August Birthdays in the Nursing Home

The air has changed, and the light.  A  softness has settled around the edges of the trees, the striking colors of summer gardens now muted, and a thin veil covers the brilliance of the summer heat.  I’ve driven this road nearly daily for two years now but always with sadness.  Today as summer draws to an end, the sadness is heavier.

It’s the day the nursing home is celebrating the birthdays of the residents born in August, three this time.  DJ Sal will play his music, there will be cake and singing, and a kind of simple joy in the room.

My mother has turned 91.  I hardly know who she is any more.  When we first enter the dining room for the party, I sit at the table across from her, but then the activity director brings her birthday balloon from her room and ties it to the back of her chair.  Then she moves her to the center of the room where she sits next to a woman who is fairly new to the nursing home and “the doc”, a well-known area surgeon who has Alzheimer’s and is nearly always happy.  His wife sits next to him and holds his hand at times, and his son and his wife come later.  The doc’s wife has brought in cake for everyone.  All three celebrating a birthday are lined up together in their wheelchairs, the balloons bobbing from the backs of their chairs.

Now I am sitting at the table alone.  After every few songs, my mother looks over at me to see if I’m still there.  I can’t leave, even if I want to.  It’s the way she looks at me, the innocence, the face that seems the same to me but hides a mind I cannot understand.  The activity assistant loves to dance, and so she goes around holding on to the hands of the birthday celebrants, singing to them as they laugh and move with her.

Then Sal puts on the birthday song and everyone begins to sing.  I don’t know why, but I am suddenly sobbing.  Not just tearing up.  Not just feeling a little sad amid the happiness.  My chest hurts.  I turn away from everyone in the dining room and end up facing the window in the hall where the nurses and aides are watching the entertainment.  My sadness is not something I can hide.

Why can’t I be happy?  Why can’t I just be grateful that I have had my mother for one more year?  Maybe it’s because for me there is always a sadness that lingers beneath the surface of happy.  Maybe it’s because the mother who was so active and giving, who baked and cooked and sewed and knit for others, who made gifts every year for us, who made chicken soup for my sister and for me when we were fighting cancer, who took care of the residents in the senior apartments where she lived alone after my father died, this mother whose heart was huge and love was strong, is slowly slipping away from me.   Her life has narrowed.  Her knowledge is less.   Sometimes she knows who she used to be and is sad, realizing that person is gone, and I know that soon her loss will be unremembered.

Seeing all the residents together in the dining room depresses me.  The configuration of wheel chairs hits me in the gut, the losses so great they permeate the air and settle down around me.  Sometimes I feel a little panicky, wondering when the day will come when I will be like them, hair thin and kinky, dressed in sweat pants and knit shirt, slumped over and half asleep, listening to someone try to lighten my mood with love songs from the fifties and sixties.  What kind of lives did these men and women once have, I wonder.  Each one’s life is now a secret that can’t be shared, their dignity a frail filament barely holding them together, today’s events not even tomorrow’s memory.

 As Sal plays and sings, I wonder what my mother is thinking.  I wonder if she is remembering hearing these songs before.  I wonder if she is thinking about my father.  I wonder if she is remembering any moments from the past.  Or is she just living in this moment, listening to the music, eating her cake, and checking to see if I am still with her?

I wish I could feel joy in this day.  I miss my father and my sister, who lost their lives to cancer.  I miss my youngest daughter in LA, and my granddaughters whom I see all too seldom.  And I miss my oldest daughter, who we just helped move to Arizona, a place she has dreamed of going back to ever since her college and graduate school days in Prescott.  It’s easy to understand why I miss them all, but I don’t know how I can miss my mother when I am sitting in the same room with her watching her laugh and eat cake and enjoy the music.

When DJ Sal packs up to leave, I cross the room to my mother.  She asks me if I am leaving and I say yes.  She tells me to drive carefully.  I reach down and kiss her gently on the top of her head, lingering just a little longer than usual as I feel the tears begin again.  Then I give her a little wave and walk out into the warmth of the late August day, a day that seems to know already about the days that will soon follow.