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Happy birthdays?

Happy Birthday Mum… we remember it for you

It was my Mum’s birthday a few days ago. The day was marked at her care home with cards, cake and singing, which to be frank could have been any other day at the lovely home my Mum resides in. I didn’t visit her; I didn’t even send her a card. This is one of those selfish moments again; the thought of wishing a woman Happy Birthday when she is unaware she is celebrating it herself is just too much to bear.  As time goes by the ‘big days’ are the worst, Birthdays, Christmas, the day she moved into her care home. But my Mum’s birthday is a strange one for me, in my very low moments I sometimes question what we’re celebrating.

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We have always celebrated and made birthdays important in my family. Presents, cake, parties (my mum once tried out a healthy kids party for one of my birthdays, with carrot sticks instead of crisps, it didn’t go well… 10/10 for effort though Mum), cards and fun. However since my Mother’s diagnosis of dementia we have attempted to mark her birthdays with more significance by organising special get togethers and tea parties with friends and family.  Yet what I find significant is the question that I ask at all these moments; “What was she like this time last year?” By creating these lovely moments of celebration for my Mother’s birthday each year we have also created a very meaningful memory for our family. Whilst her memories of birthdays past fade, my memories of her most recent birthdays become ever more poignant.

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These latest birthdays have passed in the following ways

My Mum’s 59th Birthday was a great show of resolve on my part; I hosted the birthday tea at my house just two months after my husband had left me. Whilst desperately trying to pretend as though normal life was continuing, boiling the kettle for yet another round of teas and coffees I heard a distant cry from the bathroom. My dear stepfather needed help to clean my Mother who had what I now look back on as one of her first toilet accidents. He was so upset and was trying his best but I could tell he was overwhelmed by the situation, I took control and cleaned them both up, went downstairs and pretended everything was normal. Although it wasn’t. It highlighted that my Mum’s personal care needs had increased, and her dementia had progressed.

Her 60th birthday we celebrated at my uncle and aunts house, she had a lovely day and as her cake was being brought out she questioned who it belonged to and was filled with sheer delight when we explained it was hers (pic below).

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Her 62nd Birthday was the first we celebrated at her care home with her; she had long forgotten what a present was or how to open them but seemed happy with the company, and her 63rd Birthday ended in much the same way as the rest before them since the diagnosis; in tears, my tears. Tears that sit as a deep sadness at the pit of my stomach as I try to remember what she was like this time last year, and I imagine what will she be like this time next year.

The here and now

I was very fortunate to have a wonderful relationship with my mother. As an adult, though I wouldn’t describe us as ‘best friends’, we were very close and I look back now and realise she guided so many of my decisions. We spoke on the phone at least three times a week, visited each other often, and I was (and I have always been) very attached to her. As a child I remember not wanting to go to school because it would mean being away from her. We had our differences, but on the whole she was my everything and with her now ‘gone’ I feel lost in the world.

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And this for me is what I struggle with on a daily basis, my mother is 62 years of age, lives in a wonderful residential care home and other than her diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, is in ‘perfect health’. The bit that I find so difficult to wrap my mind around is that she, my mother, the political activist, the lover, the sister, the comrade, the friend, the amazing woman, is gone.

We are now at the point that when she sees me I doubt that she knows that she is looking at her 35 year old daughter. In fact the part of her brain that held the memory of ever having children has quite possibly disappeared. I’ve long since stopped calling her ‘mum’, I now call her by her name; Jane. By doing so I wonder if this is a coping mechanism I’ve self imposed- if I don’t call her ‘Mum’ does it hurt less? Or is it simply that she no longer answers to the name Mum?

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I visit her once a week. I live a 30 minute drive from her care home, and whilst the general excuse I put out to the world is that ‘I’m a busy wife and mother and I simply don’t have the time to visit more’, the truth feels far more selfish – I cannot face seeing her more than this. It hurts. It hurts because I miss her so desperately, yet she is physically standing in front of me. My brain cannot keep up with the pain in my heart, and it all becomes too much.