There are plenty of things you’re allowed to forget: your keys, the location of the nearest Whataburger, the name of the bass player for the Strokes. You can forget to feed your dog. You can forget to feed yourself. You can forget where you live. You can forget your own name. But one thing you cannot forget is your mother’s birthday. It is unthinkable, unfathomable, unforgivable. There should probably be a law against it — “You are hereby sentenced to death for being a terrible person.” My mother squeezed my gigantic bowling ball head out of her body as if expelling a particularly large sentient gallstone. Without her financial and emotional support, I would be quickly torn apart by the “real world” like a baby bird deposited in a velociraptor paddock. Forgetting her birthday is the worst case scenario, the ultimate nightmare.
And yet I have forgotten her birthday every year for the past three or four years. Maybe longer, who knows? Each time, I have an abrupt realization, a terrible epiphany while strolling along my merry way. It hits like a thunderbolt. What day is it? No, it can’t be… I couldn’t have! Not again, surely not again! I would never forget again, no, not after last time, dear God no! The horror sets in slowly, rising from my gut, and I stop in the middle of the sidewalk with my jaw hanging open. I think, ‘Aw crap, I’m in huge trouble.’ Then I think, ‘Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’ve got the date mixed up. Surely someone would’ve notified me by now or my mom would’ve called to let me know I’m a terrible son.’ But no, Facebook confirms it, and each “Happy Birthday” on her wall is a chilling indictment, a finger pointing through the computer screen: “You morally bankrupt monster! Even Hitler remembered his mother’s birthday!”
The fact that she hasn’t called makes it all even worse. She’s used to it by now, expects my selfishness, my sociopathic forgetfulness. What excuse can I possibly come up with other than ‘I am way too self-involved’? It’s not like the date changes. It’s not like I haven’t made this mistake before. It’s not as if she’s ever forgotten my birthday. At least in years past, I could blame my mental abstraction on the fact that her birthday falls right in the middle of finals week, but I’ve graduated, so what can I say now? Improv classes are not like performing surgery; it’s not something that requires 24 hours of constant focus. I can’t say, “Sorry, mom, I would’ve wished you a happy birthday, but I was very busy pretending to sail a pirate ship on an ocean of cats all day.”
I have to sever my own tongue with a Campbell’s soup can lid and mail it to her as a blood sacrifice. My pain, the loss of blood, the loss of my tongue — maybe it will be enough to prove my genuine heartfelt repentance. The tongue would arrive with a letter: “Dearest Mother, I should have used this to vocalize the words ‘Happy Birthday’. Since I failed to do so, I hope my horrifying agony and loss of speech provides some degree of consolation.” But it won’t be enough, can never be enough!
I call her cell phone and there’s no response. I call the home phone and there’s no response. All that’s left to do is wait in anxious trepidation while she formulates a carefully calculated series of statements designed to maximize my guilt and self-loathing. Oh yes, when she lets that hammer drop, the force of the blow shall be devastating. Her diction shall be razor sharp, her rhetoric flawless, her voice icy and mirthless. Let the tidal wave of disappointment wash over me and drown me in its depths. That sad dejected tone — “It’s okay, Brad. I knew you wouldn’t remember. No one really cares about my birthday anyway, and I know you have trouble thinking of other people.” She will cut my heart out, hold it up in front of me, eat it whole, and shout, “AND STILL I REMAIN UNSATED!”
The truth is I forget everything. My experience of life is like wandering through a thick fog where I can only see a couple feet in any direction; the past is obscured by time and my own distorted caricature of events. And planning for the future isn’t something I ever do at any time, hence the degree in creative writing. These qualities add up to a person who is as thoughtless as a lizard in a terrarium, sitting motionless on a rock, blinking its dim eyes at a plastic log, sniffing some twigs, occasionally crawling to the other side of the terrarium, and then crawling back again. Witless. Only thinking thoughts like: need food, go to class, need chocolate, eat chocolate, burrito, burrito, burrito, burrito, burrito, burrito, burrito, CATS. Nowhere in that chain of reasoning do you see anything about birthdays or, indeed, other human beings at all.
But mostly, I’m just too self-involved or at least all evidence points to that conclusion. When she does finally answer my phone calls, she makes no mention of her birthday until I finally say, “So, um, how was, you know…”
“It was fine. Of course, you didn’t call, but that’s normal.” Then she says, with deadly seriousness, “But you should know there are consequences. I was putting together a care package for you full of chocolate and instant coffee packets, but, you know, I think that now it will be your birthday gift to me. What do you think of that?”
“How much chocolate?”
“So much. Probably too much. I’ll have to throw some of it in the trash I think.”
“Oh,” I say. “Don’t do that.”
“I’m doing it.”
“Okay, that’s fine I guess.”
“You better write an article about this. I want your shame on the internet where everyone can see it. Let them know that you’re unworthy of my awe inspiring benevolence.”
“All children are ungrateful.”
“But of all the children, you’re the most ungrateful.”