My birthday came around a few days ago, and my sister called me early that morning. “It’s your daughter,” I could hear her saying to our mother, “let’s sing to her.” Following my sister’s lead, my mom got through the birthday song, and then she spoke to me for about a minute. I think she may have asked me, “Who are you?” My heart didn’t break, but the question brought back memories of my mother before the Alzheimer’s.
Before the disease struck, she used to call all of us kids on our birthdays, sing the birthday song in English and tack on a verse with the words “May the Lord God bless you,” and then sing from Las Mañanitas, too. She didn’t know who I was over the weekend, but she knew it was appropriate to wish me a happy birthday. And I accepted her song and her voice as a gift from the woman who birthed me. No matter that when she speaks to me by phone now her voice is lined with that polite uncertainty one reserves for speaking to strangers.
Sometimes I fear that after she’s gone I will be swallowed by the emptiness left in the wake of her decades on this planet. We are mortal, we aren’t meant to live forever, and I remind myself of that daily, just as I remind myself to laugh as much as possible, to enjoy life as much as possible every day. Still — my mother’s voice over the phone line, the precise timbre and inflection of each word she says, the rise in its pitch as she laughs at something I say — these are all gleanings to which I cling in anticipation of lean times to come.