Best Present Ever

by Tim Shoemaker

I knew something was wrong the moment I saw my mom. All I wanted to do was grab a bowl of cereal and say, “Happy Birthday” to her before I left for school. But seeing my mom slump-shouldered with her back to the doorway made me wish I could help her somehow.

I think if she had heard me step into the kitchen, she’d have ended the phone call or walked into a different room. But she stayed right underneath the sign she’d hung on the wall: The best things in life can’t be bought in a store. 

She could use something good in her life right now, I thought.

Mom looked tired. Like she’d already put in a full day at work. But it was only 7 a.m.

“No, please, honey, listen to me, I only—”

I heard my older sister yelling on the other end of the phone. I couldn’t make out what Heidi was saying—and I didn’t want to. Ever since going to college, she always found something to argue about. 

“You’re blaming this on me?” Mom leaned her head against the wall. “You know how to fix your grades. Stop partying and hit the books instead.”

I could hear the intensity pick up on Heidi’s end of the line. Did she even remember it was Mom’s birthday?

“It’s not too late,” Mom said. “You just need to—”

She almost got in 10 words before my sister cut her off. Heidi was yelling again. But I’d heard enough. In that instant I made a decision. Somehow I’d make Mom’s birthday really special. I wanted to give her the best birthday present I’d ever given her. But that would take something I didn’t have: money.

I popped in my ear buds before Mom noticed I was listening. She put the phone on the counter and turned as I grabbed a box of cereal from the cupboard.

“Morning, sunshine!” She put on a happy face. Sunglasses would have been more effective at hiding the red rims around her eyelids.

I hated seeing her hurt. Hated it. But at 12 years old, what could I do? I waved and grabbed a bowl like I hadn’t heard anything. Somehow the idea of saying “Happy Birthday” at that moment seemed as phony as Mom’s smile. 

Cap’n Crunch grinned at me all through breakfast, like he knew what would make the perfect gift for my mom. Whatever it was, he kept the secret to himself. I grabbed a marker and blackened out one of his teeth.

Birthday Brainstorm

By lunchtime I still hadn’t come up with a birthday idea. Sarah and Kyle, my best friends, sat across the table. I actually asked Kyle for help, which proves how desperate I was.

“I know exactly what your mom needs,” he said. 

Sarah didn’t look convinced. 

He took a bite of his sandwich, keeping me in suspense. 

“You do remember,” I said, “I don’t have money.”

“Don’t need it,” Kyle said. “Ask your mom for money.”

Sarah threw a carrot at him. “That’s pathetic.”

“Or . . .” Kyle held up one finger like he was about to reveal something truly profound. “Or check under your couch cushions. I made off with a buck fifteen the last time I did the sweep.”

“Wow.” Sarah raised an eyebrow. “A real haul.”

Kyle ignored me and bit off another mouthful. “Enough to go to the dollar store.”

Sarah looked like she wanted to throw something else at him.

“You actually did this?” I said.

Kyle nodded. “Yup, Christmas. Just go to the dollar store and pick up anything.” Kyle waved his sandwich as he talked. “And I mean anything. She’ll love it. My mom did.” He chomped off the corner of his sandwich and worked it to one side of his mouth. “It’s the thought that counts, right?”

“Exactly,” Sarah said. “And your thoughts don’t count for much in this area. Austin needs something special.”

I was totally tracking with Sarah on this one, but I had to know. “So what did you get your mom for Christmas?” I asked Kyle.

He grinned. “Toilet bowl cleaner.”

“Seriously?” Sarah winced. “You’re disgusting.”

"No, our toilets were,” he said. “She’d been saying it for days. I took the hint.”

“Did you ever think maybe she wanted you to clean the toilets?”

“No thanks,” Kyle said. “Not this guy.”

Sarah closed her eyes and shook her head.

The lunch period was almost over, and I still had no clue what to get my mom. So far Kyle hadn’t been any more help than Cap’n Crunch. 

“Toilet bowl cleaner won’t give her the message I’m looking to send,” I said. “I need a better idea.”

“Hey, my mom loved it,” Kyle said. “She sat there crying, just holding that bottle.”

Sarah laughed. “I would have cried, too.” She focused on me. “So what is it you really want your mom to know?”

I shifted my weight and thought. There were lots of things. Mostly how much I love her, which I wasn’t about to say with toilet bowl cleaner.

“Look,” Sarah said, “you want to give her something special, but you don’t have money. So give her something money can’t buy.”

“Like air,” Kyle laughed.

Sarah ignored him. “Don’t get your mom something from a store.” She reached across the table and tapped my chest. “Give her something from the heart.”

Kyle looked at her like she was speaking a different language. 

Maybe she was. My wheels started turning. A gift from my heart? Maybe something she needed or wasn’t getting enough of. “You have a suggestion?”

She tilted her head. “I bet you can think of a perfect gift. What pops into your mind?”

My thoughts whirled back to that morning. To the way Heidi talked to Mom. And then I thought about how badly I treated her sometimes. I knew exactly what she needed. “Respect.”

Sarah nodded. “Perfect.”

“You’re losing it, pal,” Kyle shook his head. “How’re you going to give her respect? Lame idea. Give her something she can really use.” 

Sarah shot him a look. “Like toilet bowl cleaner?”

The Very Best

After dinner Mom sat at the kitchen table and opened the homemade card from me. 

“Dear Mom,” she read.

“Aw, come on,” I said. “You’re not going to read the whole card out loud, are you?”

“I most certainly am,” she said. “It’s my birthday.”

She looked at the card again. “I wish I had a ton of money, so I could buy you the kind of present you deserve. But since I don’t, I thought I’d give you a different sort of gift. Something I’m going to give you for an entire week.” She looked at me with a curious expression and smiled.

I could feel my face getting warm. Mom didn’t seem to notice and went right back to reading. 

“For the next seven days, I’m going to give you something you don’t get enough of: respect.” 

Her voice caught, and for an instant I thought she was going to lose it. But she pulled herself together and read on.

“R is for Rude. I’m going to try NOT to be rude. Like the way I interrupt you when you’re on the phone. And when you ask, ‘How was your day?’ when I get home from school, I won’t give some short answer like, ‘Fine’ or ‘I don’t want to talk about it.’ ”

Mom’s cheeks turned red.

“E is for eyes. I’ll look at you when you talk to me, even when I’m busy texting or on the computer. And speaking of eyes, I won’t roll my eyes when you tell me to finish my homework or to stop snacking before dinner.

“S is for Show. I’m going to start showing some appreciation for the little things you do. Like laundry. Cleaning toilets. And the way you always encourage me.”

She stopped reading for a moment and stared at the card. 

“P is for Polite. I’m going to work at this, too. I’ll say ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ I’ll answer you nice, even when you ask me to do something I really don’t feel like doing.”

She read slower now, like she wanted to enjoy every word.

“E is for Ears. I’ll take the ear buds out when you’re talking, and I’ll try really, really hard to listen to what you’re saying.

“C is for Compromise. I’m not going to do it. When I do things I know are wrong, I’m disrespecting you—even when you’re not there to see it.”

She closed her eyes. I got the feeling she was praying. It was weird, because at that moment I prayed, too. I told God I was sorry for how much I’d taken my mom for granted. I asked Him to help me do better. Way better. 

“T is for Treasure.”

Her voice shook, and it dropped to a whisper. “That’s what you are, Mom. And I intend to start treating you like one. You’ve done so much for me in so many ways. You love me like crazy. I’m going to do everything I can to treat you with the respect you deserve.”

She looked at me, a sense of wonder in her eyes. The rims of her eyelids were red again. But those red eyes never made me feel better. Reaching out, she put her arms around me and pulled me close. 

“This is the greatest birthday gift ever,” she whispered. 

I hugged her right back and stared at the sign on the wall behind her. I knew it spoke the truth. And Sarah was right, too. The best things can’t be bought in a store. They come from the heart.

“This will be the best seven days I’ve had in a long, long time,” she said.

I smiled and made another decision. Why stop respecting her at the end of the week?

This article originally appeared in the March 2012 issue of Focus on the Family Clubhouse magazine. Copyright © 2012 by Tim Shoemaker. Used by permission. Illustration © Young Min Yoon.