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.
One 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.
We 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.
Mom 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.