How the Monkeys Saved My Birthday

I woke up in Asheville on my birthday. A few months ago after we stayed here, Other Half asked me what I wanted to do for my birthday, and I said, “Go back to the Grove Park.” I didn’t even want a present. I just wanted to sit on this beautiful rock porch (not nearly a grand enough term for what it is) and read my books and look at these majestic blue mountains. 

We came up Thursday night after work and left the kids with Uncle Jesse and Joey, had some amazing shrimp scampi at Vinny’s, and then made it here. I woke up yesterday morning to my birthday in a beautiful, relaxing place, and I immediately felt sad. What is wrong with me anyway? I have the best family, friends who care about me, and more blessings than I deserve but there’s just this hole in my chest. I didn’t have it last week. I felt normal. I laughed, read books, filled out a ridiculous amount of paperwork to renew all my professional credentialing, and did just fine. But March 12, just because of the date on a calendar, I’m back to sad. (To give credit where credit is due, I have to tell you the Christina Yang predicted this last week when my happy seemed disproportionate to my usual personality. She was waiting on the crash. I hate it when she’s right almost as much as she loves it when she’s right).

I think it’s because we always focus on ourselves for our birthdays, but it’s not really about us at all. By the time we take our first breath, we have been through zero things. We have been cocooned in warm, body temperature, disgusting water for 9 months, living as parasites off of our moms while they have appetite changes and fatigue and stretch marks and get in trouble at work for having to pee more times than is allowed in a shift. She (or her support system) buys baby clothes, and furniture, and diapers, and bottles and pack and plays and expensive bedding that increases the risk of SIDS. Meanwhile, we are oohed and ahhhed over just for existing and moving and having the hiccups. 

We have done no things worthy of deserving any fanfare. Mom, on the other hand, has gone through an incredible metamorphosis, caterpillar to butterfly, in terms of the mental growth that it takes to go from caring only about one’s self to caring about another person. The shift from making decisions “all about me” to making decisions all about her child. The development of a relationship with her partner that has to learn to support not just the existence of their bond, but now introduce a third person into that who sucks all of the energy and attention out of the room from the moment they take their first breath until forever. 

Some moms make all these adjustments with seemingly effortless ease, and some moms barely survive them. Regardless, the sacrifice has been made. I remember finding out (less than 3 months after graduating from nursing school) that Other Half and I were going to have Mary Ann, and I was terrified and even a little mad because I didn’t know anything about being a mom and I just knew I would fail. Other Half came home one day with this Christmas ornament of a woman holding pickles in one hand and ice cream in the other, and I forbade him from showing it to me ever again– that’s where I was psychologically. But by the end of the 9 months, I was sad after she was born and I didn’t have the kicks and hiccups to myself anymore because I couldn’t protect her from everything– now I had to share her. That’s the kind of mental metamorphosis a mom goes through when she’s expecting. So really, birthdays are about a mother celebrating the accomplishment of bringing a life into the world, and becoming this person she never thought she could be, even if we don’t realize that’s what it’s about. When you’ve lost your mom, a birthday just doesn’t seem as special as it used to be. She gave me this incredible gift I can never repay, and she was the only one who knew what it cost her, and she can’t celebrate it anymore. 

I knew I would be sad when I woke up because it’s who I am as a person. Drama is part of my psyche and I won’t apologize for it. It’s how God made me. So, I thought maybe by waking up somewhere beautiful that I loved I would not have the time to think about what I was missing. I even scheduled a massage at the spa. This in itself is a miracle because, as anyone who is close to me knows, I do NOT want people to touch me. You can picture me as that woman in the memes who has a broom in her hand and is patting someone who is crying on the shoulder with it to avoid touching them. I don’t know why I’m like this, but I am. If I’m really close to someone, or if it’s a friend, it’s fine. But strangers? No freaking way. Christina Yang even reminded me, “You know she’s going to have to touch you to give you a massage, right?” 

Before the massage, we went and had the best breakfast ever at Mayfels. Their Crab Cake Benedict is a thing of beauty. Then I stopped in a few downtown shops and got some dresses at this retro store that is the kind where the prints are crazy and the dresses have pockets and everything is A-line and makes me want to swish like a bell. I decided it’s a new fav, but then it was time to hurry back for the massage that I scheduled in the middle of the day because it was the only appointment open. 

It was relaxing and amazing, but it was soooo quiet. I go to great lengths to avoid quiet. It’s why when I need to relax I drive around in a Jeep Wrangler with a lift kit on it blaring tunes in my ears. So I can’t hear a single thought between road noise and wind and tires and Elle King or Morgan Wallen or a Dorothea Benton Frank vs. Jen Hatmaker audiobook (depending on my mood). So during this massage, all this soothing music and quiet were deafening.

All I could think about was sitting in that little room when the doctor came to tell us my mom died, and how scared I am sometimes that my dad will die before he gets a transplant, and how much I hate life sometimes. Then I thought how blessed I am to have my husband and kids and family and friends and how thankful I am for these things in spite of the loss I suffered. And then I tried to map out the plot to a novel in my head to keep myself distracted. But there were two mortal sins from which I could not recover: 1- the thoughtful massage therapist commented on my necklace and asked if there was a special meaning behind it (it’s my mom’s fingerprint) and 2- she poured this oil in my scalp that was amazing. The oil reminded me of Psalm 23, and how it says, “He anoints my head with oil.” Then my thoughts turned to how my mom, when she had Benjamin Button or Mary Ann on her lap and one of them would hug her or lean their little foreheads on her chin she would say, “My cup runneth over,” and it was all I could do not to burst into tears right then and there. What kind of crazy is this? You guys cannot imagine how exhausting it is to live in my head. It’s a thing of beauty and a thing of horror and I can’t decide which one of those descriptions is in the lead so far. 

By the time the massage was over, I skipped the sauna and the steam rooms and the massage pool with the waterfall and the zen garden and went straight back to my room. I was in a terrible mood, and Other Half was understandably confused, but only a little. He said he knew the quiet wouldn’t be good for me. HE knows me infinitely better than I know me apparently. 

We decided we would go to Biltmore Village because it’s the cutest place, and he knows that is what matters to me. I cried half way there. Then we got out of the car, me in my Bob Ross facemark which I found at Lost and Found— the store with the dresses that make me swish like a bell. (I bought a dress with bees on it and I’m not even sorry). 

We found this awesome stationary store called Origami Ink (check them out. The owner is fantastic and genuinely loves what he does). In one of the cases I saw this statue of the hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil monkeys, only there was an extra one on the end that said “write no evil.” I knew I had found my birthday present. The problem was, I am not a pen person and this statue is a pen holder. I generally write with sharpies, or ball point Bic pens, or whatever I can get from the office or Walgreens because I forget them and lose them all the time. But these monkeys demanded a pen, ya know? There was zero percent chance I was leaving these monkeys at the store, and 100% chance I had no pen for them to hold. So, dutifully, Other Half went to all the cases with me while I found a pen that “felt right”. 

This will always be a sticking point in our marriage. Any time we need to make a major purchase, he researches whatever we are buying like it’s his paying job. Meanwhile, I walk around stores and see if my heart feels lighter when I stand in front of the car/washing machine/mattress/couch. Sometimes he tells me to help him look up reviews or consumer reports or other nonsense, and I just nod and say OK. I know I’m not gonna do it, and he knows I’m not gonna do it, but we just pretend everything is fine. 

After an hour, and picking up a dozen pens, I went back to one of the first ones. This beauty. I was so proud of myself because I knew the monkeys would love this pen. (Just so you know, I spent 30 minutes this morning writing with this pen, and I’m in love now and sad for all the years I wasted on the Bics and the Sharpies). We paid the bill, cancelled our reservations at this high-end, 4 diamond restaurant, and went instead across the tiny perfect brick-lined street from Origami Ink to The Corner Kitchen, and had the best charcuterie and burgers and gooey chocolate cake I’ve ever had. We talked and I laughed and shot whiskey out of my nose— zero stars, do not recommend this experience. 

On the way back to the hotel, Mary Ann sent me a poem in a text message that almost bought me to tears, but happy ones this time. And I looked back at the text from my dad with Betty White and a message that said he loved me more than ice cream and cookies which is exactly what my mom would’ve said too, and it made me smile. 

By the time we were ready to go back to the hotel, I felt lighter and happy, and I laughed at the thought that my mom would say, “You’ve got more money than you’ve got sense,” if she saw the monkeys holding their turquoise colored Pineider. But I think she would also be proud of me for finding the joy in the midst of the hard. I’m learning, Mom. I’m learning. 

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