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Happy Birthday

Yesterday would have been my mother’s birthday, her 85th. I’ve written about her more than once in these Notes. I’ve reminisced about her nurse’s cap with its black band, talked about her role as my father’s caregiver, shared a little of their early romance and talked about her red and white roses.

She was only 66 when my father died… such a young age to have endured such loss that my heart breaks for her still.

But yesterday would have been her birthday, a day of celebration, and so this is not a time for sad memories, but for happy ones. Like the memory of the last birthday she would ever spend with my father, when for a few short hours on a brilliant and beautiful September evening, despite the ravages of Alzheimer’s and against all odds, her husband was truly with her. And I was lucky enough to have been there to witness it.

From Chapter 23: A Light Extinguished – Standing Tall: A Daughter’s Gift

After a spring and summer of taking life one moment at a time, watching my father fade physically and mentally at a rate not witnessed before and hardly believable, my mother approached her birthday on September 8 with exhaustion and more than just a tinge of bitterness.

Just ignore my birthday, she insisted. I don’t need presents or cards. I don’t want them. How can I possibly celebrate my birthday when Dick doesn’t even know if he’s in the world?

I ignored her and arrived after work with birthday cards and gifts. I was alone, something I felt was a significant enough concession in a family where birthdays had meant special suppers with all family members in attendance, home-baked cakes, candles, gifts and cards. The important thing, I thought, was to try to give her some indication that even if my father no longer knew he was alive, she must remember that she was. The important thing, I thought, was to do the least of what my father would have expected.

It was warm and bright, a beautiful Indian summer evening. My father, when I arrived, seemed brighter and stronger than he had been in months. It surprised me, this change. There was awareness in the eyes, though of what I cannot be sure. There was almost an eagerness as he stood looking out the window. You want to go outside? I asked him. Yes, he answered. And so I told my mother I would take him outside. We walked carefully downstairs and stepped carefully over the doorstep leading to the driveway where I walked beside my father. The pace was painfully slow, but he was obviously pleased to feel the fresh air, the warm sun. He ran his fingers gently along the side of his Bronco, looked with interest at the yard… When my mother decided to join us, he looked at her with the kind of mischevious smile I hadn’t seen in what seemed like forever, bent to kiss her, and linked her arm through his, taking her hand as he did so.

I looked at my father, the light in his eyes. I looked at the smile on his face and his hand holding my mother’s. I looked at my mother’s surprised delight and I realized I was grinning. I think you two would be rather alone, I said and turned to go inside where I sat in the kitchen with the friend who had also come to bring birthday greetings…

We laughed, pleased that I’d had such an overwhelming feeling my father wanted to be alone with my mother, to enjoy with her the bonus summer day as they walked outside their home, amused that I had been in the way. When they eventually came inside, perhaps ten minutes later, we asked my father if he’d like to sit with us in the kitchen. Though this was something he rarely did any longer, he sat smiling in the chair we pulled up for him. Answering questions with understandable, if short phrases. Seeming to follow the conversation and enjoying the company.

I’ll never know if something enhanced my father’s awareness that day and he truly understood it was my mother’s birthday. I’ll never know if he intentionally gave her the only gift he could –– a quiet walk around the driveway, through the front yard and back, stopping under the wild apple tree before they made their way to the back fence, across to the stretch of land where blueberries had once grown. I’ll never know why or how on this day he managed to speak to us in words that were understandable and relevant. The physical weakness aside, it was absolutely wonderful to see and feel him with us again, a precious gift not just for my mother, but for all of us –– the wife, the daughter and the friend –– who would hear his laughter for the last time as we sat that evening around a table that had suddenly become festive, despite the absence of the birthday cake.

Happy Birthday, Mom.