Mom turns 80 tomorrow and the occasion has me thinking of something I once heard Liza Minnelli say (yes, I’m going to tie Liza to my mom’s birthday; I’m a fifty-something gay man, why not?).  Liza said that she got her drive from her mother, Judy Garland, and her dreams from her father, Vincente Minnelli. I love that lens. When I apply it to my own life, I’d say that I got my drive from my gran (who basically co-raised me with my mom). And, while I wouldn’t say I got my dreams from my mom (my family was never big on dreams so I had to figure dreaming out on my own), I would say I got my joy from Mom. And, the older I get, the more convinced I am that joy is perhaps the biggest gift any of us can receive. Certainly, it’s among the most needed.

If you read these Chronicles with any regularity, you’ll know that I talk about joy alot.  That’s because I don’t think we talk about enough. We seem to be in a collective cycle these days where we are bound and determined to pull each other back from the brink of joy. I see it all the time in the comments folks very kindly make about my writing. Take my last Chronicle. I wrote about how Mom amazed me by managing to find joy one year into COVID. At least a few folks couldn’t resist “yes, but…” or “I wish” comments. As in, “Yes, you’re Mom can laugh but people are dying.” or “I wish I could laugh among so much pain.” When I share some of this with Mom, she just shrugs and says, “Well, I guess you could look at it that way. But, you know sweet boy, there’s plenty of people paying attention to what’s wrong in the world. I just like to pay attention to what’s right.”

Mom just likes to choose joy.

She’s been like that my whole life. Discord in my parent’s message meant that there wasn’t always a lot of that traditional kind of family love in my childhood home. But there was always a lot of joy.  Even when Mom and Daddy were at their most tense, Mom would find things to make us laugh. When I was so sick as a kid, in and out of hospitals and at least once in and out of a coma, Mom would find something to distract me from my sadness. Something about how unbelievably cold a Tab soda was or how bright the sky was or how the pizza we were sharing was perhaps the best she’d ever tasted. All these years later, she still does the same thing to me.

And it still works.

So, as I think about Mom celebrating 80 years on this Earth, I think about how grateful I am that she’s been my mom for 55 of them. I also think about how grateful I am that the sun, the moon and the stars conspired these past three years to give Mom her own joy back.  You see, in the years after Mom’s mom (my gran) and then Mom’s husband died, her joy dimmed to only a faint glimmer. Ever the good Southern lady of a certain generation, she’d offer the joy to her kids, her friends, even random passerby. But she couldn’t offer it to herself. She didn’t have the strength. She didn’t know the way.

Then, she found/we found the amazing people at Sunrise Senior Living’s Assisted Living Community in Plano, Texas. And Mom got her joy back. She got her life back. Surrounded by people who not only have the skills, but also the compassion to give Mom the support she needs, Mom has been able to shed the shrouds of isolation that came from slowly, painfully saying good-bye, first, to the woman who brought her into this world and, then, the man who made your world.

There’s been a lot written this past year about what’s wrong with elder care communities. And while I don’t doubt what others say, I also know with 100% certainty that Sunrise is exactly where Mom needs to be.

Her joy tells me so.

And that’s why Mom and I are going into her 80th with nothing but joy. Oh sure, a lot of people have told me, have told Mom, “I am so sorry Barb has to spend her birthday locked up.” But Mom…and I…both just shrug our shoulders and say, “Well, there is that, but…” At least Mom is here for her 80th.  At least she knows people who genuinely care about her will wake her the morning of her 80th (and bring her not one, but two!, cups of coffee). At least she’ll have time with her son who adores her. At least the sun will shine.

I need to run now and go buy Mom her birthday gift, but before I go, I wanted to share these lines from Mary Oliver. They seem their own type of birthday gift for Mom and a beautiful lens to look through these still not yet altogether better days:

DON’T HESITATE

If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy, don’t hesitate. Give in to it. There are plenty of lives and whole towns destroyed or about to be. We are not wise, and not very often kind. And much can never be redeemed. Still, life has some possibility left. Perhaps this is its way of fighting back, that sometimes something happens better than all the riches or power in the world. It could be anything, but very likely you notice it in the instant when love begins. Anyway, that’s often the case. Anyway, whatever it is, don’t be afraid of its plenty. Joy is not made to be a crumb.

Happy 80th, Mom! I’m so grateful–and joy-full–that you never let me forget, even after a year with COVID that “life has some possibility left!’

The Mom Chronicles is a blog series about a middle-aged son learning to care for his elderly mother.