Happy Birthday to Gloria, The One Who Has Made Me Cry Lately. Twice.
It feels wildly apt that I have begun writing this pseudo love letter to my daughter on the eve of her 15th birthday after driving home in the craziest rainstorm I’ve ever known.
It was less like rain and more like vats of water being dumped on us as we inched our way home. It was the kind of nighttime rainstorm that has you sit straighter while you drive and track that fog line like never before. No music. No distractions, just focus on the next hydroplane and feeling the car pass through it.
Indeed the drive home tonight was much like my labor 15 years ago on this date. My contractions had started in the morning—the same morning I’d scheduled a tour of the hospital’s maternity ward. I wobbled along on the tour with the other new expectant mothers and at one point we circled around a labor room door and shared our due dates. I was last to share and I said, “Actually I think I’ll be coming back here later tonight because my contractions have started.” All the eyes widened while the nurse stepped towards me and everyone else backed away.
After the tour I didn’t really know what to do. I drove home and felt the rush of my waters being churned up by my baby. I changed the sheets on my bed. I washed all my dishes. And dried them. And put them all away. I looked at myself in the mirror of my bathroom and shook my head. I lived alone in a church basement (I know, I know, it’s a story for another time) and there was no air conditioning and it was terribly hot in that mid-August 2002.
Once my sister and brother-in-law learned I was in labor they made me dinner and then drove me to the mall so I could walk around and labor in the cool. None of us knew what we were doing. This was the first baby in the family since I was born. I paced up and down the birth and parenting aisle of Barnes & Noble reading about labor while actually in labor. It was all very bizarre. But the best part is next.
It was a Friday night and that cool, delicious Iowa mall closed at 10:00pm. We three were the last to leave and we were standing outside where occasionally I leaned over to breathe through a super painful contraction when suddenly I said, “Ugh, I’m glad the mall closed, I’m so tired, I’m going to bed.”
And my sister was like, “Um, Claire? You’re not going to sleep. You’re have a baby tonight.”
I was tapped awake. I know it sounds insane but I suddenly realized this was it. It wasn’t the entire day of feeling little firecrackers burn across my stomach that lead me to believe I’d be birthing a new human, it was realizing I wouldn’t sleep until I’d met my baby.
So it was on. We roamed around a park late at night. I walked 15 blocks to a friend’s house and walked up and down their staircase for 2 hours laboring while Jennifer and Kent watched a movie. Then instead of driving home, I walked the 15 blocks back to the church basement. Then by 4:00am I was like a wild animal and getting almost no relief between contractions so we drove to the hospital.
And then the brewing storm unleashed. It poured rain during our drive. The heat broke. And a few hours later I met my daughter for the first time this side of the womb.
There is so much more to say about the wonder of spinning up a new human on this planet. And so very much more to say about birthing Gloria (like how Jennifer immediately fainted once we reached the labor room or how I didn’t know if I should react with pride or despair when the nurse looked at the ticker tape feed results of my contractions and exclaimed, “I’ve never seen contractions so long AND with very little break between each one…they’re gigantic! One right after the other!”).
So tonight I am thinking back to the beginnings of this sweet soul wrapped in all things Gloria. Tonight she and I drove through the nonstop deluge and reflected on the meeting we’d just left. We met with our pastors and a mentor Gloria chose from our church to be with her and guide her in her decision to be baptized. So much holy water with these tears to add to it. When asked why she wanted to be baptized Gloria said, “Well, I hadn’t really thought of doing it because none of my friends were baptized at church so it didn’t really cross my mind. But then I started thinking about all the evil in the world and mean people in the news and bad things happening so I decided I want to be baptized because I want to do good things.”
Two months ago Gloria came up to me in the kitchen and this was our conversation:
Gloria (in her sweet, quiet voice): “Hey, Mom? Could I talk to you for a sec?”
Me (heart suddenly pounding): “Yes, love, what’s up?”
Gloria (her brows crunched together): “You know all those series books I have that I read over and over?”
Me (trying not to roll my eyes): “Yeah like the romantic vampires and end-of-the-world books where kids take over via an underground movement of rebels?”
Gloria (snickering): “Ha. Yeah all those series books.”
Me (raised eyebrows): “Yeaaaaah?”
Gloria (lowers her voice for the big reveal): “Well, I discovered that they’re not written very well.”
Me (eyes widen with delight): “Oh?”
Gloria (excited now): “Yeah, they’re like really bad books. Terrible writing. I mean the stories are okay but the writing isn’t that great. At all, Mom!”
Me (trying to be cool): “Mmmmmkay, so how did you ‘discover’ they’re so poorly written?”
Gloria: “Well, we were assigned books to read in English this past year like The Color Purple and The Great Gatsby and stuff and those are really good books. Those are like classics. Could you help me make a list of the classic books I should read? I want to be reading better books.”
Me (righting myself from where I’ve fainted on the floor [just kidding, I only fainted on the inside from absolute elation and pride and adoration for that beautiful awesome kid I get to call mine] so I’m real nonchalant): “Oh yeah, totally. Let’s get a list going right now. You’d love Frankenstein and Wuthering Heights and oh! The Catcher in the Rye and we should really read The Diary of Anne Frank and The Lord of the Flies and, and, and…”
Later that night when I let our little kitchen conversation swim around my heart, I cried. I cried because Gloria is the dearest. I cried because I felt undeserving of this awesome human who is creating a world around what she wants and what she wants is good. I cried because I love her so much it hurts.
And then this happened:
One week after we made a list of classics to read together Gloria came into my office and sat in a chair and said, “Hey, mom? Could I talk to you for a sec?” I couldn’t imagine she’d equal the dream-come-true conversation for her English professor mama about gathering classic literature around her, but I listened up.
She said that after hearing some people weren’t being allowed in our country because of the president’s ban, she wanted to volunteer her time and that she specifically wanted to work with underserved children in Minneapolis. “Like maybe refugees or new immigrants or something? It would be great if I could use my Spanish with children, you know? How do I volunteer? How can I help?”
I tell you what—this Gloria is some kind of dear heart. I choked back my tears as I tried to research volunteer activities or organizations working with underserved refugee children who speak Spanish. I think I may have typed that entire sentence into Google. I reached out to a few refugee organizations with which I’m familiar. One said they only take volunteers 18 years or older and the other said there was a 6-month volunteer training program. They were dead ends but one gave me a lead and here’s what I asked in my email:
“My daughter, who will turn 15 this summer, just came to me yesterday asking to do some volunteer work. She is especially interested in helping children who are underserved and particularly those who speak Spanish (since she is fluent in Spanish and Latina herself).”
And the response from the volunteer coordinator was almost too good to be true:
“I have a real need for someone who speaks Spanish and likes kids!! We have a summer emergency food shelf program on Fridays. Most of the children are Spanish-speaking and it’s a challenge to communicate. We could use help.”
And so Gloria has been volunteering every week this summer. The organization provides food for refugee and immigrant families. Fridays draw the Latino community and while their parents wait in the food shelf line and fill out paperwork, Gloria plays and talks with the children. She inspires me.
So, Gloria, these are your stories that are just a glimpse into what a truly sweet, good, kind, bright person you are. The world needs more people like you. Happy birthday. Welcome back around the sun, my little one, my firstborn, my star, my waterbaby. I’m so glad I met you 15 years ago. You’re my favorite girl on the planet. I’m so happy to be your mama and learn from you how to be a good human. I know we are stellar at pushing each other’s buttons but we’re even more powerful at deeply loving each other. I’m filled with pride that you can discern good literature, that you want to be with the underserved people of this world, that you are choosing to counter hate with good and love.
Happy Birthday, Gloria.