Mom lived a creatively vibrant life of the mind, so Alzheimer's was a horrifically ironic way for her to die. She stubbornly refused to go easily and let us off the hook; in death as in life, she compelled the best from us, not because she bullied us but because she was so completely, tirelessly, respectfully present in all our lives. That kind of love is magnetic; it attracts great things from the universe and draws out the noblest qualities in the people who orbit nearby.
The amiable steadfastness with which my father fed and cared for Mom was an echo of the preceding decades, during which she set before him thousands of dinner plates, countless cups of coffee, carefully balanced checkbooks, sleepy babies and lively conversations, high standards and low tones, brutal honesty and forgiving rationalizations. My sisters and I hovered around her during the last three days of her life, singing four-part harmony, checking her pulse and blood oxygen, loving each other and letting our differences slide, because each of us is, in her own unique way, our mother's daughter.
My parents raised six children: a tight quartet of girls bookended by an older and a younger brother. Mom was a savant play-anything-by-ear musician, a freelance journalist, newspaper librarian and editor, meticulous research hound, and lightning fast typist. She could pilot a small aircraft, develop photos in her basement darkroom, and make a decent supper out of the unlikeliest trove of leftovers, pantry staples, and clearance items from the dented can cart. She was a busy woman, but she had her priorities straight. What was most important was not always most immediate. She made us know the difference.
Starting the year I turned 16, I sent my mom flowers every year on my birthday in January. Not on her birthday - on mine. Because on her birthday, I was just another face in the well-wishing crowd of people who loved and admired her. Even on Mother's Day, I was #5 of six, which is a long line to stand in when you want the attention of a woman as multi-talented and driven to achieve as my mother was. On my birthday, the day I was born, she belonged to me. I know what I was to her in that moment, because I've held my own babies and felt the rest of the world momentarily fall away. The fact that my mother kept that moment alive for me - and for each of my siblings - until her brain literally shriveled like a raisin is a testament to the kind of mother she was. She didn't make us feel precious. We were precious. That was our reality, not a feeling we had.
On my 16th birthday, I was working as a cashier at a local grocery store, and Mom was at school, hacking away at the bachelor's degree she carved out by inches and in betweens over more than a decade. I left the flowers on the kitchen table with a note so she would see them right away when she got home from class. We were miles apart (geographically and ideologically) for most of my birthdays after that, but she always sent me a present and a card with a lucky penny in it, and I always had flowers delivered to the house and eventually to her office at the Helena Independent Record. I always knew that at some point during the day, I'd answer the phone, and Mom and Dad would sing "Happy Birthday to You" in the robust harmony that soundtracked my upbringing, and I would know I was as unconditionally loved and celebrated as any mother's child could hope to be.
Mom's decline was agonizingly dragged out, but the trajectory was plain; I knew in January that this was the last year I'd give her birthday flowers. She was no longer mobile or verbal. Her universe had collapsed to the confines of the living room, where Dad lifted her between a red leather recliner and a railed hospital bed. We took turns holding the cup and straw while she vacantly sipped at cranberry juice and Ensure. I stayed most of the winter in the spare apartment on the lower level of my parents' home in Helena, sitting beside Mom every morning and evening, playing ukelele and singing songs from my childhood, Googling the words on cowboylyrics.com, watching and waiting for the occasional spark of connection in her eyes.
One day, spelunking the downstairs storage cupboards, searching for a waffle iron among the old popcorn tins, punch bowls, and Tupperware, I discovered a cache of cheap glass vases, brittle baskets, and oversized coffee mugs in which my birthday flowers had been delivered over the years. Apparently, a particular budget-conscious favorite was the FTD Sunshine Bouquet, which came in a squat white mug with a rainbow on it. There were several of those. She'd kept them like you'd keep your child's artwork. Not because it has some great decorative or archival value, but because you can't bear to let go of the moment.
In the evening on my birthday, I brought my mother roses - soft orange, vibrant yellow - and I told her, "Thank you for being my mom. I know it was a tremendous amount of work, and I didn't make it easy. You did all the important things right. And you got the less important things just wrong enough for me to believe I could do it too."
We weren't sure how much or how well she was able to see, so I carefully removed the thorns and spread the roses across her lap, and we sat together for a long while, running our hands over the petals, pulling them apart, setting them in rows.
How silly, I suddenly realized, to always stage flowers out of reach. There is nothing you can do to make them last forever, and there is such great tactile pleasure in the textured lightness and deckled edges. Look at a rose, and you recognize that it is lovely. But hold it in your hand as its life comes full circle, and you know how precious it really is.