The Story Of Her Life

Have you ever read a book that caused you to take a risk, accept a challenge, or—as in my case—plan a parade? Donald Miller and his book, A Million Miles In A Thousand Years, inspired me to help my dying mother accept her story’s starring role.


“Look what I’ve got for you, Mom,” I say, not knowing if she’ll like the Happy Birthday banner, replete with pink and purple butterflies, that I hope to hang at ceiling level in her nursing home room.

I have no idea whether my siblings and I will be able to give Mom a wonderful celebration or not. So much depends on her, and the truth is that for the past few years, she often doesn’t want to be the main character in her own narrative.

But this is her life, her one true story. These are the only memories she gets to make with her family. The only memories we have a chance, at this late date, to make with her.

“I love it,” she says.

I am more than surprised. I climb onto her desk, then step even higher onto her dresser to thumbtack the banner across the top of the wall. She smiles and I think This day could turn out to be amazing.

We plan to scoot Mom in her wheelchair across the busy road to the Mexican restaurant. She’s been looking forward to the guacamole and the Margarita for weeks. What she doesn’t know is that we’re going to make a grand parade out of it. We’ll stop traffic if it’s the last thing we do, and she is going to be the center of attention, the starring attraction in her life.

When she’s dressed, make-up on and hair curled, we head to the lobby, where my siblings are meeting us. I spin Mom around the corner and there they are, bearing the rest of the party paraphernalia: cameras, cake, and huge grins.

Mary McKennaOne places a child’s dress-up pendant around Mom’s neck, a gaudy piece of bling on her finger, and a glitzy tiara on her head. Mom beams! Another ties helium balloons to Mom’s wheelchair, passes out the horns, and gives Mom a big kiss. I distribute bottles of bubbles.

“What on earth is happening?” Mom asks.

“A parade,” I say. “And it’s all about you.”

For once, she does not object. She does not tell us it’s too much for her to be the heroine, for us to make over her and act goofy and pretend together that we’re a bunch of little kids who don’t intend to grow up until far into the evening. We open the door of the facility and are greeted by the bright sunshine of a fantastic April day.

McKenna ParadeWe start waving our bubble wands and blowing our horns and shouting, “Happy Birthday, Mom!” Dozens of cars slow down, pull over, open their windows, and call out their own birthday wishes for our mother. They honk, give thumbs up, and blow kisses as they pass by, all to Mom’s delight.

By the time the party’s over, she is tired, but not so much that she doesn’t get a huge kick out of it when a young mom (followed by her husband and awe-struck children) stops, points to Mom’s tiara, and says, “We didn’t know we’d be in the presence of royalty!”

We wheel her back across the road, still blowing bubbles and tooting our horns, but with somewhat less enthusiasm than we had on the way there.

Because stories end, and this one was reaching its curtain call.

Out of nowhere, I hear my long-dead father’s voice singing, for old times’ sake, a 1950s-era Nat King Cole song. One he’d sung hundreds of times when he and Mom were young and I was younger still, one that always seemed so sad to me, because even a child knows what’s eventually coming.

The party’s over
It’s time to call it a day.
They’ve burst your pretty balloon
And taken the moon away…

“Do you want me to take your Happy Birthday banner down now, Mom?” I ask, when we arrive in her room. She never did like fanfare.

“No! I don’t want you to take it down, ever.”

The party’s over
The candles flicker and dim…
Now you must wake up, all dreams must end.

McKenna FamilyMom didn’t live to celebrate another birthday. But this my mother did: She grabbed hold of that final party, wringing every ounce of joy from it, composing the perfect ending in our hearts—and in her own.

And she gave me the courage to keep writing my story, too.

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This entry was posted in Memoir, Writer's Life, Writing and tagged , by Katy McKenna. Bookmark the permalink.

About Katy McKenna

Katy McKenna revels in fictionalizing her true-life stories and, conversely, infusing genuine truth into her made-up stories. She loves it when a reader reports having laughed and cried, all in the same paragraph. Katy and her hubby empty-nest in Kansas City, which is home-base for three grown kids, two in-law kids, and two grandkids. They operate a web design firm, for which Katy provides copywriting, editing, bookkeeping, and coffee-making services. Katy is not, repeat NOT, a hoarder! However, she embraces the thrill of the thrift-store hunt with untethered enthusiasm. A dual citizen of America and Britain, Katy adores haunting her ancestral ruins and relatives in Scotland and Ireland, excavating stories galore.

81 thoughts on “The Story Of Her Life

  1. Such a heartfelt, great story. Got to love a woman who loves guacomole and margaritas. I would have gotten along with her well.

    • Hi, Jordyn! My mom looked forward for WEEKS to the guac and Margarita. She was never a drinker, so her one drink per year or so was an event. She was a terrific storyteller, though. And a store listener, too…..

    • Excellent story. It’s not as touching, but lots of books have led me to book plane tickets, e.g. Martin Cruz Smith’s books, especially Wolves Eat Dogs (Ukraine) and Gorky Park (Russia.)

      • Margaret, I will check out those books! I have many books about Ireland and Scotland that, if cracked open even a smidge, will lead me to purchase tickets right this minute! I love travel books of all stripes. “Tales of a Female Nomad” is antoher one that inspires adventure. Thank you for commenting!

  2. Thanks for sharing this beautiful story, Katie. I love that you were inspired by reading a good book–and then acted on your inspiration. How wonderful that your mother was given the opportunity to star in her own life, even as her star was fading. So lovely! I’m glad you all enjoyed the celebration.

    • Megan, My siblings are much better party planners and executors than I am. But Mom posed a particular challenge to all of us. We’d given her a terrific 75th birthday party 5 years earlier and it overwhelmed her. By her 80th birthday, her health had failed significantly, so we had to come up with something she could both enjoy and handle emotionally/physically. The Queen for a Day Parade was the answer! That she loved it still surprises me, even now.

  3. What a moving tale of love in action, Katy. I was misty-eyed well before the end. You’re quite a gifted storyteller–and this was one special story to tell. I love what you and your siblings did for your mom.

    • Bless you, Keli! What I love about my siblings is that one of us can come up with a germ of an idea, and the rest will rally around and make it a reality. When it came to Mom, the 5 of us were united in purpose. I think she always knew that not only we were on her team, we WERE her team.

  4. I like to tell people that I hope they feel thoroughly celebrated on their birthdays. Never have I heard of anyone being more thoroughly celebrated then your mom. What a precious story. What an even more precious memory.

    • Beth, I LOVE that! “Thoroughly celebrated.” Of course, it means something different to each birthday girl and boy. Mom was easily panicked. On her 75th, we gave her an EXCELLENT party, complete with a “This Is Your Life”–type video that my talented daughter produced. The next morning, she still had not recovered. She told us, “I know I must be dying. The doctor has told you, but not me, right? That MUST be the reason you gave me such as extravagant party!” So. We had to be cautious not to freak her out like that again! 🙂

    • Thank you, Anon. I have a few regrets, of course, but NONE related to that One Fine Day. Sometimes, a simple idea simply executed can bring so much joy in the present and great memories for the future.

  5. **tears**

    What a lovely tribute to a lovely woman, Katy. Thank you for starting my day with such a beautiful vignette.

    God bless you.

    • Cath, Hope you are having safe and pleasant travels today. I’m betting you commented using an airport’s wifi. Am I right? xoxox to you, too.

  6. Katy, I loved this, both the story and the writing. You made simple things into an amazing event for your mother and for your readers. Talk about memoir!

    • Elaine, thank you! I am pretty much a “fabric of our lives” kind of girl. Nothing terribly extraordinary going on in my life, until I look a bit closer at the heart of the matter. At the hearts of the people in my story. That’s where the action is, for me. Bless you!

  7. i was fine until i got to the part that said “We start waving our bubble wands and blowing our horns and shouting, “Happy Birthday, Mom!” and then the tears started to flow. so much that i had to stop for a moment before i could begin the story again. what a testimony to your love for your mother. that you were willing to risk looking foolish for the sake of love. and what a great testimony to the goodness that is still alive in this world today…that people slowed down to send their own greetings her way. thanks for sharing this story and reminding us all of the truly important moments in life.

    • Colleen, The name of your blog made me immediately click over, because honestly? MONDAYS? But I see we share a similar theme: Finding the good, the humor, the celebration in even the mundane. Love that! We Mom’s kids DID take a risk planning a parade. The risk was that she would care how SHE looked. But she loved the Queen thing more than I dared imagine. A risk well taken, as it turned out! Thank you.

      • i get that reaction a lot about my love for mondays. but i’ve made a choice to look for the good even when it seems impossible to find. thanks for clicking over to check it out!

        i’m glad you took the risk and i’m glad you told the story. it inspires the rest of us to take risks too!!!

  8. Hi Katy!
    What a wonderful tribute to your mother from a loving family. I love the pics and your heartfelt story. Just a beautiful way to honor your mom. I’ve never read Donald Miller’s, A Million Miles In A Thousand Years. I’ll have to check it out.
    I have been inspired though by Mark Batterson and his book titled, In a Pit with a Lion on a Snowy Day: How to Survive and Thrive When Opportunity Roars. He says:
    “Your greatest regret at the end of your life will be the lions you didn’t chase.” I’m sure your mom would want you to chase your lions, Katy. I love that expression on her face in the first pic wearing the tiara. I wonder what she was thinking?

    • Jillian, I’m delighted you liked my story. Donald Miller’s book centers around the idea of not being a bystander in your own life, but rather consciously putting yourself in the middle of it. I read it at the perfect time, and it triggered responses in me that I didn’t even realized needed to happen. Thank you for suggesting Mark Batterson’s book. I have heard of it but have not yet read it. Now I will! Now, I believe my mother, in the pic with the tiara, is thinking, “That Margarita was everything I hoped it would be!” 🙂

  9. There is nothing like a good story to draw me in. This is just beautiful! Your mom is a real hero and it brought tears to my ears to read about her. It also gives me courage to write. Thank you.

    • Hi, Susan! My mother’s health decline spanned a long decade. She broke at least 30 bones, plus had many other significant disease processes. Once not long before her death, when I was getting truly run down while trying to make sure she was well cared for, she looked and me and said, “You’d better pull it together or you’re not going to make it!” I thought that was brilliant, and she of all people knew that life is a marathon. I was burning out before my time. Mom WAS a hero, someone who stuck it out and made it work. She did not give up, and I admire her for that. Your comment is sweet—thank you for it!

    • Thank you for this, Tamara, and for the sweet Tweet, too! Your blog post about every person’s desire to be remembered touched me. It is so, so true…..

    • Hi, Erin! I’ll bet you have no lack of cause for celebration, as a young mom. It does great tricky with the old folks, but EVERYone deserves to be celebrated and to be the main character in their own story for as long as they’re alive to tell it. Thank you so much for reading my true tale!

  10. Perhaps one of the most beautiful “memories” I’ve read. Thank you for sharing this. As a mom of four who has walked through cancer in the last year, I value your thoughts on celebration. I want to do more of it…

    peace~elaine

    • Oh, Elaine. I’ve just begun some reading at your blog. What a strong, steady, and faithful voice you have. I love it! “Thus far, the Lord has helped me,” indeed. Praying for you and thanking you for your kind words here…..

  11. That’s a beautiful story. I’m glad you had a chance to make that last birthday such a happy one, and that you can draw on that memory for the courage to be the heroine in your own life-story.

    • Erica, Iron sharpens iron, and so mother sharpens daughter….it is the way of things. Wouldn’t trade my time with Mom for anything—even when we had little to celebrate from almost anyone’s perspective. But she loved that each of her kids, grandkids, and great-grandkids were unique with different talents and gifts. I will press on to use mine, as she’d want me to…..Thank you!

  12. Oh Katy… What a precious account of your mom’s special day! Thank you so much for sharing your inspiring story.

    • Sharen, I am so glad you still have your mom to enjoy and celebrate on this earth. She seems like such a vibrant and fun lady! I did learn to find something funny or quirky or blog-worthy in almost all the time spent with Mom during her protracted illness–and that made all the difference. Thank you for your friendship and kind thoughts!

  13. Katy as usual you made me Smile and you made me Cry!! What a perfect celebration of a Wonderful Life. Reminds me of Penny telling me about Hiring a Drum and Bugle Corps to have a Parade and Perform in front of their house for Bobs BD.

    • Vickie, Thank you!! Oh, the story about Bob and Penny made me smile. Bob must have felt so special! They are such a great couple. We got to sit with them at a wedding reception recently and catch up. On my dad’s last Christmas, 1983, my sister Liz secured a bagpiper to come to the house as a surprise and play a few tunes for him. Oh, how Dad loved that!!! We let the bagpiper in the front door and he had to tune up a bit before moving into the dining room, where Dad was sitting. You should have seen my dad’s eyes light up when he heard those pipes! That was a great last holiday……

  14. I love this post because it reminded me of my mother’s last triumphant exit from her nursing facility. Staff and patients came to their doors and waved as she gave her royal Queen Elizabeth-style wave, smiling and nodding to each one. She had arranged the outing herself and I often think of how she basked in the glory of the moment. Your post brought all that back to me. Thank you!

    • That is a terrific story about your mom, Lanita! Don’t you love the Royal Wave?? My mom could only leave the building by wheelchair van, which cost $120 every time we wanted to take her somewhere. Sadly, that means so many folks in nursing homes don’t get out often enough. Good for your mom, for basking in the glory! Love that.

  15. I truly enjoyed this. It was easy to read, brought tears to my eyes, and made me think about how I celebrate my life and the lives of those I care about! Thanks for sharing 🙂

    • I don’t celebrate MY life nearly as often or as exuberantly as I should, Steph, but why the heck not? This is the only life on earth we get, and there is so much to enjoy—and so many people in our paths we can make feel special. Thank you for your comment. Now go celebrate! 🙂

  16. Little Big Sister, what a beautiful way to celebrate your mom’s last birthday. Love the parade and her willingness to participate. Now I’m wiping tears. Moms are such an intricate part of us. Praying my mom’s triple bypass goes well on Friday so she can celebrate her birthday in October. She deserves to be thoroughly celebrated! Love your writing and look forward to seeing where God takes it. Love you!

    • Little little sis, I am praying with your for your dear mom!! And that by October, she’ll feel like kicking up her heels a bit. Thank you for your constant friendship and kinship. I love you and so look forward to reading your first book!

  17. I absolutely love this story, Katy. You kept my attention all the way through (and that’s saying alot these scatterbrained days). God bless you and your beautiful family. What a day your mom had!

    • Michelle, Sometimes a day can turn around the rest of your life, you know? I am so glad you enjoyed my story. Blessings to you and yours, too!

    • Elle, and we didn’t quite realize we were doing it for ourselves at the time. I think maybe we did it for Mom and SHE did it for us, and we all came away with a wonderful gift. Thank you!

  18. Pass the Kleenex please.
    God bless you for doing this for your Mom.
    Just LOVE it!

    May the K9 Spy will be most happy to sit quietly near and offer comfort…
    She told me to tell you she LOVES your Mom and thinks what you did is PAWMAZING.

    • KC, They brought sweet dogs around to visit the residents in Mom’s nursing home. She enjoyed them on more than one occasion. I am pleased to know May loves my mama. Thank you for the smiles!

  19. Just lovely, Katy. Thank you so much for sharing this sweet memory and for telling it so well. We threw a big bash for my mom’s 90th this summer and I’m so glad we did. She is getting frailer day by day and I truly don’t know how many more of these celebrations we will enjoy. Loved reading how you made her last party a great one. Just wonderful stuff.

    • Just read a bit more about your dear mom on your blog, Diane. You have such a sweet relationship with her. Even if she lingers here a while longer, it won’t be long before she’s reunited with your dad. And then you, like me, will be the one longing for reunion. Ah, the circle of life! Many blessings to you. Your writing is touching.

    • Lucille, HA!! Rachelle is the best encourager around. She tweeted this link early this morning, terrific agent that she is. Then a little while ago she sent me a tweet saying she understood I was over here making people cry, teehee. She puts up with a LOT!! 🙂

  20. Thank you, thank you, Katy. If I ever needed your mother’s birthday story, Katy, it was this week when we finally conceded that my mother’s care was beyond our ability to give and placed her in a home for dementia care. I so needed your reminder that we still have things to celebrate. Mom’s birthday is this Sunday, and I’m going to bake a cake…

    • Oh, dear Sue. We’ve been down this road, also, with my hubby’s mom. She has end-stage dementia. She lived many years in assisted living, then in a memory care unit (still within assisted living), and now–because her memory is beyond help and she needs more physical care–in a nursing home. You do have and will find things to celebrate!!! My MIL is well cared for and is treated kindly. She does not quite know who we are, but her eyes light with recognition and joy when she’s sees us coming down the hall. It is likely that when your mom’s physical care is not your responsibility, you’ll be able to focus more on your emotional connections, which is a good thing!! Bake your lady a beautiful cake and I’ll pray she enjoys celebrating her birthday with YOU.

  21. Katy what a sweet story. I love the picture of your mother. Look at her little face…she looks full of mischief!!! How fun, and how blessed she was to have a wonderful, loving family who honored her then and now.

    • Sherri, The picture is now a favorite of mine. She DOES look full of mischief, and I am sorry, but that is what I love about it! It was a true blessing to honor my mother…..Thank you for the fun comment!

    • Krista, Coming from YOU, what a sweet comment. You have one of the most compelling blogs EVER. Yours is such a beautiful testament of faith, joy, and love, and dedication to your darling family. Thank you.

  22. Katy, thank you for sharing such a beautiful memory. My favorite part: the people in cars adding their birthday wishes. You must have lifted up the hearts of a lot of people that day, in addition to giving your mom much joy.

  23. I love your post. My mother died a few years ago from Alzheimer’s. There was no last parties no happy ending. In the end there was no one home. You need to savor those precious moments.

    • Glenda, I am so sorry about your mom! Mom died 11 months after her 80th birthday party. I actually don’t remember her having another good day after that one. And my MIL is in end-stage dementia, so I know something of what you experienced. “The long good-bye.” Hoping you’re finding some comfort as time passes, especially as memories of better days rise again to the surface…..

  24. Bless you for what you did. There is a humane story in the muck out there and it is yours.

  25. Katy, you know how I feel about your story already. However, you made me cry again, just reliving that wonderful day with Mom. Love to you always, big sis!

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