The Birthday Letter

To this day I don’t fully understand why it took me sixty years to write the “birth”day letter. Being my mom’s constant companion throughout her last few years, the “birth”day letter lay in her pocketbook amongst an assortment of lipsticks, keys, tissues and reminders written on bits of scrap paper.
I had moved from Connecticut to Israel with my family in the 1980s and we tried to visit our family in the States each year. On one of my last weeklong visits to Mom and Dad, I recall Mom becoming very agitated, scurrying from bedroom to kitchen, and back again, looking for her change purse. For months now, her advancing Alzheimer’s had prevented her from finding anything that wasn’t in its permanent place. After a minute or two, in utter frustration, she dumped everything from her pocketbook onto her bed. The contents of her bag tumbled onto her Martha Washington bedspread, the “birth”day letter atop the chaos.

Mom had been a nurse, a take charge person, who had always cared about and for others. In fact, Dad was her lifelong partner and “patient” whose diet and health she closely monitored. Although thirteen years her senior and in his mid nineties, of the two, he was in the better health.

Mom and I were both strong-willed and determined characters. Although we loved each other dearly, we couldn’t spend any length of time together before one of us stepped into the other’s emotional space.

During one of my visits a few Decembers earlier, the two of us were sitting chatting in the living room. Mom, with her flare for colors, especially violets and pinks, was comfortably dressed in a loose silky floral housedress. We were catching up on the latest news of family and friends when, without warning, the nostalgic conversation turned into a storm. “Richard, don’t you think a son should thank his mother for all the things she did for him over the years?” Without thinking, I responded from the gut. “No, I don’t expect my kids to thank me for raising them, for having given them lots of love and encouragement. That’s what a dad or mom is supposed to do. No, I’m not looking for thanks.” My response was an overreaction and most certainly a conversation stopper. We both walked out of the living room to seek solace elsewhere in the house. Nevertheless, that visit ended with hugs and kisses and unspoken fears of never seeing one another again. Mom never brought up the subject again.

Weekly long distance phone conversations followed. Mom complained that all Dad did each day was sit in his lounge chair in the spare bedroom reading the Globe, listening to talk radio or napping for long periods of time. She repeated how exhausted she was from taking care of the house and taking care of “your” father. Once she broke into tears begging for a few years for herself before it was too late to enjoy them. However, whenever my brother and I suggested that a homemaker come into the house to help out, she rejected the notion outright saying that she didn’t want a complete stranger in her home. Finally, a few months later, through the intervention of the family lawyer, a long time family friend, she agreed to accept help, albeit under the pretext of taking care of my dad.

I knew that Mom was functioning more or less okay when spring came and she put on her gardening shoes. She loved working in her garden where she attracted the neighborhood kids who delighted in listening to her famous farm stories over and over again.

Just before Mother’s Day, I telephoned the States to order a hanging fuchsia plant for her front steps. This was an annual tradition so I was not one bit surprised when the florist told me that my mom, in anticipation of the gift, had already telephoned him. She reminded him not to forget to deliver it two weeks later on Memorial Day. Always the farmer’s daughter, she wanted to prevent a late frost from killing her beloved Mother’s Day fuchsia.

My first grandchild was born the following December, a few months before my sixtieth birthday. I delighted in watching my daughter falling in love with her precious newborn daughter. The strong emotions I had felt on the birth of each of my two children were resurfacing. Birthday took on a new meaning for me. Instead of focusing on my upcoming birthday, upon me, me and me again, I began visualizing my mother sixty years before, a young bride, also falling in love with her newborn firstborn.

I realized I didn’t have much time left to thank my mom, who, with unconditional love, had done so much for me throughout her eighty-four years. It became clearer what I had to do. On my sixtieth birthday I would be the giver, not the receiver, of a special “birth”day gift. And so I planned my “birth”day letter as a tribute to her. I would mail it in time to be received on the sixtieth anniversary of the day she brought new life into this world.

I refreshed my memory for a few days and started to list as many of the big and little things that she had done for me through the years. So many pleasant memories were brought to mind. Indeed, the list was so much longer than I could ever have imagined. I sat down that weekend and composed a five page letter—a love song from a son to a mother. I was overwhelmed and exhilarated by all she had done for me. Acknowledging my appreciation of her love opened a new chapter in our relationship. The level of our mutual understanding and empathy soared.
Mom remained in her home another year under the watchful eyes of my dad, then in his late nineties, and Gloria who helped care for them. However, when he suffered a stroke at ninety nine, Mom, who was edging into the middle stage of Alzheimer’s, willingly accompanied him to the Home for the Aged .

The “birth”day letter accompanied Mom to the Home. I know from her neighbors, friends, and relatives that she pulled out her “birth”day letter, her treasure, to share with those closest to her countless times during her last few years. Mom wasn’t a braggart but possibly sharing it was a way of sharing her life and her finest self with others. Today I look at it as a living eulogy. Still, I regret that I hadn’t written it twenty or thirty years earlier. It might just have brought us closer together; certainly we would have understood each other better.

Mom died peacefully in her sleep a few months after my father’s 100th birthday, before her Alzheimer’s had further debilitated her. Thankfully, she still recognized her family members and still enjoyed retelling and embellishing her favorite farm stories of growing up poor on a chicken farm in rural Massachusetts. Dad died shortly thereafter, after having lived a full and beautiful ninety-nine years prior to his stroke.

Upon returning to the Home to claim Mom’s possessions on a drizzling November morning the day after the funeral, I was stopped by Mom’s former roommate who was wandering in the hallway. She reminded me not to forget to look in Mom’s pocketbook in the top drawer of the bedside night table. I found the “birth”day letter wrapped in one of her favorite chiffon scarves amid the jumble of tissues and lipsticks and mirrors and scraps of reminders. It accompanied me home, six thousand miles away, to treasure always.

© July, 2004 Richard Lakin