“You know, Mother, today is my birthday.” I have reported this three times in the past hour. Across the room, on the sofa where she leans beside my father, Mother smiles.

“That’s wonderful, dear.” The dear is generic, a term she employs when she forgets who I am. “And where is your birthday place?”

“You mean where I was born, Mother?”

She shakes her head and frowns in frustration. “The place where you can have your birthday.”

Experts say if you listen carefully, dementia patients actually make sense. There is logic beneath their words, a logic of feeling. You’d think after four years of caregiving I would have cracked the code, but it’s still a struggle to follow where she leads.

“That’s the great thing about birthdays,” I say. “You can take them with you anywhere.”

This perks her up. “Anywhere? Well, that’s amazing.”

“You’re right, Mother.”

This repetition of Mother is becoming tiresome. It is bad form, in dialogue scenes between intimates, for speakers to keep addressing each other by name. I teach this to my writing students: There is an assumed knowledge between the two, I say; both know who they are in relation to the other.

But this is not the case in scenes with my mother. The knowledge I once assumed—that she knows who I am—exists in a faraway world. A world I am homesick for, that I grieve. I want my mother back, in relation to me. Thus, the repetition of Mother.

On good days, she connects the dots: my name to my face. The aging face of this woman sitting across from her, steadying her down the hall, toweling her dry after a bath. In her best moments, all the dots connect: my name, to my face, to my daughter. Second daughter. Third, if you count Baby Sylvia, who died the year before I was born.

“Rebecca was not a replacement child,” Mother once wrote for a memoir class assignment, “although I worry that she thought she was.” It’s true, I did believe, in my darkest moments, that I was conceived to fill the place of a girl who would have been stronger than I, kinder, more patient. It took years to bury the thought, but this morning, on the anniversary of my birth, it dug itself up, and I found myself imagining what Sylvia would have done if she’d been the caregiver. Certainly she wouldn’t have hidden out in my parents’ bathroom, as I did that first year, to fume and stomp and cry out to the heavens to take them, take them both now, because I can’t do this, I am not up to the task. And Sylvia wouldn’t have broken down in front of them—how could I have done this?—when exhaustion broke into words I wish I could take back.

Mother leans forward on the sofa. “If I’d known,” she says, “I would have gotten you something. I may have a card somewhere. Where did you say you were born?”


“Really. What town?”

“Lafayette. Lafayette, Indiana.”

“Why, I’ve been to Lafayette! What a coincidence! Paul,” she says, nudging my father’s arm. “This girl knows Lafayette!”

“Home Hospital,” I say. “That’s what it was called.”

At the name of the hospital, recognition flickers across her eyes. I want to hear the whole story, as she always told it. How, the morning of what would become my birthday, she canned tomatoes, fed laundry through the wringer washer and hung it on the line, and, when the pains came, corralled Jenny and Tom into the farmhouse to wait for Dad to return from the livestock auction. “We had no phone, you know,” she had told me. “I thought he’d never get back. I didn’t think we would make it.” And then, my favorite part: “You were an easy birth. The easiest I ever had.”

She looks across the room at the birthday girl, studying me hard. But nothing ignites in her eyes. “Home Hospital!” she says. She lifts her hands to her cheeks and shakes her head in astonishment. “I just can’t get over it.”

“Me neither, Mother.” I say. “I mean, what are the odds?” That out of all the birthday places in the world, a mother and her daughter happened to arrive at the same one. At the very same moment. And that the daughter can carry that birthday with her wherever she goes, for the rest of her life. “Truly amazing,” I say.


Rebecca McClanahan has published ten books, most recently The Tribal Knot (a multigenerational memoir) and a new edition of Word Painting: The Fine Art of Writing Descriptively. The recipient of the Wood Prize from Poetry, a Pushcart Prize, the Glasgow Award for nonfiction, and four fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts and the North Carolina Arts Council, McClanahan teaches in the MFA programs of Queens University and Rainier Writing Workshop as well as the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop. Her new memoir, In the Key of New York City, is forthcoming from Red Hen Press.

Photo by Dinty W. Moore