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I Forgot My Mother’s Birthday


Drew Payne

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Last month I forgot my mother’s birthday. I was writing on my computer, glanced down at the bottom right corner of the screen, and saw the date. It was my mother’s birthday, or it would have been.

My mother died twenty-three years ago.

At first, after her death, I used the date of her birthday as a time to remember her. Using the date of her death for this was too much, too morbid and too negative. Her birthday was in January, in the cold winter after Christmas, and was always celebrated quietly. When she was alive, I would arrange to post a card and present to her, in time for it. After her death, I would take time, on what would have been her birthday, to remember something about her. I would remember some story or anecdote about her, good or bad. It was my way of remembering her, of keeping her memory alive.

My mother had been ill for a long time with cancer and I had told myself I was prepared, I knew what was happening. Shortly after her diagnosis, she’d had surgery and radiotherapy for it. I wasn’t able to see her, at that time, and didn’t physically see her until two months afterwards. When I did visit my parents I was shocked at how tired and worn she looked. She was sat in the house’s conservatory, reading a magazine, when I arrived, and she looked so old and frail, sitting there in that armchair. Everyone had told me how well she had done since her surgery, how well she had recovered and how she had returned to health, but looking at her, that day, I knew she was ill, I could see it. I kept quiet though, everyone, including her, were being so positive, and how could I rob them of that? I kept it to myself, but I knew my mother was dying.

She declined slowly over the following six years, her health failing her, as my father failed to cope looking after her. I lived two hundred and fifty miles away from them, and I was the only healthcare professional in my family, so my role fell to providing advice at the end of the telephone. I told myself to prepare, to be ready for when she would die. To prepare myself for my family’s reactions, to be the strong one because I had seen this coming.

She died in a hospice, were she was comfortable and well cared for. I had seen her two days before and said goodbye to her, it was clear then to everyone she was dying. I received a call, from my brother, that Tuesday morning, that she had died. She had died in one of the few moments when no one was sitting next to her bed, in a quiet moment when she was left alone. I was prepared for this news, I wasn’t shocked, I was expecting this. I called my partner and told him.

The next day, I was due in work and I was prepared. I had accepted the fact my mother was dying, her death was just the final part of that. So I went into work. I spent the first hour or so of my shift just wandering around the ward, but I wasn’t connected to why I was there. Mid-morning, I went into the ward’s office, where my manager was. She looked up at me and in surprise asked me what was wrong.

“My mother died yesterday,” I replied.

“What the hell are you doing here?” she said.

"I don't know," I said and burst into tears.

She sent me home, telling me not to come back to work until after the funeral. She was right.

Grief is a strange and messy thing. I thought I was prepared for it but I wasn’t, how could I be because I didn’t know where it would take me. I didn’t cry at her funeral, sat there in the front pew next to my partner, but I did cry when I was set off by stupid, little things. The sight of her favourite flowers in a shop, the memory of her suddenly leaping into my mind, the sound of a piece of music that she had loved. The strange, physical things that made me remember her.

I had thought I was prepared because intellectually I knew the course of grief, I had studied it, I knew the theory and evidence behind the stages of grieving. But I didn’t know them emotionally, I hadn’t lived them.

Losing a parent is never easy, I found it especially hard because I was only in my early-thirties. I was at the age when people were beginning to expect their parents to retire as they entered “old age”. But my parents were in their early forties when I was born. When I entered my thirties, my parents were entering the end of their lives. I felt cut off from my peers, they couldn’t relate to what was happening to me, their parents were alive and well, were I was living through this too soon in my life. Fortunately, my partner knew exactly what I was facing, he’d lost his mother when he was sixteen. He knew about feeling too young for what was happening.

But as time passed, that grief faded, as all emotions do. Marking what would have been her birthday became less and less urgent, and at some point I forgot to do it.

I can’t remember when I did last mark my mother’s birthday, I stopped doing it so long ago, but I didn’t forget my mother. She had been such a large and dominating part of my life for so long. She had shown me and taught me so many different things, most of which she never meant to. She had been a woman of very strong opinions, opinions that were not to be questioned, and faced with this I had learnt how to argue. My mother, unwittingly, had taught me to argue, because if I wanted to do what I wanted, as a child and adolescent, then I had to win my arguments. The first time I won an argument against her I was fourteen, and it was a glorious moment. I had learnt how to use logic to defeat a steadfast opinion. It is a skill I have used many, many times since.

Watching my mother, as a child, learning why she held her opinions, showed me how to watch and understand other people, a skill I am so grateful to have because it aids me so much as a writer.

So many things still remind me of her, and I have a partner who I can share these with, even if it’s just a short memory, and he does the same about his mother. We keep those women alive in our memories.

That day, as I looked at the date on my computer’s screen, it occurred to me that if she was still alive, it would have been so easy to buy her a birthday present. I could have gone onto Amazon, found the gift I wanted, bought it, and had them gift wrap it and deliver it straight to her. So much more easy. But my mother died before e-commerce became such an easy part of our lives. So much has changed in our world in the relatively short time since her death, would she even recognise our world? Would she even like our world?

When I realised what the date was, I texted my partner and told him.

He replied, “Blimey, how old would she have been?”

“94,” I texted back.

 

Drew

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i read this and it brought memories of my own mum. She passed twenty-six years ago. Her birthday was Feb 14th.  It's a day i spend quietly normally. This year though, she came to my mind later that usual. It rather surprised me that i'd sort of forgotten.

i'm sorry for your loss. It's hard. I was fifteen when my mum passed.

I guess time does soften the pain.   Thank you for sharing your experience and your memories. 

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16 hours ago, Mikiesboy said:

i read this and it brought memories of my own mum. She passed twenty-six years ago. Her birthday was Feb 14th.  It's a day i spend quietly normally. This year though, she came to my mind later that usual. It rather surprised me that i'd sort of forgotten.

i'm sorry for your loss. It's hard. I was fifteen when my mum passed.

I guess time does soften the pain.   Thank you for sharing your experience and your memories. 

Thank you for your feedback.

You were so young when your mother died, that must have been so hard. My husband lost his mother when he was 16 and that was very hard for him.

That sharp pain of grief does ease over time but sometimes the loss doesn't. My husband and I keep the memories of our mothers alive by talking about them. Our mothers never met but we like to imagine what would have happened if they did. They were both very different women and it would have been "fun", well much later it would have been.

Take care of yourself.

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