Death & Dying, Life & Living, Love

happy birthday mom, i hope you’re living it up

Mom hamming it up on her back deck, September 24, 2012.

September 27, 2016

Dear Mom,

Today marks the eighty-eighth anniversary of the day you were born. It became a tradition of sorts that I should write or do something special on your birthday.

In 2008, when you turned 80, we threw you a big surprise party in August, we danced through the summer, and I sang happy birthday to you every day for eight weeks because I couldn’t be with you on your actual birthday. In 2010, I posted these beautiful pictures of you in a pink sweater down at the dock. I have dozens of photographs of you, but these are among my favourites.

In 2011, I wrote a piece in which I thanked you for being such an amazing woman and role model for me. In 2012, I recalled the challenges we’d faced and the good times we had throughout the previous year; i posted lots of great pics as proof. In 2014, I wrote you two letters, one about swimming, the other a chorus line of videos of your dance-capades over the years–it’s a cracker. Last year, 2015, we joked about being funny on your bunny, and your friend Shirley gave you a card with a kitten on it.

I miss you Mom, but because I have all of these pictures and videos, prose and poetry, I feel like you are here with me, and in a sense you are. This morning there were two cardinals on my back deck at dawn. You were always excited when you saw a cardinal, and so I was reminded of you. I write to the tick-tocks of your antique clocks every day, and I remember you counting their chimes when you came to visit. I still hear the sound of your voice saying “five.” Your big wooden salad bowl hangs on a hook in the kitchen; your beat-up colander is suspended above the sink; I just put your winter quilt on my bed, and each morning I eat breakfast at the half-moon table, just as we did hundreds of times together. It means a lot to have your things around me. But they are things, they are not you.

Sometimes, randomly and suddenly, I will feel an empty space in the middle of my chest. It’s a physical feeling, a breathtaking emptiness like nothing I’ve experienced before. I wonder how that can be because there’s still bone and tissue there, and yet it feels like there’s not. I am whole, and yet I am not. When that void opens up in my chest, I start to cry. I weep at the thought of your absence. Paradoxically, our deep connection flows through the hollow and into my core. Like everything, the feeling passes; my tears subside and I go on living, passionately and fully. Now that you are gone to another place, you wouldn’t want me to drown in grief and despair. “Life is for the living,” you would say.

Today, on what would have been your eighty-eighth birthday, I celebrate you and your fierce courage and determination. I imagine you smiling and dancing and singing unencumbered by a broken body and failing mind. I hope you are not resting in peace or sleeping deceased, but getting up and going the way when you did when you were here in flesh and blood as well as in spirit.

Happy birthday Mom. Live it up!

Love and hugs,


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8 thoughts on “happy birthday mom, i hope you’re living it up”

  1. Your videos, photos, and stories about your mom give me a sense of what a strong, crazy, funny and life-living woman she was. I am in awe of how you maintained your deep connection with her and continued to find, or create, moments of joy despite the changes she was going through. The love you have for one another shines through.


    1. Thanks Kate for your comment and beautiful observations. The most interesting and revealing part of our story to me is that over the last ten years, the last five in particular and the last three most astonishingly is that our care relationship resulted, at least for me, in a deeper connection than I ever thought might be possible. Ironically, Alzheimer’s disease became the soil in which I planted and nurtured seeds of compassion, healing, love, understanding, connection and learning. Wow! What an unexpected gift. I feel like I didn’t “maintain” that deep connection as much as I “developed” that deep connection, of which one of the most meaningful moments was that of her physical death. I’m so grateful I was there.

      So, in actual fact, I was able to develop the deep connection with her because of the changes she was going through rather than despite the changes she was going through. This way of living the process is unavailable to most people because of the way the disease is portrayed: it’s all about loss, tragedy, deficit, and death, rather than what it could be about: learning, healing, growth, and life.

      All of that said, Mom and I are two strong, independent women. It’s a miracle we didn’t kill each other when I returned to Canada to live with her in October 2011. On Mother’s Day 2012, I wrote this post: in which I wrote, among other things:

      “I’m grateful to my mom for countless things to be sure; she and I have shared many joys, some of which are recorded for posterity in the links below. But I also mourn the ways she has deeply wounded me over the course of our lives together, the most soul-destroying of which is her failure to have recognized my unique value as a woman and a human being.”

      We are the same in many ways, and completely opposites in so many others, and I think that she finally “got me” in the end, or maybe not. More important is that it stopped mattering to me whether she did or didn’t. To me it felt like the disease peeled away layers, but it never took away the essence of who she was. Rather, it revealed it. I can’t tell you how inspired I was by her life force, her courage, her determination, and her ferocity as she lived with dementia under circumstances she in no way deserved. I had known her all my life and she still surprised me every day. What a woman! Perfect? Nah. Amazing? You betchya.

      Yes, you are so right, she was “strong, crazy, funny and life-living,” and YES YES YES the key is to “find, or create, moments of joy despite the changes.”

      Finding and creating joy in tragedy is true salvation.

      Thanks again for your comment, which sparked this deeper reflection.


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