We celebrated my mum’s 90th birthday yesterday. It was a pleasant, low-key occasion, but not without its contradictions and unsettling undercurrents. The first of these was our collective decision on where to hold the event. We went to the local pub where my mum quite often goes for a lunch-time meal. We’d have liked to do something a bit more special, to mark out the achievement of hanging on for 90 years in a more distinctive way. But we knew that my mum really finds difference – the very thing that is needed to mark something as being out of the ordinary – very difficult these days. She would have spent the entire evening wondering where she was, and why. Excitement would have been overtaken by anxiety. So we stuck with the familiar.
I have two brothers, and very rarely do all three of us meet up at the same time. In fact, I’m not sure that the last time wasn’t my mum’s 80th. On that occasion we’d gone to a rather more salubrious hotel a good few miles out of town, with a wider guest list. It seemed somewhat poignant that this more significant milestone should have to be more mundanely recognised. We also decided that it would be good to celebrate mum’s birthday on the actual day, if for no other reason than to prevent further confusion. But this meant that a weekday evening would exclude my wife and son for whom a 400-mile round trip for a 2-hour meal was hardly a practical proposition. Not the worst thing in the world, but to me it felt like a compromise, and seeing my brothers with their children made me feel as if my branch of the family had failed to make sufficient effort. Irrational, I know, but that’s feelings for you!
And then there were the dynamics of the meal itself. My mum’s hearing is not what it once was. It would have been better perhaps if she’d been more centrally seated, but then the frequent toilet visits would have been more awkward and more embarrassingly highlighted. So we felt it better to ensure convenience of access to the convenience. But of course, knowing that she could easily make a toilet visit removed mum’s anxiety which is what stimulates her hyperactive bladder in the first place, and I don’t think she went during the meal at all. Best laid plans. But being at the end of the table accentuated the disadvantage of her hearing. One step forward, two back. Inevitably, when people meet up who don’t often get the chance, there’s loads of making up for lost time to be done. I felt torn between not wanting mum to be a kind of outsider at her own party and the almost irresistible attraction of the kind of dry, rapid-fire, ironic humour that is the staple diet of our brotherly conversations, and which mum simply can’t keep up with. Every now and again mum would say, “I really don’t know what you’re all talking about!” and we’d guiltily stop mid-flow.
I’d hate you all to get the impression that the whole event was a stressful and unsuccessful attempt to balance the unbalanceable. It was a lovely evening, and mum enjoyed herself royally. She made her usual dry observations about how much alcohol was being consumed whilst demanding to know why her glass was empty. There was one delicious moment when, somehow or another, hair-dyeing entered the conversation. Mum told us sagely that she never needs to because her hair is so dark a brown that it’s almost black.
“Mum, your hair’s been as white as the driven snow for a quarter of a century!”
“Oh, I’d hadn’t noticed!”
And so the evening shot past, with banter and jollity and gratitude for a mother and grandmother whose commitment to us all has been steadfast, and non-judgemental, and more than we deserved. And yet. And yet at the very heart of everything is an aching sense of loneliness and loss. Loss of her husband without whom she’s struggled on for 16 years so far. Loss of her sister with whom she was as close as she was argumentative. Loss of memory and perhaps purpose too. I don’t know. But I do know that getting to 90 has been bitter-sweet.