Bittersweet birthday memories



For me, July will forever be associated with birthdays. My mother’s birthday was July 6 and my birthday is July 19.

While birthdays should be filled with happy memories, ever since the death of my parents, I’m left with bittersweet memories. There’s a profound quote in the Netflix documentary, End Game, which is about end-of-life care and hospice, that touches upon what I’m feeling this week.

“Suffering is the wedge, the gap between the world you want and the world you got.”

Even though I didn’t spend my birthday with my parents as an adult, they always sang Happy Birthday to me over the phone. It was a fun tradition, and each year Mom would tell me how they practiced all week to make it special. My parents both had some musical talent, with Dad especially fond of singing in the style of his favorite crooner, Bing Crosby.

The year before my father was placed in the memory care center, my parents performed the best rendition ever of Happy Birthday. My dad was in high spirits that day, and even though he was in the middle stages of Alzheimer’s by then, he hadn’t lost his ability to sing or to ham it up. He continued singing, performing a medley of classic show tunes before Mom was able to get the phone back from him. At the time I thought, “I wish I had recorded this!”

As my birthday approached the next year, I was visiting my parents and Mom and I made the trek to the memory care center to see Dad. He was mobile but heavily medicated. I didn’t expect any birthday singing, but Mom insisted. I was torn about recording it, but I knew in my heart that it would be my last birthday with my father alive. Little did I know then that my mother would be in a care center a year later recovering from cancer surgery.

Even though I knew it would be painful, I decided to record it. I’m glad I did, even though it is heartbreaking to watch. (I rarely share this video, but am making an exception here.)

As to the quote about suffering, what I wanted was the sublime Happy Birthday performance from the year before. What I got was my father, addled with medication and his brain ravaged by Alzheimer’s, trying his best to perform one final time, with my mother trying desperately to be upbeat.

Ultimately, both memories are gifts. They are both filled with love.






Filed under Memories

4 responses to “Bittersweet birthday memories

  1. Joy, this really moved me, and I felt emotional with you as I read and then watched the video. Having gotten to know you through blogging and then your book, I felt like I finally got to meet your parents, even though they are no longer here. I loved your mom’s southern accent and thought your dad looked especially good for having such a debilitating disease. But, I understand that is not the strong man you used to know. Despite their foibles and flaws, we really do miss that stabilizing comfort of their presence when they’re gone.

    Having said that, my husband’s parents used to sing to him on his birthday over the phone every year, too. The only difference is, they did not have the talented singing voices as your parents. At first I thought it was weird, lol, especially since they couldn’t sing, but I got used to it after a few years in a row. His parents died within a year of each other right after we moved, and I know he misses that call, just as you do.

    I could tell that your parents had talent in singing. Wondering if you inherited that talent.

    I wish I could say the right words for your birthday for tomorrow. I’ve typed out a few here and then erased them. You definitely wouldn’t want ME singing to you. Heh. May you find some sense of comfort and be able to enjoy the day. Blessings to you.

    • Thanks Lori for the kind response. That’s interesting that your husband’s family had same birthday ritual.

      Sadly, my musical talents ended with the flute in junior high, haha. I did play a bit of guitar when I was a kid and have inherited my mother’s guitar, so hope to pick that back up some day. I’ve been trying to learn a few tunes on a piano keyboard as well.

  2. Bittersweet. ❤️Happy birthday to you Joy!

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