Today is your birthday.

Today, when I drive by your school, my heart does not leap in excitement as it always did before I picked you up. Your scent of peanut butter is not wafting into my nostrils. Your excited chatter about your teacher and friends is not ringing in my ears. I don’t honk at the cars in front of me. I don’t fidget impatiently with my steering wheel, wishing the red light would turn green soon. I don’t worry about your anxious face waiting for me near the school gate, wondering why I am late. 

You always smiled and waved excitedly whenever you saw my dark blue sedan and the familiar car number. You would buckle your seat belt and pour out your day’s activities at school. You would urge me to hurry, as you couldn’t wait to get home and play video games. Then you would demand donuts even when I encourage you to have dinner first. You would have remnants of chocolate smeared on your face. You’d grab your toy water gun and squirt water at me when I’d tell you to wash. Then you’d laugh and mockingly utter, “Hands up.” When I’d reprimand you not to play such jokes, your face would turn red in embarrassment.  

That’s the toy that eventually enticed you away from me. I wish it were only a toy and not a real gun. That morning, you complained of a tummy ache. You didn’t want to go to school. I thought you were making excuses for missing the math test. You never liked numbers. You looked fine, I thought, even though you cried en route to school. “I hate you,” you exclaimed and banged the car door. If only I let you stay home that day. Later, when I got the call, I couldn’t believe it was true. Yet the headlines glared at me from the television. The solemn voice on the phone wasn’t a figment of my imagination. 

Today, when the light turns green, I don’t have a reason to rush back home. Not after your father walked out of the front door, carrying his suitcases. The silence in that home feels stifling, sometimes scary. As though a thousand voices are buried, waiting to pounce on me anytime and blaming me for not being a good mother. Your room is just the way it is. Your hairbands are strewn in one corner. Those board games are half-open. The notebooks on your table have developed cobwebs. What would you say when the insect you were terrified of weaved their webbed homes in your room? I try not to look at the cakes when I stop by the grocery store today. I don’t glance at the decorations or candles. I don’t imagine you blowing ten candles on your cake today. I don’t wonder what you would have wished for. I stand there and hope I don’t have to return to an empty house, imagining your sweet spirit lurking in the dark hallway.