Mom has to have help with the candles.  She knows what to do.  She purses her lips and blows, but her breath is not what it once was, and that wish?  Even I, her oldest daughter, cannot get her to say her wish.  She was once a powerhouse, a force, a tempest rising and falling with will, both good and ill.  Sometimes defiance remains.was

My mother is in a home for the aged. She has been there for four years, since my father died, the father we thought would live forever.  He had been her primary caretaker.  He was supposed to live forever.  Then he died.  This has not been easy.

She doesn’t like that she is here in this home. Her adult children don’t like that she is here either.  We can’t figure out how else to keep her safe, to keep her from falling, to keep her from calling over and over in the middle of the night.  Like so many other adult children, we can’t figure out how to be to her what she was to her parents—we can’t take care of her as she did them, capably, intimately, in her own home. She was a stay at home mom.  That role, that possibility, does not exist in our family anymore, and sadly, not in many families.

Now it’s her 94th birthday. The cake is in the kitchen, off the bright dining room where she, sitting in her black “Breezy” wheelchair, is rolled up to a table with three other elders.  For her birthday lunch, she has asked for pork chops and scalloped potatoes and fresh asparagus, but what she gets is a kind of pork patty in gravy, cheesy potatoes from a box, and frozen asparagus.  It’s what she asked for but industrialized.  This is not easy to see, not easy to acknowledge how disappointing. She eats steadily and nods, Yes, it’s good, when I ask.

After the plates are cleared, we have the cake.  I leave her side, enter the kitchen to light the candles.  It’s a flat cake with gaudy pink flowers, and it says “Happy Birthday Mom Ruth.”  It has Happy Birthday candles with a wick in each letter, and big number candles—nine and four.  I want to share it with all twenty-seven residents, so I bought a half sheet, much more cake than I realized.  I light the candles, wondering if I carry it with paper plates and ladle in hand.  Suddenly, Dennis, favorite maintenance man, is standing next to me, says “Let me.”  He likes Mom, looks our for her.  He picks up the cake, balances it in his large hands, and I follow him into the dining room.  The aids start singing happy birthday, and I’m surprised to hear, among the residents, a wobbly last-note harmony.   Dennis walks to her table, presents the cake by kneeling right next to her chair, holding it like a prince might hold a crown.

And she looks at him. A wry glance.

“How old are you?”  He asks, unabashed.

She looks at the numbers.  “Forty-nine,” she says firmly.

He nods.  “Make your wish,” he says, and holds the candles closer to her.

She leans forward, trembling, she who raised five kids, helped run a farm, and she blows about half of the happy birthday candles, and has to take another short breath to make her wish true, so I lean in and Dennis does too, and still there is one bright candle remaining. Then she, or is it I, blows out that one too.

Anne-Marie Oomen is the founding editor of Dunes Review, former president of Michigan Writers, Inc., former creative writing at Interlochen Arts Academy. Her new book, Love, Sex, and 4-H hit bookstores in April.