Birthday celebrations were big in my family, but not something I have been big in celebrating. My mother made it all happen. Three of the family had birthdays in the one week, first me, then my father then my brother. Mum would bake each of us a cake, with icing, candles and all, and the birthday person chose the menu for the evening. To say the least I was a bit over birthdays by the end of the week.
Dad found it hard to put his feelings into words but loved big gestures, and honoured Mum on her eightieth with a big event at the local but swish golf club. I imagine he put no limit on who she asked and there was a good mix of family and their social groups. My daughters and I had fun presenting Mum with a surprise presentation which I think she spent days worrying about beforehand – she kept saying “Don’t do a speech about me as if it’s a funeral.” We didn’t, we showed our appreciation with humour and kept it light and funny but in retrospect I wonder if it was more about enjoying our expression than being sensitive to her. I know my brother disapproved.
For mum the highlight of her eightieth birthday was that my son and his wife arrived on the doorstep with their week-old baby. The child remained the talk of everyone there for years to come and it made mum’s day.
Come her ninetieth one of my daughters proposed we make a splash, as Mum was still well, but signs of fading health were evident, so why not seize the moment. Mum was astonished that she was still alive as none in her blood family had ever reached this age. It seemed like a good idea at the time to celebrate her age. Since Mum loved scones and cream, we proposed a ‘high tea’ in a lovely room in the retirement village she was living in at the time. In my mind it would be a smallish event. In hindsight I feel I presented the idea to her rather than asking what she would like, probably because she would always say, ‘Nothing special, just to have the family around’.
We asked her to make a list of the people special to her that she would like to invite. In my mind was a figure of about 10 - 20 people at most. She came back with a list of over a hundred which was way beyond my catering budget, so we discussed other ways of making it affordable. In the end she shortened the list.
As said before, I’m not one for big celebrations, so it required effort on my part to get into it and then I went into event organiser mode. I felt a bit mean not initially being excited by the idea, but as plans came together with each of us doing our part I began to look forward to it.
However, in many ways this celebration of her ninetieth year revealed a lot about the falseness of celebrations in our family, and how I was trying to be the good daughter, and in fact modelling my mother’s behaviour, as she was the event organiser of the family and would take control of all the fine details and involve us all in every event, such as Christmas and the big birthdays. It was exhausting!
Although Mum was not organising the event she worried about it. I lived afar from her, so organising it was done during a combination of visits and many phone calls with my daughter who lived locally, and the event became the focus, not my Mum.
Firstly, the large birthday list was because if you invited this person then you had to invite that person etc, and for her it was important not to cause upset. She was also caring and considerate as most guests were elderly, so it was important to invite another family member to drive them to the party.
Neither of my brothers were available at that time to even talk to for support – one had distanced himself from the family and the other had isolated himself to focus on supporting his terminally ill wife and could not commit to being there.
Then the focus became the event and wasn’t entirely on my mother. I remember on the day the centre manager saying to me “Are you helping your Mum to get ready, making her feel special? “
Well, no, we were all preparing the venue space and supporting the caterer who had arrived without her staff and once we realised it was not going to go smoothly without extra help, the family pitched in to serve tea and bring the food out. Being older people and some travelling from afar, the guests had arrived early and needed a cup of tea on arrival.
My eldest daughter had organised a humorous ‘this is your life’ slide show, but despite a rehearsal the day before the technology in the centre failed to work, so again a last-minute adaptation was made. It was great for us, a lot of fun, and went smoothly in the end, but in fact the humour went over Mum’s head, and I could see she felt very uncomfortable being in the spotlight. Thank goodness her sister was sitting next to her the whole time.
From the guest’s point of view, apart from the slow start, the event went seamlessly, they had a lovely time, and I enjoyed catching up with cousins and aunts that I seldom see. We had to clean up afterwards, which made it a long day and all my kids had to rush off, and my son who had flown in for the day, needed to get back to the airport.
I walked Mum back to her room with her flowers, by which time the dinner was being served in the dining room. I walked her to her dining table of friends, and that’s where I left her. I felt her wanting family around for the after event gathering, but I left in the hope I could catch a few minutes with my son, which didn’t happen anyway. It all felt a little bit flat and in hindsight I would have stayed with her for dinner.
Afterwards, in the next few days, my Mum said very clearly that she only wanted family gatherings from now on, nothing big. It was too much, the last hurrah. On reflection I see she was mourning the fact that her two sons were not there, and also perhaps thinking of my father who wanted so much to get to ninety but died in his 89th year, and the big event could not compensate. It was bittersweet and she found it emotionally tiring.
And that brought it home to me.
True celebrations are about how we are with each other day to day. About connecting. About the quality we bring to our relationships.
For my mother, she only invited people she had regular connection with, but she found it difficult to allow the level of love and appreciation that was reflected to her as in many ways she did not have that amount of love for herself. It was an end of an era for her, the era of birthdays.
Ironically, I much preferred the celebration we had at her funeral. This time I had been by her side and deeply connected to her in her last few days, supporting her Passover. It was an honour being with her at this time, being myself, not the ‘good’ daughter, the one who fitted in. Bringing all of me.
When Mum died the last thing I wanted to do was to arrange a funeral. However, this time there was my brother by my side, and together we arranged it step by step, harmoniously complementing each other with our contributions. We simply created a space for people to gather if they wanted and were able.
This gathering, to my surprise, I enjoyed. It was simple, it was about her and our relationships with her. I appreciated the people who came at short notice, the staff and residents who attended, and the support given. It was closure, and I may never see those members of my family again.
The family worked as a team. This time the focus was about appreciating the woman she was – her qualities and her place in our lives, and on supporting each other. She would have loved this true celebration of her life and family.
Anne H., Australia
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