Monday, July 11, 2011

Bittersweet Birthdays

When there are five other people in your family - six, including the sis-in-law - chances are good someone's going to remember your birthday. But in the summer of 2007, we all managed, in quite spectacular fashion, to forget Hanna's.

To our credit, the rest of us were out of town at the time. Memorial Day was two weeks before Hanna's wedding, and Dad decided it'd be a perfect time for us to get away from wedding madness and relax a little. We don't get cell phone reception or have internet at the beach house, so all the devices get tucked away - and who actually looks at a calendar on vacation? It wasn't until we were camped out at the New Orleans airport, waiting for our flight, that I looked at my phone and remembered.

A fallen tree in empty woods might or might not make a sound, but surprisingly, a forgotten birthday in a family of six didn't make much of one, either.

She remembered, all right, she just didn't say much about it and was more concerned with our absence from Wedding Orbit. Of course, this was the trip that Dad and I managed to capsize the catamaran, so maybe we received our retribution in advance.

That's the only time I can ever remember my family letting a birthday go by unacknowledged. Our ranks of able memories may be one less, but birthdays mean more than checks in the mail and a brief phone call or Facebook wall message in my family, and always have. In a big family, a birthday is a very special day. You get to pick the dinner, you get presents, everyone pays attention to you...and you don't have to clean up afterwards. To further illustrate my point, I'm pretty sure Alex still holds a grudge against Jen for daring to marry into the family with a birthday so close to his.

So I was kind of surprised when Dad didn't call to let me know the plans for Mom's birthday dinner, and I was even MORE surprised when Granddad told me he was out of town. After 29 years of consecutive birthday dinners for Mom, this is the first that we wouldn't have a birthday dinner for her.

Should this, in fact, be a surprise? Last year's birthday dinner was anything but a good time. Dad had grilled steaks, and they'd come off the grill sort of tough and chewy. Mom, who hasn't sat down through an entire meal in a couple years, was orbiting around the table, and when she'd pass near Dad, he'd give her a bite and she'd continue to walk, chewing.

Except for the one she didn't chew - she inhaled it instead. Her face instantly started turning red and her eyes were terrified. We all jumped up from the table - Dad to start the Heimlich, Craig (my then bro-in-law) to call 911, and the rest of us to stand by helplessly, stupidly, not wanting to get in the way. She was breathing, but it's that horrible heaving noise I associate with getting shot in the chest or with someone having an asthma attack.

The 911 dispatcher told Dad to stop the Heimlich if she was breathing, no matter how labored. Shortly after, the ambulance came screaming into the driveway (bringing a lot of the neighbors to their windows or front doors). I remember Dad insisting on KUMed, over the EMT's insistence that Shawnee Mission was closer...and then they were gone.

We hadn't been at the table very long when all of this went down, but no one was hungry after that. We cleaned up and sat around the family room, waiting. After awhile, Dad called - apparently she'd coughed up the steak in the ambulance, but according to protocol, she still had to be checked into the hospital and examined. When they came home, Mom was visibly relieved and seemed happy to see us. We went outside on the patio and had cake - she was starving, but I was afraid to feed her anything but about 1/2 teaspoon at a time - and things started to feel almost, well, normal.

I guess I didn't really realize how significant this was until later. Carolyn, a friend of my parents' from college, was in town visiting, and Dad was telling her the birthday dinner story.

"I really thought it was going to be the end," he said.

Well, it wasn't the end, and we've officially made it another year. If that's not a reason to celebrate, what is? Shortly after posting a link to my site on Facebook noting Mom's birthday, Jen was in touch to schedule a dinner for this weekend.

So tonight, despite the triple digit temperatures, I went for a run for Mom. Just three miles, but I definitely left it all out there. When it's that hot, your entire body does the crying for you. I feel better now...just tired.

Photo: Mom and Jen in Gulf Shores, AL. May 2007.

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