Birthday blues

Growing old is mandatory; growing up is optional.”  ~Chili Davis

Doug and I just returned from a long birthday weekend in St. Joe. To be perfectly honest, my birthday (Saturday) felt a bit sad this time around, as if someone had let the air out of all the party balloons.

I suspect my blue mood had a lot to do with the fact that my mother totally forgot my birthday again this year. Of course, I’m not surprised. Mom’s dementia has progressed to the point where she no longer looks at the calendar I gave her, nor does she care what day or month it is. She still remembers her own birth date when hospital staffers ask her for it, but she can’t keep track of holidays and other special events — even when we write them down to remind her.

Not so long ago, before vascular dementia consumed her former, thoughtful self, my mother would call to schedule my birthday dinners at least a week in advance. And she’d always treat me to something special on a shopping trip we’d take together. Though I’ve learned how to deal with a new and difficult version of my mother, last week I found myself battling the same waves of grief I experienced on my birthday following my father’s death in the summer of 1992.

Watching our parents turn ill (or die) is a grim reminder of our own mortality — not exactly the frosting anyone would choose for her proverbial birthday cake.

It didn’t help that August 4th was blistering hot in St. Joe. And just before we left for dinner that night, a huge turkey vulture swooped down to perch in a poplar tree behind our house. It seemed like an awful omen of some kind. (Another vicious year ahead? Or am I reading too much Alice Hoffman?) Topping it off, a violent storm erupted while we were driving to a local restaurant for my birthday dinner.

Thankfully, my dark mood lifted with the brighter weather on Sunday. Doug and I spent a memorable evening on a gorgeous Lake Michigan beach, then rode the Silver Beach carousel after a casual dinner in St. Joe. (I chose the horse representing Michigan State, my alma mater.) Riding the carousel with my dear husband made me feel like a kid again, which is quite a feat, given that I just turned 58 years old.

Taking a long walk back to the car, the two of us watched the sunset on the beach. The majesty of Lake Michigan — my favorite lake in the world — reminded me that my problems are relatively small; that my mother’s dementia is part of a midlife journey that many others have traveled before me. Blessed with an incredibly patient and loving husband, I know I can handle any rough water ahead. And so turns another year. — Cindy La Ferle

Top photo: The sun begins to set on Lake Michigan in St. Joe. Bottom photo: Doug walks the beach.

20 thoughts on “Birthday blues

  1. Dear Cindy – thank you for sharing your many heartfelt stories. I have shed many tears and laughs with you as I enjoy your blog. Happy belated birthday. – SF

  2. Oh Cindy – this essay brought tears to my eyes. One of the things I hated most about my dad’s dementia was that he didn’t call me on my birthday and re-tell me his story of my birth. Of course, as he further declined, my mom dialed the phone for him to wish me a happy birthday, but it wasn’t the same. I will forever miss that special call on my birthday. Sending you hugs. xoxo

    • Thanks Lynne — I know you can relate in so many ways. Not easy. Theresa, thanks so much for your note, and I recall your beautiful writings about your mom as well. Susan, it makes me feel so good to know that you’ve enjoyed the stories on this blog. It’s wonderful to have a supportive neighbor and book club pal like you!

  3. What a beautiful and touching story. It seems like yesterday that I lost my Mom. So true, and you’re blessed to have a loving wonderful husband at your side.

  4. Funny thing – we were talking about this today at work. A co-worker is off on Wednesday to spend her birthday with her mother which she has done all her life (she has not turned 40 yet – still in mid 30s). I laughed and said my mom gave me a $ for each birthday and when I reached 47 – she was 67 – she said ( as if knowing what was ahead- you know one day I may not be able to afford this or do it. The next year she had a major stoke and ended up in the nursing home until her death in 1998. I was 51 she was 71. But – she had my aunt write a check out every year for my birthday. – a $ a year until she died. No dementia – which I am so grateful for. I’m afraid that would be a “long time” losing her. Don’t know how you deal with that, Cindy. My dad died in 2000 but once again no dementia. Yup, makes us look at our own mortality. But on the other hand you just put one foot in front of the other and enjoy the beauty of each new day. Happy Birthday. Hugs

  5. Cindy, I don’t know you but I read your story on Sue’s that came on my facebook. I am sorry about your mother, mine also suffered from dementia (although I don’t think they suffer) but I do know how hurtful when Mom doesn’t remember our b’days or even our names or that she even gave birth. It took along time for me to accept that it really isn’t Mom but her condition that she doesn’t remember, but she did remember her siblings but never remembered giving birth to 4 daughters or her wonderful husband. What was really hard when she did die it was like a 2nd death. What is very hard for me is that all my family tree above my 3 sisters have all gone from this life, even all the 1st cousins and I have also lost 3 nephews to death, 2 just around Christmas. Enjoy your wonderful husband and family and wonderful friends. Best wishes for you for your 58th year.

    • Patti, I am happy to hear from you — how kind of you to write and share your story. Over the years I’ve learned that sharing our stories is the best way we can help each other. Knowing we’re not alone is a great comfort. My husband’s father suffered Alzheimer’s, and like your mother, he remembered his siblings but lost track of more recent memories and people. I keep hoping that medical research will lead us to a cure for this horrible disease.

  6. Hey girl, I know it’s so hard watching ppl fade away before our eyes and no matter how tight we try to hold on to them….they will leave.I went thru dementia w/my grandma for over 7yrs–I felt so alone in it (my siblings live out of state), it was gut wrenching and sometimes I couldn’t even go see her (still experience the guilt). By the end, she didn’t even know herself, but on our last X-mas w/the family around her bed, we all sang, “Jingle Bells”–she knew the words and did her best to sing w/us. A memory that always brings a smile and a tear. She was a tough Irish woman. I had lost my Mom 28 yrs earlier. These were the women that made things special, that made the memories. As you stated in an earlier article–our traditions evolve and change, but are never quite the same (it was something like that). So now I’m going thru this w/my husband, (altho it’s progressing much slower than your Moms)and again, feel so alone in it. My BD was in June, I felt sad (as you know I’m also dealing w/my own health issues–so that exascerbated those feelings), somthing was missing, a void. The saving grace is that he’s always in a good mood (which can be really annoying–LOL)and for the most part doesn’t seem to have a care in the world. Don’t get me wrong, it’s frustrating and we have our disagreements, but quite often, he doesn’t remember them–just as well. Reading your articles have been a source of commaraderie, inspiration and peace. So thank you for addressing what often isn’t and giving ppl a forum to respond, we obviouly need it. Blessings, dear friend. Peace.

    • Cindy Gray: As I was walking along the beach with my husband on Sunday, it struck me that I would be devastated if he fell to Alzheimer’s like his father did a few years ago … so I can only imagine how hard it is for you to cope with the changes in your husband now. At least my mom is now in assisted living — so I have a support team — even if the doctor and hospital visits don’t seem to end. But you have to face your husband’s decline every day, and you are called upon to be strong. It would be so much harder to go through this with a spouse. I watched my MIL do that, and it was back-breaking.

      I don’t know the answer, Cindy Gray. We have to keep praying for medical research to find a cure. We have soldier on daily and find happiness where we can. And we have to hang on to each other — our friends, the family we have. On Sunday I was reminded that I must never forgot to savor the beauty of the present moment, and to treasure our memories while we can. And my god, we need to write them down, share them. That’s a story for another time. Thanks for writing, Cindy. Wishing you comfort.

  7. Cindy, yes many of us have walked in your shoes but it still doesn’t make it any easier when you know you can’t help a friend deal with it. I think one of the hardest things is not only did your Mom not remember you birthday but she did not remember all of the sweet memories that went along with it. On the brighter side your Mom gave you those wonderful memories to hang on to and enjoy and share with your family. That is her gift to you this year and many years to come. I am sure those past birthdays will bring a smile to your face because they are YOUR sweet memories. Happy Birthday a few days late. Your forever friend.

  8. Cindy – hugs and peace for your next year. Grief is a funny thing the way it ebbs and flows on its own schedule. With dementia, so much of the grief is before the physical loss which makes it bittersweet and harder to endure in a way. Please keep taking care of yourself in this process of going thru time. Thinking of you….

  9. Hi Cindy~
    I just returned from a visit with my mom in southern California. There were moments of recognition, but when my sister asked my mom if she remembered the visit (with me and two of my kids) on the previous day, she said no.

    It is just so difficult seeing a once-vibrant woman’s decline. I wish there were huge medical breakthroughs on the horizon, but it doesn’t seem so…

    • I hear you, Leslie. I donate money to Alzheimer’s research when I can, but there are so many other diseases for which dementia is a symptom. My mother has vascular dementia, which isn’t Alzheimer’s. Her dementia is all tied to cardio-vascular issues, which is something all women need to consider … blood pressure, heart conditions, stroke risks, etc. I just pray and hope that my husband and I don’t become such a burden to our son down the road.

  10. I have been thinking of you all week, Cindy, and then I saw that you are “unplugging” for a few days. Good for you. I know being near the water helps me every single time I go. My birthday is in February but a few years in a row, when life was particularly tough in my late 30’s, I took myself to the ocean on my birthday. It was the perfect salve for a hurting heart. May you feel peaceful and at ease as this “new” year starts for you ~

    • Sharon, I have been thinking about you too, and I am so sorry to be missing your blog this summer. It’s just been crazy. Thanks so much for your sweet comment. I love the water too … “the big lake” keeps me grounded, so to speak! 🙂

  11. This made me cry, too. My dad and I share the same birthday and I dread the day when he’s not here to celebrate with me.
    I know how you feel about the lake. It provides a sense of faithfulness and stability that soothes the soul. It’s a special gift from the One who loves you.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.