“To forget your birthday is…tragic,” Mom declared in a moment of clarity. We watched her bounce between unbridled joy, disbelief and even annoyance as she “discovered” it was her 75th birthday today.
The first time we told her, she expressed such enthusiasm. “It is?” she asked in a child-like voice. The third time, she rebuked me. “Don’t be ridiculous,” she said. “I don’t have time for that nonsense.” By the time we’d left for a birthday lunch at a nearby restaurant, Mom was enchanted again.
What kind of present do you buy for the person whose needs are shrinking? She barely wears jewelry anymore, just the same favorite earrings and necklace. She doesn’t read. She doesn’t cook. She doesn’t travel. She doesn’t even enjoy eating out that much. (By the time the meal arrives, Mom doesn’t remember having ordered it; and she eats so slowly, she’s better off at home.)
We gave Mom a new tea cup with a photo of the family on it. I like to remind her of who we are, even though she really doesn’t remember. She also couldn’t figure out how the photo got there.
Mom received several birthday cards which she puzzled over. The one that excited her the most was from her sister, Barbara. It read, “Happy birthday, sister…” Mom wanted to use the card to call Barbara.
At the restaurant, we surreptitiously asked the waitress to bring us a dessert with a sparkler. At first, Mom was so excited to see the sparkler. Then, when it was placed in front of her on the table, she became frightened and insisted we remove it. Her mood spoiled, she wouldn’t even eat any of the cake.
As we walked back, Mom didn’t recognize any of the streets near her house. “I’ve never been this way before,” she said. And at the apartment door, she hesitated going inside what she thought was someone else’s home. We had to gently convince her at each step that she was in the right place.
When she woke from her nap, Mom had another surprise waiting. Her caregiver, Sahli, had made her a cake. “It’s my birthday?” she innocently asked. She loved the lit candles, and she happily made a wish as she blew them out.
It wasn’t the most scintillating of days I’ve spent with Mom, or the easiest. Regardless, I’m committed to being with her. Perhaps the best “present” we can give her is to be with her in the present. As my husband Jeff told our kids, “I know it may seem pointless to call and wish her happy birthday since she doesn’t really know who we are—and won’t remember a minute later. But for that moment, it has tremendous value.” I firmly believe that finding the joy in the day is a gift not to be wasted, especially on her birthday.
My wish for my mom is that she will have a year of being loved for who she is and who she is becoming; and a year of comfort as her mind and body continue to disintegrate.
When we got home, I decided to honor Mom’s birthday by making another cake for her. We’ll think of her when we eat it. Happy 75th Birthday, Mom!
Banana Cake with Chocolate Chips
This cake requires one very quirky ingredient, namely mayonnaise. You’ll see that it adds to the deep, rich taste of this most moist of cakes.
½ cup vegetable oil
1 cup sugar
1 tsp vanilla
3 very ripe bananas, mashed
½ cup mayonnaise
½ tsp cinnamon
2 cups flour
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
¾ cup chopped walnuts (optional)
½ to ¾ cup chocolate chips (optional) (but not really!)
3/4 cup powdered sugar
1 tsp vanilla
2 Tbsp milk or milk substitute
In a large mixing bowl, whisk oil and eggs. Add sugar, banana and mayo. Stir in all dry ingredients. Add chocolate chips and nuts (if using). Pour batter into a Bundt pan or other baking pan. Bake at 350° for 45 to 50 minutes. Remove to plate to cool. Mix glaze ingredients into a smooth consistency. Pour over cooling cake.
(And happy birthday to my dear friend, Sarah! I’ll save you a piece.)