Happy Birthday

Christie parked her car on the street outside her parent’s home. This was the third house they had moved to in five years. The front door was at the far end of a covered porch. On either side of the door were long skinny windows. The glass in the window was thick and distorted the view from the outside.

As she approached the door she looked through the windows to the living room. Her mom appeared to be dancing with her sister, Sarah. Her mother’s arms were draped on Sarah’s shoulders. Her mom was smiling and Christine was sure she heard singing. Two of her aunts stood nearby and looked amused watching the action in the living room.

Christine felt giddy. Normally prone to depression and isolation, this was the one day out of the year she treasured. She didn’t think about being 28, working in a dead end profession where she had no hope of ever really succeeding, having so little money she was nearly always late on her rent, being single or otherwise dating completely inappropriate people. This was the day she allowed herself to hope. This one was hers.

Watching her mother dance so awkwardly with her sister, Christine waited outside to stay in the moment.

“I think that was Christine’s car outside,” Sarah said.

“She hasn’t come in yet,” Aunt Amy answered and looked towards the door. Without the porch light, it was impossible to see anything outside.

Christine burst in at that moment. Just being in her parent’s house on this day made Christine feel safe – something she felt so rarely. Even though being with her family was hard and sad, there was something warm and energetic about being with imperfect people who loved her imperfectly in the most perfect way they could.

“Well, there’s the birthday girl,” her dad exclaimed as he entered the house from the back patio, “I made hamburgers, do you want cheese on yours?”

“Yes, please” everyone said at once and laughed.

“So what are you guys doing?” Christine asked looking at Sarah and her mom. They were still locked in a strange embrace, but had stopped moving.

“It’s the way the nurse taught us to put mom in her chair,” and as she said this, Sarah turned her mother around to gently lower her to the waiting wheelchair.

“Oh,” was all Christine could think to say. What she had hoped for, what she had wanted more than anything was for the dancing to continue. She imagined her 364 days of darkness could somehow be the sacrifice with which the cancer cells in her mother’s body could not compete. Christine wanted a birthday miracle.

All through dinner, Christine swallowed her tears. Her mother, so weakened by cancer, could not lift the hamburger to her mouth. Sarah fed her mother like a baby.

Later that evening, everyone sat down in the living room. Her mom, having just been given a dose of oxycodone was restless. Unable to lift her arms and legs more than a few inches, she would wiggle around in the armchair she favored over lying in bed now.

“I think we should give Cookie another dose of Haldol, Donald” Aunt Amy called to Christine’s dad.

Donald consulted the medication chart and asked, “Cookie, are you in pain?”

Christine’s mother mumbled something that sounded like a yes, wiggled a bit more in the chair, and looked at Christine.

Suddenly, everyone started talking at once, arguing actually. Christine kept her eyes on her mother.

The heated debate seemed to center on whether it was time to switch from morphine to methadone for Cookie’s pain. The Haldol was given to relieve the anxiety and tension caused by the morphine induced mental confusion. When the combination of the two stopped working, the hospice nurse advised them to switch to methadone.

The medication switch marked the end of the end. The methadone was a powerful pain medication. Cookie would probably not speak coherently again. She would not get out of bed. She would not be able to eat. She would be comfortable.

Reluctant to be a part of any more fights, Christine got up to leave.

“Come here,” Cookie’s voice was clear and when Christine turned around, her mother’s arms were outstretched. Her arms were lifted higher than they had been in weeks.

Christine bent down to hug her mother.

“I love you,” her mother whispered.

Christine closed her eyes. This was her day.

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