When you’re little, your mom and your birthday go hand in hand. She tells you about the wonderful day you were born (or adopted). She bakes your cake. She wraps your presents. She organizes your party. She might even paint a tile with your hand print and birth date on it (which sadly cracked years later).
When you’re older, she still talks about that wonderful day, and she still gives you presents. Your mom and your birthday go together forever. Happy birthday, the day of my birth, to both of us!
But never, ever do you think you mom will die on your birthday.
Mine did. Last year. On March 20. The first day of Spring.
I was back in Hillsborough. Mom’s cancer pain had ramped up. She had begun to experience some moments of agony, yelling in pain. Trying her best to stay off full-time morphine, she didn’t understand she now needed constant medication. Her beloved New Yorker sat by her bed. Mom wanted to read and think and converse as long as she could.
The night before my birthday, her good friend Kathy helped her phone me. “Happy birthday,” Mom said, her voice strong. “You were a darling baby.”
When I woke up that morning, I thought my heart had shattered. I’ve never experienced such horrific sadness. Not so much that Mom was dying but that she was in pain. (That morning my brother convinced her that it was time to stay on morphine, but I didn’t know this until nighttime).
I spent my birthday crying and getting ready for a dinner for our church group. I had tickets back to Baltimore three days later. I considered skipping the party (Cliff said he could manage) and getting a flight up that day. I didn’t though.
My friends arrived, with a card and a birthday cake for me. My mood lightened as people filled the space.
About fifteen minutes later, Kathy called. I stepped into the spare bedroom. Mom’s breathing had changed. Her eyes were closed, even though she’d been quite alert at noon. Kathy didn’t think Mom would live the night.
As I walked back to my guests, a great calm and a sort of joy came over me. This was good, good news. Soon my mother’s suffering would end.
I ate dinner, joined in the book discussion, and then everyone serenaded me with “Happy Birthday.” I cut the delicious cake Carolyn baked. When I watched the phone video Cliff took of me listening to the singing and then blowing out my candles, I am smiling. My mother is dying, and I am smiling.
Next, we sang hymns in our living room, including a favorite: On Eagle’s Wings. Alice suggested we lift Mom’s name up in another hymn, and we did. I don’t have eloquent words to describe how those moments felt. I’ve been postponing writing this post for a year because I know this writer can’t do justice to the mystical nature of that night.
Shortly after everyone left our house, my brother phoned. Mom was gone.”Happy birthday,” he said at the end of the call. That may sound odd or even cruel, but Chris was expressing kindness. I was his sister, and after all, it was indeed my birthday.
But what a happy birthday it turned out to be. Mom was at peace. So was I.
Life tosses us surprises. Joy abounds in the most shocking ways.
My mom, Nancy Kiehne, was an artist. This is her rendering of St. Cecilia, the Patron Saint of Musicians.