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About My Mother's 80th Birthday

“Is the party today?”

That was the first thing I heard when my mother woke up last Saturday morning and asked me. I had gone to New York City with the boys to celebrate the big day, which actually wasn’t Saturday: It was the following Wednesday, so it could have been confusing for anyone, let alone someone who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s six months before and, according to quite a few people in white coats, had been hiding it for a lot longer. I had to laugh, because one of the party guests had called the day before and asked me, “Is it a surprise party?”

“It’s not supposed to be,” I said, half-joking, “but you never know.”

And then there I was the next morning, “Yes, mom, the party is tonight.” I was racing around the apartment looking to throw on whatever clothes were in front of me to run out for real coffee. My mother’s coffee tastes like the inside of a pipe. That’s not illness-related. My father complained about her morning brew 20 years ago.

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Planning this party had been less than fun, which was directly related to my mother’s brain issues. Several times she had told me she wanted something, say like an intimate gathering for a meal, and I would start to execute this and report back the details in a few days.

“Why would you think that’s the way I wanted to spend my 80th birthday?” she’d snap at me, adding, “pathetic ... ” under her breath. This has been a pretty familiar pattern with my mother in these last few months. She’ll tell me something, usually having to do with a doctor she is going to see or some kind of personal property decision. She’ll make a pronouncement on the phone (all of our communications are by phone, since I live 3,000 miles away), and then as a wrap up I’ll mention it again before we hang up. She’ll get very defensive and accusatory in the same vein of, "What makes you think I would agree to something like that?"

It’s a true test of patience not to scream back, “Are you f***ing kidding me? What made me think that, is you saying it to me three sentences ago!” And I did respond this way the first three or four times it happened. But fighting with her disease is like kicking a 3-year-old brat in the face. You can get it to shut up, but it’s so ugly and wrong and sad, and it’s not worth it.

I was able to take a breath and see my mother from across the table.

Eventually I got her to settle on a dinner starting at 7 p.m. so my boys would be awake for it, with 15 of her closest friends and family. One cousin flew in from Florida and my sister and her teenage kids drove in from Boston. There was some minor drama about how the expense would be handled since none of us is rich, but in the end it wasn’t that expensive and it all worked out. She had her nails done, donned her usual all-black outfit with assorted pieces of sparkly jewelry and made it to the restaurant 45 minutes after all the guests had arrived. Again, not entirely a function of her illness.

My mother has been late to everything my entire life. She and my father would have screaming fights on Saturday nights while she kept him waiting to go out. It was such the norm that he even had an expression he would say to try to move her along, “The whole world is waiting, Hon!” In fact, I count this narcissistic trait of hers as what finally pushed me to buy a plane ticket out to L.A. for good after he died.

That specific moment was when she and I had plans to go to dinner or the theater or something, which my father normally would have accompanied her to. I arrived at her apartment on time (the by-product of her perpetual lateness is that I am a freak about punctuality), and she kept me waiting half an hour while she primped herself. I was single at the time and I remember thinking, If I don’t get out of here I am going to spend the rest of my life as my mother’s escort, perennially waiting for her. I’m pretty sure I went home that night and called American Airlines.

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When she made her entrance, everyone oooed and ahhhhed. I have to admit with good reason. Because say what you will about her brain crumbling, the woman still looks quite beautiful. She has a diminutive grace about her that is distinct. Once everyone was settled and wine had been poured and all the picky New Yorkers in her inner circle had satisfying amounts of bruschetta and margarita pizzas, I was able to take a breath and see my mother from across the table. Leaning in to friends, listening, smiling, having gotten exactly what she wanted. And although I am very rarely able to feel it, my mother in this moment—at 80 years old, still living on her own, still picking her own lipstick color to complement her hazel eyes, still knowing she prefers Pinot Grigio to Chardonnay, still able to hug her grandsons—is, in fact, an inspiring woman.

Despite the Alzheimer’s. Or maybe moreso because of it.

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