Birthday Cake“Your life can change in a second,” I would tell my sixth grade students, “and sometimes it isn’t your second.” In 2016, someone else’s second changed my life. My sister called me on a Wednesday evening. I was working with a children’s group at church when the phone buzzed in my pocket. My sister rarely calls at night, so I excused myself and took the call in the hallway.

“Mom’s had a stroke,” Lorene said. “They are life-flighting her to Grand Junction.” A season we didn’t ask for had begun. I left the next day to see Mom, knowing the days ahead were going to be difficult. Lorene served as power of attorney and so carried a huge responsibility while taking care of her own disabled daughter. Communication was challenging given the number of people involved: nine of us siblings, my mother’s remaining siblings, and numerous adult grandchildren. On a hard day, I told a nurse, “We’re in the same chapter of the book; but we’re not all on the same paragraph, yet.”

One night several of us left the hospital after a long day of sitting in Mom’s room and trying to give each other time with her and figuring out how to respect diverse opinions. We went to a chain diner that featured a senior menu that starts at age 55. Until that moment, it had never occurred to me that all nine of us were now 55 or older. We still called the brothers the boys and the sisters the girls. How could we all be old enough to order from the senior menu? To be honest, that part still doesn’t seem real.

The following conversation happened early in the hospital stay. I was watching as the doctor checked in on her. He was asking those questions designed to assess cognitive function. “How old are you?”

She answered, “93.” He paused then asked her when she was born. “1923,” came the answer.

The doctor said, “Wouldn’t that make you 92?”

“It’s only a couple of months. I might as well be 93!” There wasn’t anything wrong with her thinking. Her body, on the other hand, wasn’t so strong. A few days later, she decided to sign papers to place herself in Hospice care.

Mom loved a good party, and birthdays were especially good reasons to celebrate. We decided to have an early birthday party for her. The nurses thought it to be a splendid idea. They reserved the family waiting room, moved the tables around to make room for the hospital bed, and added some chairs. Balloons floated around the room. Finger foods, drink boxes, and water shared the table with a round cake decorated to say, “Happy 93rd Birthday.  Vases of flowers finished the decorations. Dahlias. Gladiolus. Red roses. Pink roses. Yellow roses. No one had to be told to bring flowers. It wasn’t a secret Mom loved flowers.

But the people meant the most. All of us who could be there were in that room: her oldest son and his oldest son, her youngest daughter and her youngest, the nephew who as a boy thought she was his mom, the sister and brother she loved. We were there. The gathering was much like the big family parties we had while growing up. Loud laughter could be heard over the children playing all around the room. The oldest grandchild and the youngest great-grand baby and most of them in-between spent time at Grandma’s bedside.

Then it was over. Nurses, after remarking they had never seen a family celebrate so well, took Mom back to her room. The real world was back. Soon after she transferred to a nursing homes, a temporary placement until arrangements could be made to return her to Cortez. That is where she passed away 17 days before her birthday.

All this came flooding back recently. A young man I know experienced someone else’s second that changed his life. My friend’s father passed away unexpectedly. I was with the family and others as they talked about songs for the memorial service. I’ll Fly Away was mentioned. I briefly closed my eyes and saw five pink and four yellow balloons rising against a bright blue sky, floating east toward Mesa Verde to the joyful words of I’ll Fly Away.