got home, but I couldn’t stop from smiling when I made those small discoveries.
Now, for my eighteenth birthday, there will be no flowers waiting for me. I can’t say that I won’t miss them, or the little card with your handwriting scrawled in small print. I can’t say that I won’t look for them, in the cracks of the school parking lot, little sprigs of yellow and lavender shooting up through the snow. That I won’t fold onto the asphalt, knowing that, wherever you have moved on to, you still find a way to wish me a happy birthday. Because nothing can stop that unspoken promise you gave me for seventeen years. Not even death.

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