Celebration in Spite of Morbidity

“Only a few more days until your birthday, Mom.”

Her face drops and her whiny voice emerges.

“No it’s not. I’m not having a birthday.”

It’s been like this for awhile now. Mom hates the idea of getting older. I get it. Aging isn’t always something that happens gracefully, no matter the effort put into the transitions.

Too bad for my mom, I enjoy birthdays. The pomp and circumstance of them still delight me, although in recent years I haven’t had the wherewithal to keep up with them quite as much. The power of nostalgia is compelling so she’s definitely not getting away with skipping this one.

On another recent occasion I casually mentioned her upcoming birthday, stating that the big 7-0 was coming up soon. Isn’t it exciting?

She was devastated to (re)learn her age, insisting “I’m not going to be seventy.”

I tried to frame the milestone in a positive light. Not everyone has the chance to turn seventy. Despite the devastation of Alzheimer’s, she’s quite healthy. She gets to be “retired” enjoy a lifestyle where most everything is taken care of for her.

Mom isn’t having it. She doesn’t like any of it.

I tried.

I have teenage memories of Mom’s sometimes morbid sense of humor making appearances in conversation. As per the standard reaction of a daughter, I was often embarrassed by her pessimistic or macabre jokes, not finding them all that funny. As an adult I’m still uncomfortable with her odd remarks, but they hit a bit differently now.

Several times since her diagnosis Mom has said in response to discussion of a future event, “Oh, well I won’t be around by then.” And she’ll laugh, clearly enjoying the joke that could very well be anything but.

My responses usually fall along the line of “Mom, don’t talk like that.” or “That’s not funny.” or sarcastically, “Uh, that’s nice.”

Sometimes, if I have the willpower, I’ll ignore the comment altogether. I’m faced with her mortality every day to varying degrees of seriousness, so hearing a joke doesn’t usually tickle me.

It’s not that I don’t want to talk about death. In fact I think Americans should talk about death more. I just don’t need to focus on it every day.

I know that Mom wants to be cremated, but I haven’t given thought to where her ashes will be spread. I suppose that’s a question for her.

And I know both of us, her and I, have had moments where we wished for her death to come sooner rather than later. That’s one of the many fucked up things about this disease that not everyone talks about. When she is having a tough time and is cognizant of her severe decline she doesn’t want to be here. Many, many times she has shared how she feels like a burden. And in those moments she also knows that she likely will never experience a lot of the things that she longs for. She probably won’t make it for a trip to New Zealand, especially now with COVID. She may never ride a horse again. She probably won’t have the chance to be a grandmother, a role she has pined after for years. Neither of my siblings or I am nowhere near having a kid anytime soon. Even if one of us became a parent sometime in the next couple years, would she have the cognitive ability to understand who the baby is in relation to her?

And in my ugliest, most human moments I also wish she was gone. The exhaustive experience of sludging through this disease with her on my back could never truly be described, no matter how many words I labor to produce. But more than that, I don’t want her to suffer any more. I don’t want her to have to know, on any level, what it’s like to waste away until tongue and throat become weapons, unable to swallow food. I can’t bear to envision an end like that for anyone. Life is brutal.

The duplicity of these thoughts is that we equally can’t stand the idea of being without one another. These aren’t circumstances of our choosing, not in the slightest, but to know a world without a mother, or a daughter, or a friend, or any loved one for that matter, is not a crossroad I look forward to arriving to. That’s the thing about death. There’s no going back, no do-over or kiss and make up. The word itself is finality.

Outside of these dark moments of anguish, Mom and I live out the other forms of our humanity. We giggle and dance with fervor. We annoy one another. We cuddle on the couch and snore in our sleep. We fight and make up. We savor our meals and the morsels in between. And we continue to love, in spite of it all. To celebrate is to live even when you know your time to go is just out of frame.  

Happy (almost) birthday Momma.

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