I’ve written before about how I sometimes forget the right words to use - especially when I’m tired. Well, I also am horrible about remembering some birthdays. Today, I stepped out of the office for a few minutes in the afternoon to call my grandma and say “Happy birthday,” even though I knew I was a day late. Weekdays are hard for me when it comes to calling home – they are all in Central time, I’m in Pacific time. If I have anything to do after work, they’re in bed by the time I get home, and that’s how yesterday was. So, I ducked out today instead, knowing it wouldn’t be a huge surprise that I was calling a day late – most of my family expects me to be late with these things, or forget them altogether, which is odd, since I’m early or on time and completely organized for every other thing in my life.
I called and my grandpa answered. ”Hi,” I said.
Grandpa replied in his voice that has gotten soft and far away, “Oh, hi.”
“Are you busy?” I asked, more out of habit than because I actually thought he’d be busy. He answered, perhaps one decibel above a whisper, which made it even harder for me to comprehend his answer.
“Actually, right now I am.” Even he sounded surprised that he was busy.
I paused, then recovered and asked, “Is Grandma around?” Again, an almost rhetorical question. My grandparents don’t do much these days. They’re approaching 80 and my grandpa in particular is quite frail. Then I heard him say to whoever was with him, “My granddaughter… from California…” And there was a collective, “Ohhhh!!!” from the background, like I am some sort of celebrity or something. I think it’s just that I live in California. Long distance still matters to people that never understood the cell phone. Grandpa hollered as best he could for Grandma who was upstairs, and said I was on the phone.
She picked up, and I pulled my cell phone away from my ear as she yelled into the receiver, “OK. I got it!”
“Did I miss your birthday by a day?” I asked? Grandma laughed a pretty big laugh and said, “Honey, it was a week ago!”
“What? You mean it was the 18th?!”
More laughing. ”No, it’s the 17th.”
“Dammit, I never get it right, do I?” I said, laughing back.
She said, “You know, I sent you the list.” A few years ago, she hand-wrote all the important dates I should ever need to remember on a piece of paper and mailed it to me. The list has birthdays and anniversaries on it – for my aunt and uncles, my cousins, of course my grandparents – and my grandma even included my sister, my mother, and my sister’s kids on the list – birthdays I don’t generally have trouble remembering. I know exactly where the list is. It’s within arm’s reach of my desk, yet I never get it out in time.
“I know, I know,” I said. ”Well, did you do anything?”
“Your uncle came on Saturday and we went out for Chinese – you know we finally have a new Chinese restaurant in town.”
“Really?” I said.
“Yes. He had to travel the next day, so he came early. Then on Sunday I fixed dinner for your sister and mother and everyone.”
“Shouldn’t they be fixing dinner for you?” I joked.
“Well, yes, now that you mention it. I think we should do it that way from now on. Grandpa cooked a turkey outside, and we had mashed potatoes and vegetables. It’s too much work. I just can’t do it anymore.”
I understood, but the thought of Grandpa’s turkey grilled on the Weber and Grandma’s mashed potatoes and gravy started my mouth watering and reminded me of how someone has to watch over the mashed potatoes around my uncle and I, or we’ll empty the bowl and no one else will get any. Our conversation ended just a few seconds later. It’s impossible to get my grandparents to talk on the phone for more than about three and a half minutes. They think long distance is too expensive, even though I’m the one calling, and I try over and over to tell them it doesn’t cost me any more to call them than it does to call someone on my own street. I think they don’t believe me. Still, it was a nice break in my hectic work day.
The thing is I don’t forget all birthdays – just some of them, which somehow makes it all seem worse. I never forget my grandpa’s birthday – perhaps because it is near my mom’s – but I have a feeling I have never remembered my grandma’s birthday on time. Lucky for me, she doesn’t seem to hold it against me.
This is almost as bad as a recent experience I had with a friend’s birthday. I tend to associate birthdays together when I can, because it helps me come a little closer to remembering them, and I have a friend whose birthday I had associated with one of my sister’s kids. In September, my niece’s birthday was coming up (which I remembered to call for, but I still haven’t sent her birthday present to her). This triggered my associated memory of my friend’s birthday. I had an odd nagging feeling in my mind that I might not be right about the exact date in relation to my niece’s birthday, and even though I hated to admit it (this friend never forgets my birthday), I broke down and sent an apologetic email saying, “I know your birthday is soon, but I can’t be positive it is today – so I apologize for that, but I wanted to say Happy Birthday even if I have the date wrong. I hope you’re doing well. We should get together soon.”
Later that day, I got an email back.
“Hi! You are very thoughtful; your birthday is super easy because [it is the day after a holiday], but my day is a lot harder to remember. My birthday is actually in April, but your email has put me in a totally celebratory birthday frame of mind, which I was not at all in, for my actual birthday. I think I am going to go to Cost Plus World Market this weekend and buy myself presents, and I am going to buy a whole box of Whole Foods vegan donuts (instead of a cake, because donuts really are even better than cake).”
Christ, it’s my nephew’s birthday that my friend’s birthday is next to, not my niece’s! I explained.
“You know, after I hit send, I thought – wait, maybe it’s in April. The issue is, I’ve associated your birthday with my nephew’s before, because his is in April – and yesterday was my niece’s birthday, and somehow the association got switched in my mind between the two of them – man, I’m not even 40 and already my mind is completely going! I’m glad that you are now in a celebratory mood, though – that makes my huge mistake somewhat more tolerable.”
I guess worse things could come of forgetting someone’s birthday.