“OK.” She shakes her head with mock pity. “Anything you want.” She closes her laughing eyes to listen to the stethoscope.
We spend the rest of the morning baking my traditional birthday cake of vanilla sponge with vanilla cream frosting. After it’s cooled, I apply an unreasonably thin layer of frosting, just enough to cover the cake. We are, both of us, cake people, not frosting people. For decoration, I draw eighteen frosted daisies with white petals and a white center across the top. On the sides I fashion draped white curtains.
“Perfect.” My mom peers over my shoulders as I finish up. “Just like you.”
I turn to face her. She’s smiling a wide, proud smile at me, but her eyes are bright with tears.
“You. Are. Tragic,” I say, and squirt a dollop of frosting on her nose, which only makes her laugh and cry some more. Really, she’s not usually this emotional, but something about my birthday always makes her both weepy and joyful at the same time. And if she’s weepy and joyful, then I’m weepy and joyful, too.
“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.