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The Birthday My Mom Could Not Remember

elderly woman holding her head in her hands

It’s my birthday and I’m feeling my mom in a big way. Makes sense. After all, on this day, fifty-four years ago, we experienced probably the most intimate moments we’ve ever shared.

I spoke with her yesterday. For the past year she’s been living in a memory care senior facility. She has dementia. Yesterday’s chat lasted fifteen minutes, which is long for her. It was precious. We wandered in and out of various wormholes. When she asked when I would come see her next, I said I was planning a visit in May for her eightieth birthday.

“I’m turning eighty?” her voice squeaked with confusion—which she almost always tries to cover up, but didn’t this time.

“Yeah, Mom. Isn’t that amazing? You’ve lived almost eighty years.”

There’s a pause. A welcome moment of silence. I am in no rush to fill it.

My father died just before his eightieth birthday and I wonder if that’s tugging on her.

“I am starting to feel old,” she says quietly.

“How so?” I’m surprised. For the past few years she’s been fiercely denying any sense of being old, pointing to all the other people on her floor in the facility and wondering what she’s doing in a place with such old people.

“It’s scary,” she says.

My heart melts.

This moment of vulnerability stands out like a comet in a relationship that’s been full of stoic responses to any inquiry into how she is feeling.

“I’m fine—I’m one hundred percent perfectly healthy” is her pat answer, often followed by somewhat vitriolic kvetching about the state of her emotional life and how she worked hard her entire life and how now she is locked up in a home when she clearly deserves better. But she’s never been much interested in exploring any deeper.

“It is scary,” I say. “Things feel more out of our control, don’t they?”

“Yeah,” she is thoughtful.

I picture her petite shrinking body, wildly wrinkled skin, and foggy green eyes under angled brows. Last week the social worker called my brother to tell him she’s having more accidents. They’re transitioning her into Depends.

“I’m not ready to die,” she’s sounds uncharacteristically pensive. “But I think I might be getting closer.”

“Yeah, Mom. You probably are getting closer. You’re definitely closer to your death than your birth.”

She chuckles. Then changes the subject to her dog, Maggie. She misses her terribly. We had to take Maggie away when Mom moved into the memory care center. No pets are allowed. It broke all our hearts. Mom can’t remember her dog’s name, but she remembers the feeling of being with her dog. The love. The joy. Something she didn’t often feel in other relationships.

There’s a lot I could say about the story of my mother’s life, her trauma, her ancestral inheritance, the culture she was raised in. I have wondered what it would’ve been like to have had a different mother. One more emotionally available. One more interested in the things that stir my heart. But, what’s alive in me today is my deep love for her. Unconditionally.

What I love most about my mom’s dementia is how present she is in the moment. How unguarded. How authentic. Her uncensored self is at once sweet and precious and bitter and angry. She turns on a dime. She doesn’t pretend. I know people who work hard to achieve this state of being human.

I’ve learned that we all can move swiftly along the spectrum of change from like to hate, happy to sad, up to down. The person who can hold this pendulum within a larger perspective is someone free from identifying solely as those emotions while also not denying them. This is the life I strive to live. I find that not getting lost in the dynamic dance of humanity allows me to inhabit it more fully, to celebrate it, to see it for the magic and wonder that it is.

This is my striving.

Not my Mom’s.

That’s okay.

She’s had her own.

There’s no guarantee that my mom is closer to her last breath than I am to mine. So at fifty-four I don’t get cocky about these matters. Instead I aim to be present and authentic in the way her dementia is allowing her to be.

Thanks for this life, Mom.

Happy birthday to us.

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