On Your Birthday
This morning, I woke up rather leisurely in a queen sized bed in a hotel with my daughter, her friend, and my friend. I knew what today was, but it still surprised me to open Facebook and see it there. Good Morning, Missy, today is Ann Dawson White’s Birthday. Let her know you are thinking of her.
Well, ok. I mean, it is her birthday. And she’s not here.
But it isn’t the first birthday we’ve done without her. And it isn’t the worst one, either. Her last one on Earth, almost a full year before she died, was the worst one for me.
On January 5, 2017, my mother was holed up in John Knox Village rehab, after a hospital stay next door. John Knox is probably a very nice place to live on the assisted side. But the rehab side is a dump. So I was already a little depressed that my mom had to be in that place. The floors and walls had a gray cast to them, like the color of germs. People lined the narrow hallway who seemed to be clinging to life in the harshest of ways. She shared a room with somebody in worse shape than she was.
My mom was in that place for well over a week. She was in there on her 74th birthday. But that wasn’t the worst of it. The worst of it was that she didn’t care. She didn’t care where she was. And she didn’t care that it was her birthday.
I came as early that day as I could get there. When I arrived, she looked at me slowly and spoke in response to me.
“Happy Birthday, Mom,” I said, sitting down on the edge of a chair near her bed. She didn’t smile or say thank you, so I kept talking. “You’ve been getting a ton of birthday messages on Facebook. You want me to read you some?”
“Yes,” she answered flatly. So I began.
“Happy Birthday, Ann! We have shared many birthdays as special friends. May the trend continue!”
“Happy, happy birthday, dear, sweet Ann! I hope you are feeling better quickly! Miss you.”
“Happy Birthday, dreadnaught friend!”
“Happy Birthday to a very sweet lady! I hope you have a wonderful day!”
“Happy, happy birthday to an amazing woman and such an inspiration to myself and my boys!”
I stopped every now and then and looked at her. She was looking off to the right, toward the curtain barrier between her bed and her neighbor’s. Was she listening? Could she hear me? She wasn’t digesting the messages. There were 80 of them.
“Mom, you got 80 messages for your birthday,” I said.
I wanted her to care. I needed her to still care. But she didn’t. She couldn’t. That was the hardest birthday for me. The following year, on what would have been her 75th, I was able to rejoice that her spirit was no longer trapped in the prison of her very sick mind and body. The same way I can rejoice today.
The last birthday I remember really celebrating was her 70th. 2013. The entire family came out to our farmhouse and ate with us around the dining room table. Mom wasn’t totally herself, as we’d already begun to notice her slipping bit by small bit. But she was mostly herself. Smiling. Laughing at the right moments. Poking fun at herself. We had made a pretty big deal out of her because it was a milestone birthday. When she walked out my front door that night to go home, I knew she was happy. I knew she was properly loved. And I knew that she knew it too.
Facebook told me to let her know I was thinking of her today. Of course I am. I’m thinking of her laughter, which almost always caused a total face collapse. I’m thinking of her fierceness and how many times she went to bat for me. I’m thinking of her pride in me… afro and bad outfits me… buck tooth me… tube socks and canvas sneakers me. And I’m thinking that she spent 74 birthdays getting herself ready to stand in front of God, and helping me get ready, too. There is no question that I’m thinking of her. Of the her she was before disease. The real her.
Happy Birthday, Mom. I’m thinking of you. And I didn’t need Facebook to tell me that. Silly Facebook.