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.