on monday night, i come home to an immaculately clean house.  my sheets are laundered and replaced, my bed made.  my mother hovers anxiously over the piles of freshly washed and dried clothes and towels, apologizing for not having time to fold everything.  

she does this twice a week now, every time she comes over to take care of james.  ian and i go off to work; she showers little j with endless attention and still finds time to clean dishes, tidy the kitchen, do all the laundry, and make my bed.  i protest, ask her to take it easy, tell her that i will get around to the housekeeping.  but still, she persists.  i take care of you, i supposed to do she tells me stubbornly.

when i stare at the clean laundry, my eyes swell with tears and then i am standing in my bedroom, sobbing over this pile of towels.  i realize that one day, i will come home and there will be no carefully folded quilt on my bed, no fried rice still sizzling on the stovetop.  and i will be completely lost without my mother, the one person who has sacrificed everything in her life and survived innumerable hardships to bear two daughters and bring them to america.  this remarkable, resilient, and endlessly selfless woman whom i will never be able to live up to.  the person who loves james with an overwhelming and boundless tenderness that she swears is kismet.

so it's my birthday today, and i finally understand exactly what this day means.  it took me 29 years to figure it out, but now i know that october 5th was never about me.  it is this day, back in 1987, when my mother endured the greatest agony to give life to me.  it is this day, back in 1991, when she made exhausting treks back and forth from alxa zuoqi to beijing to file repeatedly for american visas, refusing to leave me behind with my grandparents as everyone else suggested.  it is this day, back in 1995, when she made me a jello cake for my 8th birthday party but decorated it with peas and carrots to make it more colorful.  it is this day, back in 2002, when she told my sullen teenage ass not to act entitled on my birthday- daring to rack up yet another hurtful fight between us because the alternative, the possibility of raising a spoiled, selfish, and unaccountable human being was not acceptable.  

late nights, when i am up with james and he is wailing into my shoulder, choking up rattling mouthfuls of milk and pulling out a fistful of my eyelashes in his desperate squirming- i think my mother did this for me.  year after year, she did this for me.  without her own mother beside her, without her husband who had already left for america.  night after agonizing night, day after unforgiving day.  i spent my infancy shuttled back and forth to the hospital for one infection after the other.  she weathered all of it and then some.

this is what a birthday means.  so i buy her flowers today, but they are such a paltry token of thanks.  even as i struggle through sobs to tell her how much she means to me, i still can't fully explain how wrecked i will be when i look to find her and she is no longer there beside me.  

how can i ever repay you for everything you've done?  

more babies, she beams.