Flipping through a mountain of photos from my parents’ house, I stumbled upon this one. The photograph is low quality, grainy, discolored, and dark, the product of 1970s camera tech and film that likely sat around too long before being developed. But there is enough in the four by six print to know what it depicts. It is my first birthday and I am sitting in a high chair in the living room of the house in which I grew up. On the table in front of me is a birthday cake my mother made. She always made gorgeous cakes and this design was one of my favorites. I remember she made it for me multiple times. It is a doll where the entire skirt of the doll is the cake, expertly decorated in sweet frosting. In the darkness of the photo, you can see my mother, crouched down next to me, looking at me. I can almost hear her voice as she sings happy birthday to me.
This picture depicts my first birthday. It would have been the very first time she ever sang that song to me. This past March, she sang it to me for the last time.
My mom passed away last week.
Through 41 years, my mom never missed an opportunity to sing me happy birthday. It was a somewhat silly tradition that grew in importance to her as the years passed. When I was young, living at home, she’d awaken me with it every year. As unhappy as I was to have to leave my warm, comfy bed and go to school, her rousing rendition of the birthday song somehow made the whole thing a little less unpleasant.
At some point during my first year of college, I made a passing comment that I needed her to call me on my birthday and sing or it wouldn’t feel like it was really my birthday. She seized on that comment and never let it go. I think, for her, it was proof that her proudly independent daughter, who left for her first semester of college and never lived at home again, still needed her.
And so began a tradition of carefully planning when she would call each year, because god forbid she miss the opportunity. Answering machine and voicemail messages would not do. Calls the day after, or on the less busy weekend, were simply unacceptable. She had to sing – directly to me – on my birthday. The passage of time did not diminish the importance of the ritual. If anything, it made it more important. It didn’t matter that I was 35 with a career, a home, and a husband. If the plan was for her to call me at 10:00 a.m., and some judge and jury were waiting for me in a courtroom somewhere, then they would all just have to wait. Birthday singing was more important.
These past few years, as her world grew smaller and turned inward, the function of years of untreated physical health problems and creeping dementia, the importance of those calls grew to an almost goofy level. She’d call me two weeks before my birthday to ask what time I wanted her to call me on my birthday. It was honestly the most important item on her monthly to-do list.
The fact that it was so important to her to sing to me every year stood in stark contrast to her unwillingness to address her own medical issues. When a person has underlying mental health problems, they rarely get better with age. Indeed, they usually get much, much worse, and my mom’s situation was an example of that. My mother was complicated and my relationship with her – everyone’s relationship with her – was difficult because of it. Her unwillingness to do the simple things that could have solved her problems was a constant source of frustration. But as exasperating as she could be, she was still the caring, compassionate, entirely dedicated mother that so many people less fortunate than us would kill to have. Growing up, she was always present. Every soccer, basketball, tennis, or lacrosse game, every dance recital, school play, science fair, or awards assembly, there was mom. She wouldn’t dream of missing any of it. That interest in our lives continued on into adulthood, and quickly extended to her grandkids.
Over the past several years, her health had declined to a degree where it seemed her entire being was balanced on an ever more precarious point, and once the delicate balance that had been in place was disturbed – the result of a fall and trip to the hospital – it was one issue after another. Phrases like “medical whack-a-mole” and “cascading failures” became common as my brothers and I discussed our mother’s increasingly dire medical situation. The last several weeks have been a blur of panicked phone calls and text messages, cross country flights, hours spent in hospital rooms, and time spent helping my dad get sorted and settled. Fortunately, our tight-knit family banded together and supported one another as we made our way through a minefield of difficult choices.
The downside of all this busyness is that we have been left physically, mentally, and emotionally spent. Repeatedly flying back and forth across the country, canceling and reworking our schedule in order to be near airports, blowing through our daily mileage limits in order to be where we needed to be when we needed to be there, and spending day after day running all over creation trying to help my family in whatever ways we could was difficult. Doing all of that while absorbing the emotional impact of losing my mother was, often, completely overwhelming.
Sorting through these family photos was, in equal measures, saddening and therapeutic, but finding this particular picture was especially poignant for me. For most viewers, it would be a photo indistinguishable in importance from any of the others. But, for me, it represents the very first time my mother, who was always there, celebrated my being there in the first place. Forty more times she celebrated with me in this exact way. A simple song to mark the occasion and make it “officially” my birthday.
I will miss my mom in more ways than I could ever count. No blog post, no book, could ever contain all the things she did or said that made her “Mom.” More importantly, words on a page simply cannot convey the comfort a child gets when his or her mother’s presence at a particular moment in time is the difference between fear that everything is wrong and belief that everything will be ok. That sense of comfort and peace long outlives childhood, and it is the thing my mind has wandered to repeatedly over these last several days.
In a million small ways, my mother’s passing has reminded my brothers and I of all the ways she showed us how much she loved us. We were her whole world and she never let us forget it.
We’ll never forget her, either.