“A Not So Happy Birthday,” May 2, 2023

Note: This column is from 2009.

My mother left this world years ago. I always celebrate her birthday with a phone call to my brother to remind him that he is still her favorite, despite the fact that he is hopelessly pig-headed.

As if Joe needs reminding. He never forgets anything. Our mother used to say it was because he was born blind, that God gave him a great memory to make up for his loss of sight.

That didn’t seem to me like a very fair trade. But every time she said it, Joe would light up like Christmas. I figured, if it made him happy, why argue?

Personally, I don’t think Joe’s memory has anything to do with being blind; he just likes to recall things that I’d rather forget.

My age, for instance. He loves to remind me that I’m older than he is. Or how when we were kids, I locked him out of the house and he smashed a window and cut his wrist and had to get 12 stitches.

Or the names of all the boys I dated in high school (both of them), and how he’d be waiting up for me when I came in late.

Or the exact date I left home for good, and the ill-chosen words I said to our mother on my way out the door.

He remembers all that and more. What he can’t seem to recall is this: Sooner or later in every loss, there comes a time to stop grieving, to let go of sorrow and be thankful for the memories you treasure in your heart and for the love that will never leave you.

But grieving is different for each of us; no one can determine it for anyone else. Joe and I lost our mother in 1996, and he has missed her most every day since _ especially on her birthday. I could tell him that’s long enough, he doesn’t need to be sad on her birthday any more. He can honor her memory with laughter as much as with tears and she’d be proud of him and want him to be happy.

I could tell him all of that, and he’d agree, absolutely. But it wouldn’t change how he feels, the ache in his heart, the catch in his throat when he thinks of her, the tightening in his chest.

When we were growing up, if Joe wanted to know what something looked like _ the wind in the trees, the lightning in a storm, a stained glass window at church, or the grease on his fingers from a leg of fried chicken _ he’d nag me to find words to “picture” it for him.

I have no words to describe his grief. I can’t picture it for myself, let alone for him. It is big and dark and scary. But that doesn’t begin to describe what Joe feels. It seems connected, and renewed, as grief often is, with other losses he has suffered in recent years: His wife, the love of his life; our stepfather, his best friend; and our younger brother, the buddy he grew up with.

But as much as I try to make sense of it, and as much as I want to help him let go of it, I cannot pry it out of his heart. All I can do is sit beside him, long distance, and listen to the words he uses to try to tell me what he’s feeling, and how much it hurts.

As his sister _ and as my mother’s daughter _ that is the most and the least that I can do.

So on our mother’s birthday I called to let Joe say whatever he wanted to say, for as long as he wanted to say it. Then I told him he is still our mother’s favorite, and always will be, even though he is hopelessly pig-headed. I said he doesn’t have to be sad on her birthday; that he can honor her memory with laughter as well as with tears; that she’d be proud of him and want him to be happy.

But nothing I said to him seemed to help. We can’t take someone’s grief away from them. We can only help them carry it.

Wait! I suddenly remembered something I could say that would comfort my brother and light him up like Christmas.

“Hey, Joe,” I said. “It’s baseball season, isn’t it? I’ll bet you’re pulling like crazy for your Clemson Tigers.”

“Oh!” he hooted. “I sure am! There’s a game on the radio today!”

We ended the call, as always, with “Love you, let’s talk again soon!”

As I put down the phone, I said a quick prayer for my brother, adding, “Please, Lord, let Clemson win today.”

Then I smiled and whispered, “Happy birthday, Mama.”


  1. CHope Hall says

    Thanks for sharing this memory you have. Your words of wisdom always helpful to me & gives me the energy to keep on keeping on. God bless & keep you.

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