Tomorrow we’ll celebrate Mom’s 85th birthday. Technically, her birthday is Friday, but tomorrow night the five of us kids will be there, along with a few of Mom’s friends from her retirement home and a cake with candles to make it a real party.
Every birthday is a milestone, and Mom’s reaching 85 is a significant one — not because 85 is especially old in our long-lived culture, but because the last year has been a difficult one for her from a mental and physical health perspective. Mom’s become more confused and seems much less interested in the world outside her room. Her personality is veering away from that of the person we’ve known and loved all our lives. Her behavior is erratic and her mood unpredictable. She sleeps a lot more, and eats a lot less.
Mom’s decline is not easy to see, but dealing with it would be much more difficult were it not for my brother and sisters. The “fiveness” of us — two older brothers, three younger sisters — has always been part of my reality, but lately I’ve appreciated the value of being part of a large family more and more. I can’t imagine what it must be like to go through this challenging process as an only child, and not just because one person must shoulder the duties and decision-making burdens that otherwise would be shared. It’s also the real value of being able to share information, talk things through, and reach a common decision with people who you’ve known and trusted all your life.
The five of us are all in our fifties now, and in the decades since we’ve left the family home we’ve each followed our own separate paths. Since Mom’s own path took a turn several years ago, however, we’ve communicated more frequently than we have in years. We’re all on a common texting group where we can report on recent events, and we’ve met regularly, often over a meal, to thoughtfully discuss those impossible questions about care and what the future might bring. At our meetings, I look at those familiar faces and distinct personalities — one a worrier and organizer and planner, one a cheerful, reflexive optimist who can always find the positive, one who likely will have just read another book or article about Mom’s condition, one quiet and steady and practical — and I find comfort when five such different people reach a consensus decision, as we always do.
The five of us have stuck together in dealing with a situation that has caused other families to split apart, and in the process we’ve rediscovered each other and seen, firsthand, when family really matters. Mom might find that the best birthday present of all.