There are Birthday! people and there are birthday people. I’ve never been a big Birthday! person. Not sure why. I like cake. Enjoy receiving gifts. Love giving gifts. Thoroughly enjoy parties. And it’s not an, “Ugh, I’m getting older,” thing either. I’m 42 now but (in my head) feel like I’m 25. And occasionally act like it too.
I’ve even been lucky enough to have had two amazing surprise parties thrown for me (one at 14 and one at 40). I was truly surprised, amazed, and thankful. I’ll never, ever forget them. But, in spite of those two amazing experiences, I’m still not a Birthday! person.
I L-O-V-E my kids’ birthdays. I don’t love their birthday parties (lots of screaming kids hopped up on sugar etc) but I love the quiet family celebration–seeing the pride, excitement and happiness they have on their day. So fun. All kinds of big Birthday! fun.
I don’t judge Birthday! people though. Everyone has their thing. In fact, I have a couple of lifelong friends who get waaaaay into it. One in particular celebrates for an entire week and legitimately refers to it as his birthday week. By now, his family and friends are resigned to it. To each their own.
My mother is what I consider a closet Birthday! person. In the days and weeks leading up to her birthday, she downplays it. When you ask her what she wants, Mom answers “nothing” or “I don’t need anything,” or “I don’t want anything, just your company.” She’s always been this way. She doesn’t relent. But Mom’s a closet Birthday! person because even if she says those things, she doesn’t mean them. She wants a Birthday!
Learned the hard way
I actually fell for it once. Bad move. Never again. I was a senior in college and for some reason, believed her (or forgot or chose not to do something because she said she didn’t want anything). So I sent a card and that was it. I meant to call on her actual birthday but…..college. I don’t remember why I didn’t call, but I didn’t and that was a b-i-g mistake for which I felt the wrath. Worse, I felt truly awful. I had let Mom down, and her genuine and utter disappointment was something I never wanted to hear, see, or feel again.
So I learned years ago that regardless of what Mom says when it comes to her birthday, she is still a closet Birthday! person. She wants my company. And she wants a couple gifts. They don’t have to be big and they definitely don’t need to be expensive. To her, they’re a token of thought, acknowledgement, and appreciation. They show her that I’ve thought of her. Paid attention to her. They’re a token of that attention, that affection. She always deserves attention from me. Especially on her birthday.
Birthdays and Dementia Don’t Mix
There are many sad and sucky things about dementia. Birthdays are one of them. Mom’s reality is that she just doesn’t remember them anymore. Her brother’s. Mine. The kids’. It’s her condition, not her, but the result is the same. Even if she did remember, or when I remind Mom there’s a birthday coming up, the excitement is dulled. Her affect is flattened. This is all just part of the Mom with dementia package now, but with birthdays it packs an added punch (with a sting in it, just for fun). And Mom always spoiled the kids on their birthdays. So much so that we had to ask her to cool it. But now we buy or make a couple things. We buy some cards and slap Mom’s name on them.
The real dagger, for me, is that she doesn’t remember her own any more, either. She might know the day is coming up….but it’s just another day. Now when she says she doesn’t want anything or doesn’t need anything, she means it. That sucks. Which is why birthdays are on my list of sad and sucky things about dementia.
This whole birthday/dementia/mom thing had been on my mind since one of the girls’ birthdays in July. Shortly after that, maybe the beginning of August, I began talking to Mom about her upcoming birthday in September. Every few conversations I’d bring it up–telling her it’s coming up, asking her what she wants, what she’d like to do for it, etc.
Mom lives two and a half hours away and as it turned out, all my reminding and prompting came back to haunt me because I couldn’t be with her on her birthday. I learned this a few weeks in advance and began reminding her that I couldn’t be there each time we’d talk. Repetition was key here given Mom’s memory struggles and I was slightly concerned her day would come and she wouldn’t remember why I wasn’t there–and be disappointed.
Like a bad dream
When her birthday rolled around my slight concern turned into an emotional nightmare. We spoke first thing in the morning. I wished her a Happy Birthday and made sure she’d received the gifts and cards we sent. She was happy and thankful I called. And she had a little glow because it was her day. This was great.
Sometime between 3 -5 PM, I had four missed calls from her. I was initially thrilled that she’d called using her landline, but that was fleeting. I also had a couple calls from my uncle, Mom’s brother, who lives nearby. Oh no.
When I listened to my uncle’s voicemail, he was telling me (in a voice somewhere between exasperated and sad) that Mom thought I was coming down to visit and bringing the kids. Emotional nightmare. No words. I was heartbroken.
She wasn’t angry. But there was a twinge of disappointment in her voice. Memories rushed back from that day senior year in college. Only worse. I made one attempt to jog her memory about the several times we’d talked about this, but I knew it wouldn’t do any good. So I changed the subject, had a pity party for a minute in my head, wiped my tears so the kids wouldn’t see, told mom I loved her and we hung up.
Seeing Mom’s fight against dementia the last few years, I’ve gotten pretty good at compartmentalizing, but this one blasted me. Maybe it sounds ridiculous, but I felt like it knocked the wind out of me. The weight of supporting a parent with dementia sometimes sneaks up on you. This was definitely one of those times. It’s why birthdays are on my list of sad and sucky things about dementia. And I’m not even a Birthday! person.
Though I’m thinking maybe I should become one.