M’s Birthday

Last week when I spent time with M, her TV was on as background noise. There was some kind of vacation giveaway on whatever talk show was on and M made a comment about how she won’t be seeing any more beaches.

“No more beaches for me,” she had said with a smile that tried to convey an ‘I’m ok with it’-ness that wasn’t fooling anyone.

This stuck with me and after sharing some of my thoughts and feelings about this online, a very sweet (and die-hard beachcomber) friend offered to donate some shells and sand dollars so that I could take the beach to M. This idea brought tears to my eyes. In any other setting or context, I may have found the whole concept cheesy or gimmicky. In this case, I did not.

M never married or had any children. She was incredibly successful and fiercely independent. She’s traveled most of the world many times over. She lived a life of beauty, friendship, and photography. She was an astoundingly talented painter. And then, one day only a few short years ago, her body and mind began to fail her and her world changed. Not only changed, but shrunk to the size of a bedroom. Bringing this woman, this young- and free-spirited woman the beach in any small way, would be anything but tacky.

Today is M’s birthday. She is 93. I had all kinds of plans in the back of my mind the past few weeks for today, from the big and elaborate to the small and intimate. Until this morning, these plans were still up in the air, due to a number of circumstances and concerns. To make a long story short, the plan that had been the most concrete of any ended up falling through at the last minute. Luckily, I work best under pressure and M is easy to please. Short and sweet it would be. My daughter (who had yet to meet M) spent the morning making M a card, and we spent our afternoon running around collecting various items for her gift and our surprise visit to her. We stopped by the home of the friend I mentioned and picked up some lovely beachy treasures. We stopped at Party City and bought the hugest, most obnoxious birthday balloon we could find (a gigantic heart with a bright pink feather boa as a border), and 2 small purple balloons to go along with it – one with a 9, one with a 3. We had them all filled with helium and then tied together with shiny curly ribbons. We stopped at the grocery store for cupcakes because we ran out of time to make some. We stopped so I could buy a card. We stopped for materials we could use to make a tiny beach with the shells.

When we parked at the home, I wrote in M’s card against my steering wheel. My daughter added some sand to the little glass bowl we had found, and we took turns sprinkling in the sea-coloured gems we had found at a craft shop. We took turns deciding which shells to add and where to place each white sand dollar. When it was just right, we gently wrapped M’s beach in tissue paper.

We got into the elevator and I pressed the button with M’s floor number next to it. I realized I hadn’t given my daughter fair warning of what this place can sometimes be.

“So… I should’ve mentioned this. Sometimes people are crying or even shouting in the hall or in their rooms, but they’re ok. They’re just a little bit lost inside sometimes. It’s nothing to be afraid of or to worry about. If anyone talks to you, you can talk back, even if you aren’t quite sure what they said. Also, if – ”

She nodded and looked away and upward, not a care in the world, and interrupted me with, “I know, I know, Mama. It’s fine.”

I’ve gotten used to that response lately and should’ve expected as much from my bold little redhead.

We reached M’s floor and walked to the end of the hall. I could see M was asleep in her wheelchair, but just dozing,

“Hey you, Happy Birthday!” I didn’t quite shout, but said at a loud enough volume to wake her.

She woke up and looked at me with some confusion. “Who is it? Who are you?”

“It’s me – Amanda!”

“No it isn’t. You’re not Amanda,” M told me.

I laughed and gently touched her shoulder. “I promise you, it’s me.”

M continued to stare up at me. “I’m sorry. You don’t look like you today… Oh well! What have you got there?”

I showed her the big balloon and then explained if she wants to tell people the 9 and 3 on the other two actually go in reverse order, I’ll back her up. She thought this was funny.

I introduced my little girl to M. They hit it off right away and made some small talk while I crouched down and tied the balloons to a weight in the corner of M’s room.

I asked M how her day had been, and was very glad to hear a friend from her old apartment building (whom she hadn’t seen in almost two years) had stopped by to see her. I teased her a little bit about the fact that it was a gentleman friend, and she gave me a playful slap on the arm, as she often does.

My daughter and I gave M her cards, which I read out loud to her due to her poor eyesight. She told my girl she had done a beautiful job with the hearts and cupcake she had drawn on hers. She made a joke about the text printed on my card, but cried when I read her the note I had written inside. I gave her a long hug and cried too.

Then a nurse came in and was in quite the hurry to take care of some business with M, so I told M we would leave her be but just wanted to stop by and wish her a Happy Birthday. She thanked me. Then I remembered our gift. I asked the nurse to please hold on one minute, just one minute. She wasn’t happy with me but backed up.

“Do you remember last week when I was here and we were watching your show and that lady won a vacation to the beach?” I hurriedly asked M.

“No… No I don’t,” M replied. The odds had been about 50/50 and I had known this.

“Remember? She had to answer the trivia question and at the last minute she got it and we couldn’t believe it? And then you told me how you’d never get to see the beach again?”

M gave me a long look. I could see tears welling up in her eyes. “I don’t remember that, I’m sorry. But… But you brought me the beach, didn’t you?”

I passed her the bowl. “I tried,” I said.

She held it in her hands as I pointed things out, tears rolling down both of our faces. I explained how a friend had given us the shells and how my girl had added the sand and how we tried to make the coloured stones look like the ocean.  I rushed through it as the nurse glared at me impatiently. M told me it was beautiful and thanked me. She held my hand and told me she loved it.

I took the miniature beach back from M and placed it on M’s only small table in her little bedroom world as the nurse began to wheel her away. I arranged the cards, ours and the ones from her other friends, around the table so she could easily see each one when she returned.

I remembered the cupcakes.

“Oh, we brought you cupcakes!” I called after her, for some reason on my tiptoes, like that would help my voice carry. “I’ll leave them on your nightstand so you can eat them for a midnight snack!” (She’s been waking up hungry in the night lately.) “Happy Happy Birthday!” I hollered one last time, still on tiptoe.

“Thank you! Thank you so much!” I heard her say from around the corner.

I could hear her smiling.

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