My mom has always remembered my birthday...for as long as I can remember, she's been right on the money when it comes to celebrating the day I was born. For sure, sometimes it must have been a bittersweet remembering, because she was a single mom long before it became acceptable and popular, as it is today. In those years, having a baby with no dad in the picture was an extremely painful thing for her to live with, and she did it with grace and courage.
So, remembering my birthday every year was her way of letting me know that she loved me more than she knew how to say. I know that now, although there were times that I wasn't so cognisant of her love. For my 13th birthday, she laboured long into the night to make me a black taffeta jumper with a huge circular skirt and a pink silk blouse to wear under it. In my hormonally challenged state, I refused to try it on, and she was hurt deeply by my behaviour. That's a do-over for me...one of those days when I wish I could wave a magic wand, and have that day to do over again, hopefully with a lot more kindness and love, the second time around.
Over the years, my mom never forgot to send a beautiful card, a gift or 3 and when she was flush, a cheque from her limited resources, to help me with mine. Sometimes there were surprise visits, especially after I moved 3000 miles away. She'd drive for 2 days to get here, stay for a few days and then drive home again.
This past winter, my mom fell at home. Later, she would try to remember what had happened, and all she could remember was sitting on the edge of the bed, at her bedtime, and slipping off the bed, landing hard on the floor. She spent the night there, covered only with a thin quilt...and at noon the next day, called 911. After she was rushed to hospital, settled in a bed with sides and checked over thoroughly by her doctor, she tried to remember what had happened to her and couldn't. Her brother carefully asked her why she didn't call 911 when it happened. She was quiet for a long while and then said softly, "I didn't want to be a bother to anyone."
I noticed when her sentences started with "When I get better..." and "When I finally can go home...", and little by little changed to "When they find me a room here at the lodge..." It was as if her spirit finally accepted the inevitable.
One cold, snowy day a month after she was admitted, her brother and his wife and son were returning to their home, next door to the hospital where my mom was staying. As they pulled up to the driveway, they noticed a lone figure walking away from them, far down the side road out of town. My aunt said, "Oh, my goodness, we'd better go and see who that is! They might need help." The joys of small town living...always someone around to help when needed.
As they approached the person, hunched over against the wind and cold, they could see it was my mom. Dressed in her thin housecoat and a pair of worn hand-knitted slippers, she was walking doggedly into the wind and blowing snow. Refusing to get in the car with them, my mom waited with my nephew in the cold, while my aunt and uncle went to the hospital to get help. The nurses were shocked to learn that she was out in the cold...the monitoring device that she wore constantly had been checked that morning and all was well. Later they'd find it, lying on her bed, still pinned to her nightgown that she had removed and hidden under her pillow...
After coaxing her into the car and back to the hospital, she was wrapped in warm blankets and tucked in with some hot water bottles. My uncle sat with her for a long time, holding her hand, silent and watchful of his big sister. Finally, he leaned over and asked her where she was going, in that awful weather. She lay, with her eyes closed for a very long time, then finally looked at him and whispered, "Home. I was just going home."
Her mental brilliance and her physical well-being deteriorated slowly over the next few months. From an extremely intelligent quick-witted woman, with the stamina and strength of a dozen people, she gradually became a tired, frail, often teary lady who was unable to stand alone. She depended more and more on the nurses to lift her from her bed, to her chair, to her walker and back to bed.
I called her a few days before her 86th birthday, and in our conversation I asked her what she most wanted for her special day. She was quiet on the phone for a long while, and then hesitatingly said, "Long life...good health." My heart broke then, for I could give her neither. "Flowers, you always send me flowers...that would be nice," she said, taking us out of the silence. I placed a standing order for fresh flowers to be delivered to her room on her birthday and every Tuesday after that. The florist in my home town asked me how long I thought that might be...I couldn't answer, for the lump in my throat choking back the words, “I don't know."
This past month was my birthday again...my son sent me an absolutely smashing bouquet of fresh flowers...my daughter invited me to dinner, made me a gluten-free white cake (with jam in the middle, my favourite)...my friends called, sent cards, bought me presents and cooked me dinner. In the middle of this heap of loving gifts was a small silent space, where my mom's card and gift had always been...this year, she would not remember my birthday, she would not be able to choose a nice, mushy card, she had forgotten to write me a letter and wasn't able to call me on the phone. She just wasn't able...and the silence was wrenching...
A couple of weeks after my birthday, an envelope came in my mail addressed to me, in my sister's handwriting. Opening it I pulled out a nice, mushy birthday card wishing me the best birthday ever. I opened it slowly, and inside read lines of shakily traced letters where my mom had tried to write "Happy Birthday, Brenda" several times, never fully finishing the greeting. At the bottom of the verse were two words written carefully and with obvious effort...her full name...as if by writing it she was reminding herself, and us, of who she was…that she was still here.
The card sits on my grandmother's piano in my dining room, a reminder of the love this amazing woman has for me, a reminder of all that she means to me...and maybe, just maybe, a glimmer of her remembering me...