“Guess whose birthday it is tomorrow,” I ask as I push the washcloth in a circular motion inside her ear.
“Yours!” I say as she tilts her head to the side to look at me.
She glances down before she asks, “How old?”
“How old would you like to be?” A smirk forms on her face as I ask this so that only the right side of her lips move upwards.
“Oh sure,” she whispers but our eyes lock in a stare as we look at one another in the bathroom mirror, a smile plastered on my face.
“Really?” she asks.
And I have to laugh as I answer, “Of course! On your birthday you get to decide how old you want to be.”
“Sixteen,” she says.
Then she begins to describe what her life was like at sixteen years old. Most of her story gets lost in the mix-up of nouns and pronouns and incorrect verbs that are no longer filed neatly away in her brain’s communication drawers but tossed around as though a raccoon were deciding the order of English structure. She is clearest in the mornings and if I’m able to sit with her long enough, her sentences are like a song whose tune my brain has committed to memory without ever fully knowing the lyrics. The tone of her voice and intonation are familiar even if not flawless as they push forth a pattern I know, have always known because she is not just any woman standing in my bathroom — she is my mother.
Since her stroke a year ago, Mom’s verbal communication is limited. She cannot at this moment convey what 16 years old signifies to her, what it meant to live in the early 1950s when Macarthyism had taken over the minds of crazed politicians while the dropping of the hydrogen bomb was considered a solution to anything. Had she been able, I’m sure my mother would have described her last year of freedom and budding independence with the same wistfulness she has always harbored.
“I wished I would have waited another year before I got married,” she admits.
After she turned from 16 to 17, my mother married my father and she began a long journey of giving birth to ten children, six of whom she would have to hand wash cloth diapers for because Pampers wouldn’t hit the market for another 13 years.
Before I tucked her into bed tonight, I showed her a photo and asked, “How old were you here?”
That same smile returned and clear as though it were morning, she said, “Oh look at me! Sixteen; I was 16 there.”
Tomorrow morning, the calendar marks 79 years for my mother, but she’s chosen to be 16 years old instead. I’d say she’s earned it.