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Each year my brother, sister, and I celebrate my mother's birthday the same way - with a fictional, simulated crisis call.

At some hour (preferably post-television or pre-breakfast) during the daylong stretch of my mother's birthday, one of us places a frantic telephone call to her. The nature of the call is usually this: some emergency has occurred -- preferably a life-and-death type of situation, such as a car-jacking or experimental heart surgery -- and we saw fit to call my mother in the middle of the crisis, not wanting to miss out on what could be our very last opportunity to wish her a happy birthday. To my mother, this is the greatest gift of all.

We used to trade off making calls each year but as we've gotten older and our lives have become more complicated (With spouses and children and, in my brother's case, word jumbles - a constant, almost daily, obligation.) the responsibility has lately fallen on my shoulders with the greatest frequency. After all, I am the one with a background in acting. I had a small role in a community theatre production of Arthur Miller's The Crucible, in which I played the totemic but thematically essential role of Plymouth Rock. (Upon receiving my agent's call regarding the role, I cried 'typecasting!' remembering playing an identical role in a musical stage adaptation of Pilgrim's Progress - titled Hey Pilgrim! - two years prior. My agent thoughtfully reminded me that I shined in that production - the Angleville Minimum Security Correctional Facility AM Radio Network hailed my performance as "razzmatazz, bordering on wowie-zowie" -- and I relaxed, deciding if typecasting worked positively for that retarded kid on Life Goes On, it could work just as well for me.)

Acting skills are not essential in properly celebrating my mother's birthday, but they are most advantageous. When placing a crisis call to my mother the presentation should be as naturalistic as possible, for the greatest effect. And as a trained, experienced actor I have access to an endless library of sound effects cassettes and, in a pinch, can call on the services of a fellow thespian to play the role of an axe murderer, kidnapper, or federal witness relocation agent if required. These elements help my mom really suspend disbelief - in the same way one suspends disbelief as a giant helicopter descends from the wings during a production of Miss Saigon or when Mr. Spock heals all those lepers in front of the temple, or whatever. My mom knows it's a sham, of course, but she feels all the same emotions she would if one of us really were calling her while being attacked by mummies.

For a long time, my siblings and I would call my mother on her birthday with a simple "happy birthday" and "I love you" (or, in my case, a simple "I'm almost done blaming you for my personal shortcomings"). That somehow left my mother feeling oddly unsatisfied and under-appreciated. There was always an air of "that's it?" in her response. Or maybe it was the way she'd actually say, "that's it?" that created that particular air. Either way, there was an air.

But now, when one of us calls to say "These men with Uzi's are about to throw me in the back of a windowless van and I just wanted to wish you a happy birthday before they erase my mind, change my name to 'Opal' and coerce me into joining their eco-terrorist faction," my mom sees the work. She can imagine the conference calls and script meetings. She knows we went to great lengths to perfectly match the Lebanese Arab dialect, even if it's only heard as a muffled voice in the background. And she appreciates the other details, like the sound of a 1978 Chevrolet van engine revving or a lifeless 140-pound female body being dragged across loose gravel by its arms. In her mind, it all adds up to the same thing: she is deeply loved by her children.

Although we feel it is slightly morbid to conceive of and execute our crisis call each year, we know what it means to our mother and that makes it tolerable, even enjoyable. And it's work, but it's still a lot easier than having to come home and endure a birthday dinner with her at Applebee's.


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