Of Goodbyes, Long and Short, and Birthdays

Yesterday was my husband’s birthday. Three years ago it stopped being a happy occasion.

On his birthday three years ago, we stood next to each other, all lined up in fancy clothes, alongside his father’s casket. Pop had passed away two days before after a short and unexpected illness. Some of the people at the wake remembered that it was my husband’s birthday and awkwardly wished him a happy birthday along with offering their condolences.

It was weird, and a pretty crummy way to have to spend a birthday.

The other day we gathered with my mother-in-law, as well as my husband’s sister-in-law and 3 nieces, to attend a Mass for Pop. After that we got some pizza. No one made sure there was a cake, or candles. No one even sang or suggested the idea of it. You don’t commemorate the anniversary of a death with a birthday cake and a rousing chorus of “Sto Lat*.”

My mother-in-law did not call her son yesterday to wish him a happy birthday. I don’t know if she remembers that his birthday was Sunday; during the past couple of years it has become apparent that she is suffering from Alzheimer’s. On Friday evening, after we got home, my husband confided that it’s really hard for him to see his mom like this.

Hard as it was to lose Pop, his illness was mercifully short. In early August of that year, we were arguing with him that he should see a doctor because of a few symptoms he was having. By the 24th he was gone. In between those two points were a horrible couple of weeks in which my husband spent his time shuttling between his job and his parents so that his mom could get to see Pop in the hospital. There was no time to think about what might happen, what it would be like with Pop gone. There was no time to think about anything.

Now, all he has is time. He knows that he is losing a little bit of his mom with each passing day. It’s just a question of how many days will pass before a family agreement must be made, because the time will come (sooner rather than later) when she cannot continue to live on her own. In many ways, already, she is no longer “on her own,” depending on my husband and his sister-in-law for things like errands, food shopping, paying the bills, doctor visits and filling her medication organizer.

This is an awful way to lose someone.

Right now, what is lost is the short-term memory stuff: the “where did I put my keys” and the taking medicine as scheduled and the writing out of checks to pay bills. But we know what’s coming. And the hardest loss of all, I think, will be the loss of the relationship: the time when she no longer remembers her son, when she cannot recognize her grandchildren.

One way (out of many) in which my husband and I are opposite is that he is a relationship person and I am a logistics person. It’s something that I admire and am frustrated by, sometimes in the same minute. But while I worry about his mom largely in terms of the logistics, he is grieving, in advance, the loss of the relationship with his mother, even as he must deal with the logistics of her physical needs.

And that is a pretty crummy way to spend a bithday.

*”Sto Lat” is a Polish happy-occasion song. The lyrics, loosely translated, mean “May you live 100 years.” In my husband’s family, it is always sung at birthdays.


7 thoughts on “Of Goodbyes, Long and Short, and Birthdays

  1. That is a crummy way to spend a birthday. And I've often wondered if I would handle the long illness or the quick, unforeseen one better in regards to my loved ones and I still have no answer. Both options stink, but we are living the protracted illness scenario with my grandmother right now and it's awful. I'll send up some prayers for you all, especially your hubby who has lost the specialness of his special day.

  2. It's hard either way. And I know that mixed up sense of birthday — 3 days after my 29th birthday I was standing in an ER watching them try to save my husband's life. By morning I was a widow. My birthday is always bittersweet….

  3. I'm sorry for your family's first loss and this second slow loss. I imagine both are hard, in different ways. I fear dementia/Alzheimer's–my husband's grandfather was definitely showing signs of it when he passed. Such a hard thing.

  4. Thank you all so much for your comments and prayers. It's a rough time and I know that many other people must go through it as well. The prayers are very much appreciated.

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