Happy Birthday, Mom

“…Happy birthday to yooooooooouuuuuuuuuu!” I sang over the phone.

There was silence.

“Mom?”

I heard her sobbing quietly.

“Mom? What’s wrong?”

“I miss him so much. Why did he have to die so soon?”

And I marvel at how Mom can’t remember the last thing she said or the last thing I told her, she can’t remember any finite memories of Dad or anything they did together, but the love that they shared is in her bones, is in her psyche, and she misses that. Terribly, achingly, constantly.

“Oh, Mom. I miss him, too. It hurts so much.”

“Yes. So much. I miss him.”

“I do, too. So much. I’m working today but I’ll come and pick you up around 5 for your birthday dinner.”

“Whose birthday is it?”

“It’s yours, Mom! Happy birthday!”

“Mine? Are you sure?”

“Yes! I’m sure! I’ll pick you up and we’ll have dinner on the porch. I’ll see you then; have a good day.”

At 5 pm, she settled into my car. She turned to me, “I have my shoes. Where are we walking?”

I laughed. Again, amazed at how our routine is ingrained in her body. Every Saturday and Sunday we go for a walk, then she changes into sandals and we sit on my porch, her reading the newspaper, cutting it up, taping it into a spiral bound notebook, and me reading a book. I’ve disturbed her algorithm. It’s Monday. We’re not going for a walk; we’re celebrating her birthday.

“We’re going to my house for your birthday dinner and cupcakes.”

“Whose birthday is it?”

“It’s yours, Mom.”

“Mine? Really?”

“Yes,” I smiled and clasped her hand as I drove out of the parking lot.

We sat on my porch and she unloaded the tote bag that she always has with her. Running shoes, anklet socks, Hershey’s nuggets candies in a Ziploc bag, today’s newspaper, a spiral-bound notebook, scissors, Scotch tape, felt tip pens (no tops so the color bleeds through the tote bag), a bag of pretzels, 4 pocket size packs of Kleenex, two sets of house keys, two romance novels, and a tank top.

“Mom, don’t start any projects. We’re getting ready to have dinner.”

“Are we going for a walk?”

“Right now we’re eating dinner. It’s your birthday, so we have a special dinner. Fried chicken, sesame greens, cucumbers from the garden, and chocolate cupcakes for dessert. We can go for a walk after dinner if you’d like.”

“Whose birthday is it?”

“It’s yours, Mom.”

“Mine? Really?”

“Really!” and I laughed.

“How old am I?”

“79.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

After dinner I FaceTime with my sister and her two children. They talk to Mom as I bring out a cupcake with lit candles. We all sing Happy Birthday, out of sync and out of tune. We tell her to make a wish and she says, “I wish I’ll live two more years.” My heart breaks and I choke back tears.

Mom opens presents, confused what they are and why she’s getting them. My sister and her children are great. They laugh with Mom, not at her. They tenderly say, “I love you, Gammy,” and we laugh and say goodbye.

Mom eats the cupcake – her favorite, chocolate cake with vanilla icing. She again asks whose birthday it is. I tell her it’s hers. I wonder if I could have made my favorite cupcake, vanilla cake with vanilla icing, and if she would have noticed.

I take her home and sign her back in. She waves at everyone sitting in the rocking chairs outside, in the lobby watching tv, saying, “Today’s my birthday!”

Mom and I, masked up, outside my house, on her birthday.

August

Katydids, day and night, chirping back and forth, back and forth, occasional soloist, an intoxicating rhythm.

Warm evenings that hug you as you step outside.

Endless hours on the porch swing: reading, thinking, crying, being.

Ripe tomatoes, fresh from the vine, still warm from the afternoon sun, sliced thick and carefully placed on Wonder Bread with just a smidge of Duke’s mayonnaise and several shakes of salt.

Okra blossoms, the softish of yellow, opening up in the warmth and humidity.

A cool breeze, causing a momentary shiver, a harbinger of fall weather that will be upon us soon.

Dad’s birthday. Remembering him and the gifts he shared. Missing him.

“Why Are They Killing The Black People?”

“Why are they killing the Black people?”

Over the past weeks, I had felt Mom becoming more and more distant. Her eyes were glassy and conversations often didn’t make sense. This was lucid.

“I… I don’t know, Mom. We live in a racist society. I don’t know why they’re killing them.”

“They didn’t do anything wrong. Why are they killing them?”

I could hear CNN, or maybe MSNBC, blasting in the background. I heard Mom start to cry. “I just don’t understand.”

“Mom, why don’t you turn the tv off. Would you like to go for a walk and talk?”

“I need to be alone. I don’t understand.”

How is it that I’m having this conversation with my Mom, 78, with advanced Alzheimer’s, about the insanity of what is happening in our country right now? How do I answer the question that she’s asked? Why are we killing Black people? What do we have to do to stop the killing? To stop the hatred, the rage, the prejudice, the racism, behind the killing?

I cried for the rest of the day. I’m not shocked by what is happening. We are a racist society, in which many people (me included) benefit from that racism, and I’m tired of it. We have got to dismantle the systems that allow this to continue.

My friend Michelle put together this list of resources, Racial Justice, A List of Resources for White People Who Are Not on Twitter 24 Hours a Day. I’m donating, I’m writing, I’m speaking out. I have no delusions that it’s enough.

A Letter to Dad

Today marks one year since Dad passed away. In some ways, it feels like yesterday that we were in the ICU, holding his hand, talking to him and praying as he was taken off life support. And in other ways, it feels like a lifetime ago. There have been so many moments this year that I’ve wanted to talk to him, or tell him “I love you,” or seek his advice, or give him a hug. For fifty years he was my biggest cheerleader, my rock, my support.

I predicted today might be emotional (and yes, there were many tears) so I took the day off work. Months ago, my grief counselor recommended I think about how I wanted to spend the day. What I wanted to do was spend the whole day on the mountain, wandering in the woods, then having a nice dinner with Mom and we could share our favorite memories. And maybe that will happen next year. When shelter in place orders were given, I thought, “Well, I anticipate I’ll be pretty teary, I might as well spend the day unpacking some of the boxes I haven’t gotten around to and going through all the files.” (Note: In hindsight, this wasn’t really the best way to spend the day.)

For the year since his death, I’ve been plagued with nightmares that I didn’t tell him everything I needed to. Did he know how much I loved him? Did he realize how much his guidance had influenced me? Did he know how much I respected him? I know that he knew I loved him. We said it all the time. We were affectionate. We hugged each other before bed, and said, “I love you; see you tomorrow!” But did he really know what that meant? I would wake up in a cold sweat, screaming, worried that things were left unsaid.

On December 26, 2018, I boarded a plane for Bogotá, Colombia, to visit friends and celebrate New Year’s with them. I had spent the prior week with Mom and Dad, and Dad wasn’t feeling great and refused to go to the doctor. I remembered writing him a heart felt Christmas card (more like a Christmas letter) and leaving it on his desk. When I arrived to Bogotá, I learned after I left he had gone to the ER and had been admitted. I re-booked my return flight to come home early and went straight to the hospital. That was the beginning of the four and a half month journey, ending with his passing on April 14, 2019.

I never knew if he read the letter, as it sounded like they went to the ER shortly after I left. Once back, I asked him why he waited to go to the ER, and he said he knew that I wouldn’t go to Bogotá if he wasn’t well (which is true) and it was important to nourish relationships.

And today, as I was clearing boxes, I found the card/letter I had written, tucked into his day planner. The envelope appeared to have been torn open hastily, it wasn’t the neat slit that was the mark of bills and letters in their household. I re-read the letter, and understood that he knew.

Dear Dad,

I love you so much and I can’t imagine a life without you in it. It’s been so hard to see you in pain and I wish there were something I could do to ease the pain and discomfort that you’ve been feeling. And now I worry that I haven’t told you everything that you need to know – that I love you dearly. That I aspire to be like you – selfless, compassionate, and loving. You’ve been such a sounding board throughout my life – helping me with both minor and major decisions. Your guidance has turned me into the writer I am – one who loves the craft. I admire your patience with mom, and how much love and care you shower her with. I admire your quest for justice and your commitment to equality. I love how you’ve crafted a life that is extraordinary for both you and mom. I love how open you are to learning and curious about the world. It’s been one of my joys to travel with you and mom as an adult. I think fondly about how we rode camels in Egypt, how we navigated through the Seoul subways, how we walked along the Great Wall in China and then ate the soup where we had to crumble our own crackers. And celebrating your 50th wedding anniversary in Vienna was such a treat. It really was magical wandering from market to market, watching the snow fall gently (and not so gently), and listening to the music. You’ve been the best dad – there’s nothing I would have changed, even if I could. Whenever friends and colleagues meet you, they comment on how lucky I am – and it’s true. 

I love you so much, 
Lori

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A Very Good Day

I went to Mom’s to refill her pill boxes (her caretaker, Gloria, isn’t allowed to dispense medicine, only remind Mom to take it). Gloria brings all the medicine and pillboxes down to my car (which I’ve Cloroxed repeatedly) in a plastic bag, I refill the boxes, Clorox everything I’ve touched, and she takes them back up to Mom’s. Today I asked Gloria to have Mom come to her balcony.

Mom initially looked out into the distance, and I, three floors down shouted, “Here! Mom! I’m here!” She eventually saw me, we waved at each other, and we tried to talk, but Mom couldn’t hear me because she won’t wear her hearing aids. I yelled louder, then realized it was futile, so we blew kisses instead. And she smiled. And I attempted to take a selfie of us, because I realize we have so few pictures together, and got a portion of my forehead, and her smiling. And it was a good day.

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A Flood of Fears

I’ve reflected a lot on why yesterday’s conversation with Mom upset me so much. The most obvious; Mom was disappointed and I was the cause of that disappointment. That never feels great as a child, and that’s my Achilles Heel. It didn’t matter that I actually can’t do what she was expecting. In her Alzheimer’s mind, it was Saturday, and that’s the day that we go out (which has been the case for almost a year). I don’t know why she remembered this yesterday, and not any of the other Saturdays this month I haven’t been able to see her, and I’m grateful she’s only remembered once.

Yesterday was one year to the day of me getting ready to leave for Charleston, and Mom came and sat on my bed and quietly said, “I think Dad is hurting.” (Mom and Dad called each other that when speaking to any of the children). I rushed into their bedroom. It was the one-year anniversary of my only time ever calling 911. And silently begging the paramedics to hurry. And asking the ER doctors if the infection they discovered could be fatal. And breathing a sigh of relief when they said, “No, it’s a routine infection in dialysis patients; we just need to get him on the right antibiotics.” (They were incorrect; it was fatal.)

For the past 363 days, the words of someone (I’m not sure who – a social worker? the ICU nurse? An assisted living facility director? Her doctor?) have constantly sat at the back of my mind. “Statistically speaking, your Mom will likely die within the next year. When someone spends that long with a partner (60 years in their case), it’s common for them to die of heartbreak.”

I’ve been rooting for Mom to hang in there. We’re almost at the year mark. I realize it’s a silly wish; people die when they die. Her making it to Tuesday will not buy her any more time beyond that.

And when she asked me how long it would be like this, my own fears were suddenly exposed. I don’t know how long it will be like this and up until that point I had done pretty well of staying in the moment and focusing on what was true right now. With her question, all those questions I hadn’t allowed myself to ask came flooding over me: Will I ever see her again? Will she suddenly pass away and I won’t be there like I was with Dad? Will she die alone? Will she know that she is loved, even though she’s alone? Will she ever understand that I would be there if I could be, but I can’t?

And, that’s why I couldn’t stop crying.

 

A Very Bad Day

Her voice choked and I could tell she was crying. “I really thought you were going to come visit me today. I was waiting for you to come.”

My heart dropped. That was what I wanted, too.  And I know how emotions spread, so I tried to remain calm as I explained, “Mom, I’m not allowed to come there anymore.”

“Why?”

“Because of the virus. They’re trying to keep everyone safe. Visitors aren’t allowed; they don’t want anyone bringing in germs.”

“Well, I’ll just leave.”

“You can’t do that, either, Mom. Everyone has to stay at home. I miss you so much, Mom.”

“Well, how long will it be this way?”

And this is where I had to swallow the sobs that were rolling from my gut, through my chest, and stuck in my throat.

My  voice trembled as I said, “I don’t know, Mom. It’s already been several weeks, it might be several more. It just depends on how long the virus lasts. They’re trying to keep everyone safe.”

“This is a very bad day.”

 

A Year Later

Now isn’t so different from this time last year.

We had masks by the front door, which visitors had to wear if they wanted to come in, and Dad had to wear on the rare occasions he went out. I had gloves that I donned whenever I helped Dad with his dialysis. I washed my hands every day until they were chapped. The smell of antimicrobial liquid soap still makes me gag. Dad was going through chemotherapy and we were doing everything we could to protect him.

And now is so completely different from this time last year.

Now we’re not protecting one person; we’re protecting all people.

And I still grieve for Dad. Last year, I told myself that I was making decisions so that I wouldn’t have any regrets. I moved in with Mom and Dad. We talked. We did NY Times Minis together. We played Scrabble together. We solved jigsaws together. We planned renal diet friendly menus together. We talked some more.

Is it regrets I have? Or is it simply longing? Wishing I could have one more conversation with him. Wishing we could have one more hug before bedtime. Wishing we could reminisce about each of our childhoods.

It sounds so strange to say, but one of my favorite memories from last year is when we were waiting in the Emergency Department for his treatment. It was just the two of us. We talked about him trying out for the AAA baseball league. He had been a successful high school pitcher and was invited to tryouts. He confidently approached the day and said he left barely being able to move. We talked about his career as a sports writer. And how he built the cabin in the mountains. And the afterlife. And Cherie Berry (NC elevator queen) announcing that she wouldn’t run for re-election. I asked him why he changed his mind about letting my try out for Little League (in the first year girls were allowed to play, 1974). He said that when we approached the sign up table, he saw there were no other girls, and how the organizers sneered at me. He didn’t want to subject me to that at six years old. We talked as we waited for almost eight hours.

It was a small room. With fluorescent lights and the smell of disinfectant and a flimsy curtain masquerading as a wall. I pulled a chair close to his hospital bed and held his hand as we talked, and talked, and talked. I was sad when they shared he would be transferred to ICU. I didn’t want the night to end. They said I couldn’t see him until they got him settled. So I waited in the ICU waiting room, across from the Pepsi vending machine, wondering how there could be so many flavors of Mountain Dew.

I’m hoping now I’m living so that I won’t have regrets.

Jazz and Taxes

I have been known to procrastinate. One of my first jobs was as a writer for the local newspaper and there was a thrill of turning something great in, right at the deadline. There is one major exception to my habit of procrastination. Taxes. I relish filing my taxes as soon as possible. I sat down this weekend, determined to have all the requisite paperwork to the accountants by Monday. This year, however, I had two sets of taxes to prepare. Mine, and my parents’. I probably should have done mine first. But for some reason, I didn’t.

As I worked through the organizer my Dad’s accountant sent me, questions stabbed me.

“Change in marital status?” Yes, J deceased in April 2019; S widowed in April 2019.

“Sale of residence?” Yes, after my Mom could no longer live on her own.

“Medical receipts?” So. Many. Medical. Receipts. As I organized them by month, the painful memory of each individual receipt overwhelmed me. Trips to the Emergency Department. Prescriptions in the hospital pharmacy. Waiting at the cancer center pharmacy. Trip after trip after trip to the local CVS, filling prescriptions for drugs that didn’t work.

I couldn’t breathe. I was back in 2019, back hoping that each proposed treatment would allow Dad to continue to live the life he wanted to. Not aware that he would leave us so soon. Gullible and believing him when he said that he would get better. And then I was sad. So incredibly sad that he wasn’t able to live the life he wanted to for as long as he wanted to. That he’s no longer here.

************

A friend invited me to join her for a special Fat Tuesday dinner tonight. The restaurant was serving special New Orleans cuisine and a jazz band played throughout dinner. Gold, green, and purple beads hung from the fixtures. She talked about going to New Orleans with her brother, and how he went to bed so early and they didn’t get to experience the late night jazz New Orleans is famous for. And just like that, I was overwhelmed with memories of my first trip to New Orleans.

I had just graduated from college and Dad said we should take a trip, just the two of us. I suggested New Orleans, and he booked everything. We saw all the historical sites during the day, and at night we ate great food and listened to so. much. music. I’d suggest going to one more bar to hear one more band, and he was always up for it. Our agreement was we could stay out as late as I wanted, but we had to be up at 8 am (ouch) the next morning to tackle the historical sites.

As I listened to the band tonight, I know that I’m forgetting parts of the trip. I so desperately want to remember every detail. When I returned home, I pulled out a box of pictures from that time (back when we still printed pictures from a roll of film at the local drug store) and looked for a picture of us from that trip. I couldn’t find any of us together. There were pictures he took of me, and pictures I took of him, but we hadn’t had the foresight to ask someone to take one of us together. And then I was sad again.

 

 

Me and RBG

“I have something for you.”

Mom often has things for me. Receipts from the dollar store. Magazine renewal notices. Donation requests. Generally, things I recycle as soon as I get home.

We walked into her bedroom. “I got this for you.”

It was an objectively ugly representation of Ruth Bader Ginsburg on a keychain. Part of the “string doll gang” – her face was made of string wrapped around and around and around a ball. She had a tag attached that said, “Women belong in all the places where decisions are being made.”

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Then I noticed two other keychains. One a “Dharma Queen” and one a fluffy white puppy. “Who are these for, Mom?”

“Oh. The dog is for Ashley and the other one is for Anne.”

I stood there, dumbfounded.

Somehow she had picked the exact correct keychain for each of us. My sister, a dog lover, and Anne, a hippie at heart.

“Mom, did you pick these out on your own?”

“Yes.”

“I love it. Thank you.”

And with this gift, I realized she still knows the essence of each of us. I could barely keep from crying. Weekly, I’ll sit on her couch with her and she’ll turn to me and say, “Do I have any children?” I nod my head and say, “You do.” “How many children do I have?” “You have three. You have a son, Greg, who lives in Winston-Salem, a daughter, Lori, who lives here in Asheville, and a daughter, Ashley, who lives outside of Atlanta.” “Are they big children or little children?” “They’re pretty big.” She’ll nod her head and stare into space. And a little part of me dies inside.

And today, I realized that she might not remember I’m her daughter, but she knows who I am.