On the Occasion of Her Seventy-Seventh Birthday

Mom turns seventy-seven today. I took a cake over to the nursing facility yesterday and sang “Happy Birthday” to her with a small group of residents, staff, and my dad. No candles. We didn’t even set the decorated cake in front of Mom. Dad sat next to her, both of them in their respective wheelchairs, and he held her right hand. In her left hand, she squeezed her stuffed dog. By the tail.

This is the seventh birthday that’s passed since Mom’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis. We’ve celebrated in different ways each year, depending on Mom’s abilities and where she lived. One of my favorite pictures comes from her birthday celebration in 2018. A few days prior, I’d made a visit to Michigan to help clean out Mom and Dad’s house. When I was ready to make the drive home, Mom turned to me with tears in her eyes. “Can I go with you?” she whispered.

My mother never did anything impulsively, and a trip to my house usually required advance planning. We’d just changed everything about their home and had thrust her into something different. Perhaps she was clinging to something familiar. Who knows? Either way, I nodded and said, “Impromptu road trip!” Dad, so overwhelmed by the changes that Mom was going through, acquiesced. We drove the four hours down to my house, and they stayed for over a week (thanks to a snow storm). That meant we celebrated Mom’s seventy-fourth birthday here, complete with homemade cake. The picture of her with that birthday cake is one I will never forget: she’s happy, smiling, and looks like nothing is wrong.

I held that picture in my head during yesterday’s celebration and today, when I visited with her by myself. I talked about what day it was, who had wished her a happy birthday, and how good the cake and ice cream had been the day before (there’s something humbling about feeding your mother her own birthday cake). The picture I took of her today didn’t turn out well—the lighting was off, the camera not great, and I snapped when she blinked—so when I came back home to my computer, I pulled up that 2018 picture one more time. Looked at it until the tears came.

But it got me thinking about birthdays in general and how we use them as milestones of sorts for our children. First, second, third. Eventually, if we’re lucky, the children reach two hands full, then three, then four. We celebrate a sixteenth birthday, an eighteenth, a twenty-first. And that’s where I am with Mom now, thinking about milestones. What could Mom still do on her birthday in 2018? 2019? What can Mom do today that she won’t be able to do next year at this time? Why didn’t I have the forethought to record those moments better?

Though Mom’s capabilities are diminishing, she smiles, eats well, and is well loved by all the people who care for her. She’s laughed more in the time she’s lived here in Ohio than I ever remember her laughing. We don’t know how much longer Mom will be with us, and the truly hard years (at least for those witnessing the decline) are still ahead, but just like I’d do for anyone else’s birthday, I wish for a better year than the one before for her. And I hope she had some inkling that it was her special day.

Image of birthday cake by Jeevan at Pixabay.com.

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