Birthdays in Exile

Today is Mom’s birthday. She’s 79 years old. (Don’t tell her I told you. She’ll hurt me…) We’ll have her party tonight and lots of her friends will stop by to have cake and ice cream. I’ll be there, my family will be there, and Mom will have a blast.

But I’ll see it. Maybe no one else will, but I will. It will be in the way she’ll turn her head or tries too hard to smile as someone wishes her “Happy Birthday.” There will be just a glint—just a flicker—of sadness. She’ll remember all she’s lost and all that she’ll never get back. She’ll try to relax and enjoy her new friends, but everything I do tonight will just remind her she’s not home.

She’ll miss my dad. Dad never remembered Mom’s birthday. He’d always get it confused with their anniversary. Her birthday is March 14. Their anniversary is March 27. It’s an easy mistake to make, I guess…but every year? Dad would call me in a panic and yell into the phone, “When’s your birthday? Did I miss it?” We would repeat this ritual every year. Dad was hilarious in his excuses and reasons for why he had messed things up this year. He won’t be here this year…and she’ll miss the way he made her laugh.

She’ll look for her friends. Don’t get me wrong. She’s made a lot of friends in Nashville, but they’re new friends. She misses her old friends. She’s had friends who have been part of her life for over fifty years. They know all of the stories…about dad and the store…about the lake house and city politics…about Dad’s first heart attack. They know how she played the piano and how they planned to get together on everyone’s birthdays. A lot of these friends won’t be here. She’ll wonder if her new friends really know who she is. Do they know her story?

And she’ll thank me for a great party, but I’ll hear her disappointment in the way only a son can. I know that while I’m trying to be a good son, I can’t be her husband. I can’t be her old friends. I can’t make up for all that she’s lost.

We’ll do the best we can. We’ll have cake and ice cream, and Mom will have a good time. She’ll laugh. She’ll love the cake and friends that stop by, but there’ll be an emptiness no one can fill. She’ll miss my dad. She’ll miss her friends. She’ll miss herself—the self-assured, independent woman she used to be. We’ll have her birthday party, but it will only remind her that she’s not home.

This isn’t the way she wants things to be. This isn’t where she wants to be. But, it’s where we are, and we’re making the best of it. “Stop worrying about what you can’t do,” she would tell me when I was a boy. “Do what you can and trust God with rest.”

OK, Mom…here goes. There’s a lot I can’t do, but I’m doing what I can. We’ll bring cake and ice cream. We’ll sing “Happy Birthday.” And we’ll trust God with the rest.

A Little Help For The Hard Days

As most of you know, I have coffee with my mother almost every morning. This morning, I got there a little late, and she had already finished breakfast. When she finished breakfast, she moved into the activity room and started playing the piano. When I walked in, I heard the piano. Immediately, I knew it was her playing. As I made my way back toward where she was, I noticed a small crowd gathered around the piano listening to Mom play. Some would clap their hands, others would tap time with their feet, and a few were even singing along.

Mom played her favorite hymns, one after the other. Without ever looking at a piece of music, she played and played. Listening to her play has been the soundtrack of my life.

While I was standing there, one of the women named Elizabeth (that’s her in the picture with my mom) reached over and took my hand. She patted my hand and said, “I love hearing your mother play. She helps me through the bad days.”

Illness has taken a lot from my mother. A lot of the things she used to do, she can’t do any more. There are a lot of things she can’t remember any more. But she remembers the hymns. She can still play the hymns. And she does. In a place where she doesn’t want to be, she still plays the hymns. It’s the way she prays. It’s her testimony—her protest against life that has taken so much from her, metered out in 3/4 time.

And along the way, she helps her friends through the bad days. Funny, isn’t it? After all of these years, I’m still taking lessons from Mom.

A Little Sadder Every Day

Matt Morris, Mike, and Mike's mom, Barbara

As most of you know, I had to move my mother to Nashville last year. She’s been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and assisted living was our only and best option. My mother hasn’t seen it this way. She’s accused me of stealing all of her stuff and sticking her in “prison.” She tells me she hates the food. She tells me she can live by herself, and she can drive—if I’ll just give her car back to her. After all, she says, she’s been driving since she was fifteen.

When we started on this journey, a physician friend of mine said, “Just remember, her best day is yesterday.” Although, I heard what he said, I was praying he would be wrong. He wasn’t. Mom has gotten worse. I hear the same stories several times in the same conversation. She gets details mixed up. She’ll put the wrong people in the story and confuse the time frame of events. More and more, she won’t remember the conversation we had the day before.

Unless you knew my mom before the illness, you really can’t understand how sad this really is. My mom was the strongest woman I’ve ever met. She wasn’t afraid of anyone or anything. She was a fierce Mama Bear. There are stories I can tell you—like the one when I was little kid and an older kid pulled a knife on me. My mother blew through the kitchen door like a tornado. I think that kid is still running from my mom.

My mom was wise. She always knew what to do next. Now, to see her look at me and not know what to do breaks my heart.

My dad had a major heart attack in 1988. His doctors didn’t expect him to live another 5 years. He lived until 2012—mainly because of my mother’s strong-willed care. She literally cared for my dad around the clock for 24 years. The last 2 years I know she didn’t sleep. I know this because the times I went down there to help her, I didn’t sleep. Her love for my dad was nothing short of amazing. If for no other reason (and I have a lot more reasons), I would love her simply because of the way she loved my dad.

Now, she’s fading away. Story by story, I’m losing my mom. Sometimes, she’s still herself, and I live for these moments. She’s funny, witty, and surprisingly insightful in what she notices. But other times, she’s not so sure. Sadly, the times when she’s not my mom outnumber the times she is.

I see her almost every morning for coffee. Some friends say I shouldn’t go that often. Maybe they’re right. But honestly, there’s still too many times when she’s still my mom, and I don’t want to miss one of them. Where else can a grown man go and have someone ask him if he’s getting enough sleep? After all, she reminds me, you get grumpy if you don’t get enough sleep (and I do).

Jesus promised us that there would be days when we would walk through the valley of shadows. He also promised He wouldn’t leave us by ourselves on this journey. And in the moments when we couldn’t remember, He would remember for us. He would whisper to us deep within our souls—things we might have forgotten…like who we are and who He is…and how close we now are to home.


Photo: Matt Morris (Kairos Worship Leader), Mike, and Mike’s mom, Barbara

Mama Plays When She Prays

Mama Plays When She Prays

Prayer has always been part of my life. I grew up in a house where prayer was a normal part of our day. We prayed over each meal. We prayed to start the day, and we prayed when we said good night.

I had been trained in how to pray. You bowed your head, you folded your hands, closed your eyes, and talked honestly, but respectfully, to God who was always listening to His children’s prayers.

I’m a little older now, and I know you can pray in all kinds of places and in all kinds of ways. I’ve read liturgical prayers. I’ve prayed through the Psalms. I’ve whispered prayers in the quiet hallways of hospitals. I’ve laughed when I prayed, because sometimes joy can’t be contained. I’ve prayed with tears, because sometimes pain can’t be spoken.

As many of you know, my mom has come to a new season in her life. She has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and I’ve had to move her to an assisted living facility near where I live. She has fought me every step of the way, but in reality, we don’t have a choice. 

So, we’re learning how to work new patterns into our lives. One of those new patterns happens on Tuesday mornings. On these mornings, I pick her up and bring her to the church so she can work with our Nurture Team, a group of women who do pastoral care through knitting prayer shawls, fixing meals, making hospital baskets, and writing thousands of cards.

We’ve started coming in a little early so she can play one of the grand pianos in our church. Mom is a very gifted musician. Her piano playing is the sound track of my life. This 45 minutes or so playing these beautiful instruments is a great therapy for her. She loves to play.

It’s when she prays. 

The disease has taken part of her memory, and sometimes she can’t remember exactly what she wants to say, but her heart and fingers haven’t forgotten how to play the piano. 

So, she plays her prayers.

“I need Thee every hour, most gracious Lord. No tender voice like Thine can peace afford.”

“Turn your eyes upon Jesus…” 

“Have we trials and temptations? Is there trouble anywhere?”

“We should never be discouraged, take it to the Lord in prayer…”

As I write this, I’ve snuck into the sanctuary, and I’m listening to my mom play. She hasn’t missed a note. She hasn’t looked at a hymnal. She’s just playing, using the music to say to Jesus what she can no longer find the words to tell Him. Maybe she can’t find the words. Maybe the hurt is too deep. So, she keeps playing.

Right now she’s praying in G Major.