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The Birthday Box

Jane Yolan

I was ten years old when my mother died. Ten years old on that very day. Still she gave me a party of sorts. Sick as she was, Mama had seen to it, organizing it at the hospital. She made sure the doctors and nurses all brought me

presents. We were good friends with them all by that time, because Mama had been in the hospital for so long. The head nurse, V. Louise Higgins (I never did know what that V stood for), gave me a little box, which was sort of funny because she was the biggest of all the nurses there. I mean she was tremendous. And she was the only one who insisted on wearing all white. Mama had called her the great white shark when she was first admitted, only not to V. Louise’s face. “All those needles,” Mama had said. “Like teeth.” But V. Louise was sweet, not sharklike at all, and she’d been so gentle with Mama. I opened the little present first. It was a fountain pen, a real one, not a fake one like you get at Kmart. “Now you can write beautiful stories, Katie,” V. Louise said to me. I didn’t say that stories come out of your head, not out of a pen. That wouldn’t have been polite, and Mama—even sick—was real big on politeness. “Thanks, V. Louise,” I said. The Stardust Twins—which is what Mama called Patty and Tracey-Lynn because they reminded her of dancers in an old-fashioned ballroom—gave me a present together. It was a diary and had a picture

of a little girl in pink, reading in a garden swing. A little young for me, a little too cute. I mean, I read Stephen King and want to write like him. But as Mama always reminded me whenever Daddy finally remembered to send me something, it was the thought that counted, not the actual gift.

“It’s great,” I told them. “I’ll write in it with my new pen.” And I wrote my name on the first page just to show them I meant it. They hugged me and winked at Mama. She tried to wink back but was just too tired and shut both her eyes instead. Lily, who is from Jamaica, had baked me some sweet bread. Mary Margaret gave me a gold cross blessed by the pope, which I put on even though Mama and I weren’t churchgoers. That was Dad’s thing.

Then Dr. Dann, the intern who was on days, and Dr. Pucci, the oncologist (which is the fancy name for a cancer doctor), gave me a big box filled to the top with little presents, each wrapped up individually. All things they knew I’d love—paperback books and writing paper and erasers with funny animal heads and colored paper clips and a rubber stamp that printed FROM KATIE’S DESK and other stuff. They must have raided a stationery store. There was one box, though, they held out till the end. It was about the size of a large top hat. The paper was deep blue and covered with stars; not fake stars but real stars, I mean, like a map of the night sky. The ribbon was two shades of blue with silver threads running through. There was no name on the card.

“Who’s it from?” I asked.

None of the nurses answered, and the doctors both suddenly were studying the ceiling tiles with the kind of intensity they usually saved for x-rays. No one spoke. In fact the only sound for the longest time was Mama’s breathing machine going in and out and in and out. It was a harsh, horrible, insistent sound, and usually I talked and talked to cover up the noise. But I was waiting for someone to tell me.

At last V. Louise said, “It’s from your mama, Katie. She told us what she wanted. And where to get it.” I turned and looked at Mama then, and her eyes were open again. Funny, but sickness had made her even more beautiful than good health had. Her skin was like that old paper, the kind they used to write on with quill pens, and stretched out over her bones so she looked like a model. Her eyes, which had been a deep, brilliant blue, were now like the fall sky, bleached3 and softened. She was like a faded photograph of herself. She smiled a very small smile at me. I knew it was an effort.

 

“It’s you,” she mouthed. I read her lips. I had gotten real good at that. I thought she meant it was a present for me. “Of course it is,” I said cheerfully. I had gotten good at that, too, being cheerful when I didn’t feel like it. “Of course it is.”

I took the paper off the box carefully, not tearing it but folding it into a tidy packet. I twisted the ribbons around my hand and then put them on the pillow by her hand. It made the stark4 white hospital bed look almost festive. Under the wrapping, the box was beautiful itself. It was made of a heavy cardboard and covered with a linen material that had a pattern of cloud-filled skies.

“It’s empty,” I said. “Is this a joke?” I turned to ask Mama, but she was gone. I mean, her body was there, but she wasn’t. It was as if she was as empty as the box. Dr. Pucci leaned over her and listened with a stethoscope, then almost absently patted Mama’s head. Then, with infinite care, V. Louise closed Mama’s eyes, ran her hand across Mama’s cheek, and turned off the breathing machine.

“Mama!” I cried. And to the nurses and doctors, I screamed, “Do something!” And because the room had suddenly become so silent, my voice echoed back at me. “Mama, do something.” I cried steadily for, I think, a week. Then I

cried at night for a couple of months. And then for about a year I cried at anniversaries, like Mama’s birthday or mine, at Thanksgiving, on Mother’s Day. I stopped writing. I stopped reading except for school assignments. I was pretty mean to my half brothers and totally rotten to my stepmother and Dad. I felt empty and angry, and they all left me pretty much alone.

And then one night, right after my first birthday without Mama, I woke up remembering how she had said, “It’s you.” Now Mama had been a high school English teacher and a writer herself. She’d had poems published in little magazines. She didn’t use words carelessly. In the end she could hardly use any words at all. So—I asked myself in that dark room—why had she said, “It’s you”? Why were they the very last words she had ever said to me, forced out with her last breath?

I turned on the bedside light and got out of bed. The room was full of shadows, not all of them real. Pulling the desk chair over to my closet, I climbed up and felt along the top shelf, and against the back wall, there was the birthday box, just where I had thrown it the day I had moved in with my dad.

I pulled it down and opened it. It was as empty as the day I had put it away. “It’s you,” I whispered to the box. And then suddenly I knew. Mama had meant that I was the box, solid and sturdy, maybe even beautiful or at least interesting on the outside. But I had to fill up the box to make it all it could be. And I had to fill me up as well. She had guessed what might happen to me, had told me in a subtle way. In the two words she could manage.

I stopped crying and got some paper out of the desk drawer. I got out my fountain pen. I started writing, and I haven’t stopped since. The first thing I wrote was about that birthday. I put it in the box, and pretty soon that box was overflowing with stories. And poems. And memories.

And so was I. And so was I