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Another Paper Heart
The day of May fourteenth is a special one for my family, marked on the calendar by a big pink heart and lots of little pink stars. Every day, my little brother Joshua runs up to the calendar on the wall asking, “Is it today? Is it today?” Every time, my father would shake his head and peer over the top of his newspaper to smile at Josh.
“No, Joshy,” dad would answer. “Not today.”
Joshua’s bright little boy smile would turn into a disappointed little boy pout, and he’d trudge to his spot at the breakfast table right next to me. “Not today” were the two words that Josh hated most. I felt bad for the little guy; I remember what it was like to be so young and to have something big to look forward too. Just seven years ago, I was six-years-old too. At that time, May fourteenth had also been my favorite day in the world. It was still special, but I’d gotten used to it over the last few years. I hoped that it would always stay a big day for Joshua. I loved to see his wide, diamond-eyed, always-one-tooth-missing smile every time father would say, “That's right, Joshy. Today’s the day.”
This morning was like that. Joshua ran up to the calendar, squealing his little “Is it today?” mantra. As soon as his aqua blue eyes registered the big pink heart and little pink stars, I thought Josh was going to jump straight through the roof, he leapt so high. “Yes!” he screamed, punching a tiny fist into the air. “Yes, yes, yes! It’s today!”
Dad chuckled from behind the front page of The New York Times. “That’s right, Joshy,” he said in his deep, forever comforting voice. He set the newspaper aside and grinned at Josh through eyes as bright and as blue as the clear May skies. “Today’s the day.”
I couldn’t help but grin as Joshua let out a loud whoop of joy and barreled into dad’s arms, nearly sending the both of them toppling out of the old wooden chair that dad was sitting on. “Yes!” Joshua cried, “It’s mommy’s birthday! Are we going to surprise her again, huh daddy? Please, please, please let’s surprise her again!”
“Woah there, champ.” Dad pried Josh’s little noodle arms from around his neck and set him down gently on his knee. Dad smiled proudly at his youngest son, making the corners of his eyes crinkle with the laugh lines I’d come to greatly appreciate over the past few years. “Now listen,” dad said, wrapping his strong arms around my squirming brother’s waist, “we have to be quick and secret about it, okay? Or else it won’t be much of a surprise, will it?”
I never did understand why we had to be so secret about it. We always did the same thing for mom’s birthday, and she never would’ve found out about the surprises anyway. Mom and dad hadn’t lived together for almost six years.
Dad leaned towards Josh as if he were about to share the world’s most important secret with him and put a finger to his lips. “Remember, it’s a surprise. So, shhh.”
“Shhh,” Josh mimicked, putting his own tiny finger to his lips. He giggled and covered his mouth with both small hands before hopping off of dad’s lap and running to his spot at the table, right next to me. Before I could even finish pouring the milk into his bowl of Cocoa Crispies, Josh was shoveling spoonfuls of the stuff into his mouth. “Maffew,” he said through a mouthful of chocolaty cereal, “what’re oo gunna’ make fur mummy vish time?”
I smiled my best smile for Joshua, but I’m not sure how well it turned out. He asked me that question every year since he could talk, without fail. And always, I answered with, “Don’t know, kiddo. You’ll probably make something great enough for the both of us.” And he always did. I wasn’t jealous, though. I was proud of my little brother, just like my dad was, just like my mom must’ve been. I could see a lot of mom in him, actually. Josh had her red hair and the same splash of freckles across his nose that my dad loved so much on mom; now dad loved them even more on Josh.
“You all ready to go, Matt?” dad said. I looked up from my barely touched breakfast of scrambled eggs and jelly toast, trying to blink away the sleep I still felt weighing down my eyelids. Even though I wasn’t ready, I nodded anyway, just wanting to get the day started. The sooner we got going, the sooner we’d get to see mom. Dad stood up and set his newspaper aside, and then came over to gather up our dishes (Josh’s cereal having been instantly inhaled by his ravenous six-year-old mouth).
As dad leaned over to take our dishes I caught the familiar scent of Old Spice clinging to his skin. Mom had loved that smell on him when they were together. I also noticed that dad had shaved his usually grizzly, golden beard and had combed and gelled his hair neatly back. He wore the same light blue, long sleeved, button-up shirt he wore every year on this day, and the same loose, ruffled old jeans with unraveled slits at the knees. It was the same outfit he’d been wearing on the day he met mom for the first time, which is probably what made it so special to him -- or maybe he wore it for mom’s benefit rather than his own, just like he wore the Old Spice. It was as if dad thought his scent alone could convince mom to just come back to him already. I didn’t think she would. Mom really did love that Old Spice, though. I briefly wondered if she still did.
“All right, kiddos,” said dad. He clapped his hands together and grinned down at us, and I knew our May fourteenth ritual was about to begin. First thing on the agenda: cleaning the house.
Mom is something of a neat-freak, so on her birthday dad makes us scrub our little two bedroom apartment spotless from top to bottom. Once when I was eight I’d asked my dad why we had to clean for mom if she didn’t even live with us anymore. Dad just smiled his broad smile and shrugged. “You know,” he answered. “Memories.” He said that the smell of Tide and Pinesol reminded him of her, and I guess I kind of knew what he meant. Back when she used to live with us, the weekends were laundry days, so mom would often smell like Tide; on the weekdays she was always cleaning something, and the smell of Pinesol always flooded whatever room she happened to be in. Our apartment went from being cleaned every day to being cleaned once a year after mom left, but I guess it was a miracle that it got cleaned at all.
Second on the agenda: haircuts for me and Josh. My baby brother and I hate haircuts. The scissors are always so cold, and being prodded at by a stranger’s fingers is always a little weird. If it had been up to us, Josh and I would both probably just let our hair keep right on growing until it touched the floor. But mom doesn’t like our hair to be longer than the middle of our necks; she’s just always had this problem with boys who let their hair grow too long. So, on her special day, Joshua and I consent to a little trim. That doesn’t mean we enjoy it, and it definitely meant that this time we’d be leaving the hairdresser with a headache -- again.
Third on the agenda has always been Joshua’s favorite: a trip to the arts and crafts store. Money is something we don’t have a lot of; instead, dad puts away thirty dollars every year for mom’s birthday and then lets us go crazy buying whatever arts and crafts we want. Paint, construction paper, pipe-cleaners, Popsicle sticks, those little plastic glue-on eyes -- you name it. He promised us that mom loved handmade gifts from us more than anything store bought anyway, and Josh and I had no problem believing him. Besides, making gifts was a lot more fun than just shopping for them. There was only one problem, though: I never, ever knew what to make. That’s why I left it up to Josh. My little brother is the creative one. He always knew what to make, and whatever he made always ended up being awesome. And usually, Joshua asked me to help him make something anyway, so it would just be one gift from the both of us.
This year was different.
“This is just from me,” Joshua said, coloring a little square with a purple crayon. “Okay Matthew? This is my gift to mommy.”
“Sure thing, pal,” I answered. “Whatever you say.” I was a little startled, to be honest, but oh well. The kid was growing up. It wasn’t so strange that he wanted to start doing his own thing. I let it go and started to work on my own gift, which was basically the same thing I made every year: a cut-out paper heart that I wrote a little message on and then stuck onto a square piece of paper. It wasn’t anything fancy like I was sure Joshua would make, but it was the best I could do. Mom liked hearts a lot anyway, so I hoped that she didn’t mind too much.
As I was writing my message to mom, dad came over to see what Josh and I were up to. He looked at my crooked little heart and chuckled. “Another paper heart, Matthew? Don’t you want to try something different this year?”
“Nah,” I answered, trying not to mess up a cursive letter “a”. “Hearts are easy.”
Dad shrugged and ran his bear-sized hand through my hair. “Whatever floats your boat, kiddo.” He was silent as I struggled through the last strokes with my pen, but I knew what he was about to ask. “Say…you ever gonna’ let me read one of those letters, Matt? I know you write one every year…what’re you saying, son, hm?”
For a moment I just stared at the squashed-lettered note that I’d written. I wasn’t very happy with the messy loops on my y’s and g’s, and the J I’d written ended up looking like a fat snake that’d tried to tie itself into a knot. But that wasn’t the reason I didn’t want to show dad the note. Like mom, he wouldn’t have cared that my penmanship looked like it belonged to a four-year-old. It was the message itself, I think. I was embarrassed to share it, even with my own father. So instead of handing him the little paper heart, I tried my best to smile at him while I shook my head. “Sorry, dad,” I said. I folded up the note and tucked it safely into my pocket.
Dad sighed in mock defeat. “That’s okay, champ,” was all he said. Then he turned his focus on Josh, who was busy putting together something that looked like a collage. Photos that we’d taken this past year were strewn all over the table in front of him, along with various shapes of construction paper and a whole bunch of broken or almost broken crayons. Like I said, Josh is the creative one.
Once the gift-making was done, we only had one thing left to do before we went to visit mom. We went to the flower shop, because it’s dad’s belief that a man should always bring flowers to a lady. We always bought one bouquet and two single flowers, which was the only thing we could afford. The bouquet was from dad, and Josh and I got to pick whichever flower we wanted to. Joshua always chooses something different. I, on the other hand, choose to stick with picking out mom’s favorite flower of the bunch: a white gardenia. Grandma’s garden had been full of white gardenias when mom was a little girl.
The drive that follows after leaving the flower shop is always the quiet part of the day. Even Joshua, motor-mouth as he is, stayed absolutely silent as he stared at the bright pink-and-white lily he’d picked out. This quiet time is when we think of what to say to mom on her special day of the year. We wonder if she’ll be happy that we’re surprising her again, and if she’ll like our gifts. I hope she will.
Dad pulled onto the small, narrow road that’d become so familiar in the six years since mom left. He followed it past the marble sign that announced the name of place, and all the way up to a small hill near the back -- that was the hill where mom was now. The fire of excitement had returned to Joshua’s eyes, and he swung the car door open even before dad managed to pull it to a stop. “Mommy!” he cried. The little guy raced out of the car.
I hurried to follow him, but dad just pasted on a smile and took his time. Joshua had already stopped beside our mom and was chatting away happily. He proudly held up the scrapbook he’d made for her, going through each page and telling her the story behind every picture. I had to smile at my baby brother for being so enthusiastic. My own enthusiasm for this day just wasn’t what it used to be.
“Hey, mom,” I said in a voice that was barely above a whisper. I smiled down at the black and gold plaque on the ground that read, Trisha Benson, 1972-2002/Beloved Wife and Mother/Treasured in our hearts for always. There was a bronze carving of mother’s face there, too, but it didn’t do her justice. Mom had been much more beautiful than that eyeless, weather-worn thing with a lump for a nose. Even though I had only been four years old when she died, I still remember how pretty she was, and how she had a smile that seemed to make all the rain clouds happy enough to turn into sunshine. I’ll bet she was even prettier in heaven.
“You okay there, buddy?”
I looked up to see dad standing beside me, still wearing a smile. Only right now, that smile wasn’t the easy-going, happy-to-be-alive smile that my dad was famous for among his buddies. It was a sad smile, accompanying eyes that looked like they’d seen a bit more than they’d ever wanted to.
“Yeah,” I answered, more calmly than I thought I could. “I’m okay.”
Dad gave a light-hearted chuckle and then set his chosen bouquet onto mom’s plaque. His lips moved as though he was talking, but I didn’t catch a single whisper of what he said. Then he kissed his fingers and touched them to the bronze carving of mom’s face. “Happy birthday, darling,” he whispered, sparing the plaque another sad smile. “Come on, Joshy!” he said suddenly, scooping up my little brother in a bear hug. “Let’s give Matthew some time, huh?”
Joshua stuck out his lower lip. “But I was telling mommy about our fishing trip!”
“You can finish telling her in a minute, all right champ? I think Matt has something he wants to say.” Dad grinned at me and winked. “We won’t be too far, son.” With that said he hoisted a giggling Joshua onto his broad shoulders and strolled calmly over the hillside.
Mom and I were alone. You know, discounting the other few hundred headstones scattered about the place. Either way, I still wasn’t exactly sure what to say. I never had been, not since I was four years old.
I shuffled from foot to foot. My eyes fixed themselves to the carving of her face, staring at the indents in the head that more or less resembled what should have been eyes. “Um…happy birthday,” I said lamely. “So, uh…thirty-six, huh? Wow.”
Not. Mom would forever be twenty-nine, the same age she was on the day she died. With a sigh and a shrug, I held up the gardenia I’d brought for her; I smiled sheepishly before resting it right next to dad’s bouquet. “Your favorite,” I muttered, even though she already knew that. Not knowing what else to do, I pulled out my note. It had gotten all crumpled up in my pocket, but I figured that it couldn’t have gotten any more illegible than my bad hand writing had already made it.
“I wrote you another letter,” I said. “It's another paper heart. I hope that’s okay.” Mom didn’t say it wasn’t. With shaking hands, I unfolded the piece of paper and examined the spaghetti-like letters. I hoped it wasn’t too un-readable. Without another word, I kneeled down and tucked the heart-shaped note underneath the flowers of dad’s bouquet. I tried my best to smile, but I think it came out more like something between a grimace and a sneer.
At that moment, a loud cry erupted somewhere nearby and caught my attention. I stood up quickly and looked down the hillside, where Joshua was running frantically back towards me and mom. My lips slowly stretched into an amused little grin. In his tiny hand, Joshua was waving around the large pink-and-white lily that he’d forgotten to set on mom's grave.
* * * *
Hi mom. Guess what Joshua did today? He made a gift for you all by himself. Dad and I were proud of him, and I know you would be. It’s a nice gift too, isn’t it? I know you didn’t get to see Josh grow up and everything, but don’t worry about him. He’s all right.
Dad really misses you. He still talks about you in his sleep, and even sometimes in the early morning before he’s had his coffee. It’s almost like you never left. Almost.
Last summer I stopped crying for you. It took me a long time, but I don’t cry myself to sleep anymore. That’s a good thing, isn’t it? It doesn’t mean I’ve forgotten you or anything. I’m just trying to be strong, like you told me I had to be before you left. I promise to still take care of dad and Josh for you. I love you. Have a happy birthday.