Leaving Birthdayland

Glacier Bay_620w

Today would have been my mother’s 80th birthday, so this painting is one of hers, done 20 years ago at Glacier Bay in Alaska. She loved the exotic landscapes of Alaska, the history and villages at the intersections of water, cultures, and time.

This is the second birthday from which she has been exempted. Once, a little over two weeks before she died, we sat in her sun-filled kitchen while she extracted cards from her Birthday Book. This was a 9 x 12 spiral book probably from Hallmark, with a page for each month in which to note people’s birthdays and a facing pocket to hold cards ready to send. She reused it year after year, because, after all, people’s birthdays never change. They are one of few constants in this roiling, shifting world.

My mother was a good patient who died peacefully at home, but she didn’t want to go. Not that she fought it; she met her dwindling health with tremendous grace (although once she told me, “I’m screaming inside.”). She was so completely tied to this world of family and friends, a lifelong agnostic with no particular belief in an afterlife and a habit of avoiding the unknown, so she truly did not want to leave here. How humbling it must have been for her that no amount of defiance was a match for the forces at work within. This is for you, Mom, on your birth day.

I caught you at the kitchen table with your Birthday Book open on your lap, pen in hand, trying to get a few of the April cards ready to send. You wanted to do Something Useful, but the black weight of sleep kept claiming you and your head would drop, the pen sinking helpless and useless to make a stray mark on your white cotton slacks that, like all your clothes now, are too big for you.

I thought, how touching that, with all this you choose to think of others. You are still Thoughtful and Organized, a woman who never misses a birthday. Who knows how to be a friend. And what a wholesome activity in a day of waiting, of waking to remember what is pulling on you.

Now I see another purpose, which is to stay in the land of birthdays, to do anything, whatever it takes, to stay in the Birthday Rotation. The one birthday that isn’t logged into your book is your own! Who sends a birthday card to themselves? The whole book is unique to you; it is a product of your hands, a unique cast of friends and family logged in so neatly over the years. No one who has such a book has that same pattern of names.

The birthdays are constant, but there is an ebb and flow, a wax and wane of names. Great grandchildren are born and old friends depart. Even the cards are an expression of you. You didn’t make them, but you chose them, standing (when you still could to that, unassisted) in the store aisle, hand hovering over a card while you thought of that June friend or that November child as you made your decision.

That day, I knew you would buy no more birthday cards. Indeed, you had to give up so much more than that and endured it all stoically. A daily ebb and ebb, then finally sleep.

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