Unexpected Gifts…

I’ve been working on posts about our recent trip to Williamsburg, Virginia, but just like yeast needs a pause in order to come into its fullest potential, it seems I do, too.

1961 with my parents when I was just beginning my life's journey!

1961 with my parents when I was just beginning my life’s journey!

I’m pausing to celebrate my birthday today, to light an unbelievable number of candles, to remember the last birthday I spent with my mom, and to recount the unexpected gift she gave me that day.

Just three weeks before my mother passed away, I approached my fifty first birthday.  On the Saturday before, Darrell and I celebrated by returning to my hometown of Penn Yan to ride our tandem bike around Keuka Lake. 

The lake was where I learned to swim and spent endless hours sunning myself.  Home from college, friends gathered there to reconnect. Even my first job, giving tours at one of the local wineries was connected to the lake. 

It was cathartic; I felt so far from those carefree days before I had waded so deeply into my mother’s care but life goes on, doesn’t it?  

Darrell and I drifted through a local craft fair at the far end of the lake and stopped to chat with a local potter.  “I’m going to buy myself a birthday present,” I said to Darrel after loving up one of the biggest bowls on the shelf….a bread bowl.”  Darrell could have easily bought it for me but he didn’t interrupt my process.  It was an act of self-care and when the potter pointed out a small flaw in the glaze I loved it even more.  “Beautiful and flawed,” I thought, “just like life itself.”

vineyards along Keuka Lake

vineyards along Keuka Lake

Still reeling from the experience the next morning, I made a decision not to visit Mom until the following day.  She hadn’t been able to recall the time, day, month or even the year for a long time. She wasn’t always completely sure of who I was, where she was, or why she was in the nursing home.  “Something is wrong,” she’d say, “I know it.”  Confused, her gaze would wander off.

She had lost track of time.  “Had I been there yesterday? Wasn’t I there earlier in the day? Why hadn’t I visited for weeks?” It was sad for me to bear witness to her slowly eroding memory and on this one day, my birthday, I didn’t want to feel the weight of it.

Cori donning my apron!

Cori donning my apron!

Early that afternoon, my daughter began making plans.  I watched her tie on my apron, roll up her sleeves, and pull down the beaters.  Energy spilled out of her.

Memories of her climbing onto a chair in order to reach the counter to help me surfaced.  Just as I had done through years of cooking with my mother, Cori had become savvy in the kitchen.

Cori with some of her early cakes!

Cori with some of her early cakes!

Sitting there at the kitchen table watching her, I was reminded of how much my mother had given me. Where else could I possibly want to be on my birthday than with her?  She had given me life! It didn’t matter that she wouldn’t remember, I would.

Mom hadn't just given me love.....there was also this banana bike on my 7th birthday!

Mom didn’t just give me love…..there was also this banana bike on my 7th birthday!

I left Cori knee deep in butter, sugar, and eggs to do her magic.  By the time I returned there would be a raspberry filled layer cake set with candles.

When I arrived at the nursing home, Mom was dozing in her wheelchair.  I spoke gently and stroked her hair until her beautiful blue eyes opened.  She broke into a soft smile as her eyes settled on me.

“Would you like to visit a while?” I asked.  Despite the vacancy in her eyes, I took her faint smile as a “yes.”

Mom and me exactly one year earlier taking "Selfies" on my 50th!

Mom and I exactly one year earlier taking “Selfies” on my 50th!

After simply holding hands for a long while I couldn’t help asking, “Where were you 51 years ago today, Mom?”  I wasn’t expecting an answer. Mom didn’t look up, but then quietly mumbled, “In the hospital.”

I was stunned by her lucid memory. “In the hospital?” I said in disbelief.  “What were you doing in the hospital?”

With her head still hanging heavily, she answered faintly, “Giving birth to you.”

To steady myself, I focused on my breath, making it slow and deliberate as she spoke again.

“Do you ever feel lost?” she said in a raspy whisper.

My mind raced. Her memory had returned!  My mother was back! “Yes, Mom, I do.  Is that how you feel?”  Slowly and laboriously she nodded her head.

“What can I do, Mom?  How can I help?”  It was a plea.

Silence filled the room.  In desperation, I began again.  “What can I do, Mom?  How can I help?”  Tears began to pool precariously.

She cocked her head sideways to catch sight of me and narrowed her eyes, confused. “You can find someone to take me to the bathroom,” she said flatly.  “Find someone to take me to the bathroom.”

A lone tear began its descent. I had lost her.  Again.

Weeks later as she lay dying, I recounted the story to the hospice worker sitting across the table from me.  “I don’t know what it was,” I whispered.

best and most beautiful“I do,” she said reaching for my hand. “It was the best birthday gift you probably ever received.”

She was right. If I hadn’t listened to my heart that afternoon, I’d have missed an unexpected gift; the brief moment where Mom and I had found each other for what turned out to be the last time. Somewhere in her jumbled thoughts she had tucked away the memory of my birth in a place where she could still reach it and it filled my heart with gratitude that I carry with me even today.

Two years later as I reflect on it, I know that I don’t want to miss moments like this so I’m making a Birthday Resolution (today does mark a new follow heartyear in my life, so why not a resolution??) 

With 53 years of experience behind me, my intention is to listen more carefully to my heart and let it be my guide.  I’m opening my eyes to whatever possibility each moment holds and to both giving, and getting, unexpected gifts that can neither be boxed or wrapped up in fancy paper.

I’ll be back to bread (in the 18th century) for my next post but for today I’m taking time for the sole purpose of kneading life a bit by feeling into the nuances of what’s happening in and around me.

Hope to see some of you around the bread bowl next week making sourdough biscuits and scones! I’ve been playing with chocolate bread pudding this week and may have pictures to share!


If you enjoyed this story or know someone who is in the midst of being a care-giver, please consider sharing this post!  ….or consider sharing part of your own journey by leaving a note in the comment section.

Here’s more posts about Mom:  The Game of Life, Taking Flight, Saturday Morning Ritual, Coda

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4 thoughts on “Unexpected Gifts…

  1. Very powerful and oh so true…as a nurse for 42 years and a sister to a brother who was handicapped I have literally been a care giver my entire life ….you have said it beautifully…those quotes will make it to my quote board at work to inspire others….thank you Mary , what a great way to start my day! Happy belated Birthday! Sue and I will see you at the library next week!

  2. Thank you for sharing wonderful Birthday gift. I look forward to reading your blog each week – reminds me so much of my time with my Grandmother. We all have someone that has given us wonderful memories to cherish. Thank you for reminding me to give myself time to sit back, slow down and remember them. I will see you on Tuesday!

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