Mom’s 8Oth Birthday and The True Meaning of Celebrations
Eighty Years Loved
Birthdays are important events marking the ages and stages of our lives, but when you reach the beginning of your ninth decade on this planet, it truly is something to celebrate. I knew my mom was approaching her 80th birthday when we left the USA in June 2019 to travel back to Croatia for another year and had made sure we had a flight heading back to New Orleans a few weeks before the big day in October.
One of the most difficult things about living abroad is when important milestones such as this occur, you are a world away. My daughter just had her 27th birthday yesterday, and we were sadly oceans away from her. With an 8 hour time difference, it’s hard enough to schedule a phone call with those you love much less anything more. With the Christmas season upon us and Mike and I not being in the states, I’m feeling the longing for home and family more acutely for sure, but because of my mom’s milestone, we decided way back in June that October was a better time to visit this year.￼
You see, I was determined not to miss my mom’s big day. She has been there for me and my family for more milestones than I could ever count and even then some. She has been there through every meaningful event in my life, so I felt I couldn’t not be there for hers.
So I nervously boarded the flights home from Zagreb certain something would delay us or some “katastrofa,” as it’s known in Croatian, would befall and keep us in Europe on my mom’s birthday. We’ve had enough bad experiences in airports to learn to expect them.
At the airport in Amsterdam, there was a slight rise in my blood pressure when my hands were swabbed and I subsequently caused two different machines to beep off an alarm. The airport agents swabbed my hands again, and then caused me a mini panic attack as they told me to stand aside while they went to get a police dog to do the final examination.
I waited nervously for a quick sniff test by a German shepherd hired to sniff out bombs, but when I made it past the furry police dog I felt like I was home free. And the rest of the journey home through two more airports was relatively painless, so it looked like my fears had not been justified. At least at that point they were not.
And so the preparations began. My daughter Madelyn flew in from California earlier in the week, and we went shopping with my older sister Wanda and my niece and my youngest daughter Marina and her spouse Patrick for some fun party decorations at Target. We all had a great time trying out and choosing decorations together and generally goofing off as we discussed the possibilities for the party.
My sister Wanda was hosting the event at her house, which is always stressful, and had ordered a special cake that my mom loved from a local specialty bakery. We decided on a menu and on what everyone would bring or cook. Gumbo, pumpkin bread and my daughter’s famous spinach artichoke dip were some of the things we decided we would make. Wanda ordered some catered dishes as well that my older brother who was heading to Louisiana from Texas would pick up the morning of the party, along with the delicious cake. My sister would be heading to New Orleans the morning of the party, which was a good 45 minutes away, to pick up her daughter Andrea and grandson for the party.
My middle daughter Madelyn had came into town on the tail end of a business trip and since she had to fly back home to California before the party, we went to visit my mom a few days before the big day. My mom was really excited to see Madelyn, as she is when any of her 11 grandkids visit, and we talked at length about the upcoming festivities.
My mom was thrilled that her brother and his wife, my Uncle Buster and Aunt Annette, my godmother, would be there. As I hadn’t seen them in a while as well, I was really happy they were coming, too.
My mom talked at length about my Aunt Annette , who is my mom’s sister-in-law, and Annette’s mother Marie who was 97-years old and how my aunt was so devoted to her and was there everyday for her in her advanced age. I remember Marie or “Mimi,” as she was called by my cousins, was always the smiling, larger than life grandma who could light up a room when we were children. She wasn’t officially our grandma, but I always wished she was as she was so full of laughter and joy.
We also talked about how my sister’s daughter Andrea and her new baby (my mom’s only great grandson) were flying in from Sarasota, Florida on the morning of the party. It would be six-month old Elliot’s first plane ride, and my niece was anxiously anticipating the trip back home to Louisiana. She would be picked up that morning by Wanda, my sister who was hosting the party. Little Elliot’s appearance was originally going to be a surprise for my mom, but secrets don’t keep very well in our family, especially good ones. The cousin grapevine is very strong in our family, and my mom has a keen sense for these types of surprises.
In addition to my niece, my youngest sister Sheila who lived about an hour away would travel from New Orleans to Mandeville with her husband and her three daughters to celebrate with us as well.
The sense of expectation and excitement was overwhelming. My brother and his partner were already on their way from Texas as he was arriving a few days early. Even though Madelyn had to leave to get back to California before the party, I was so happy that we were going to be able to honor my mom and celebrate her 80 years in this world with many of her loved ones around her to show how much we cherished her and her life.
And then there was an accident.
Things Fall Apart
While most people know it’s bad luck to walk under a leaning ladder, this apparently extends to climbing one as well as my youngest sister and her husband were to find out a few days before my mom’s birthday.
This superstition originated 5,000 years ago in ancient Egypt. A leaning ladder against a wall forms a triangle, and Egyptians regarded this shape as sacred (think pyramids) because it represented the trinity of the gods, and to pass through a triangle was to desecrate them.
My mom got the call from my younger sister that her husband was doing some work while on a very tall ladder leaning against his home and had fallen directly on his kneecap and had completely shattered it. Thankfully he wasn’t hurt worse in the fall, but that was no consolation as the damage was extensive. Because he couldn’t move off the couch with his injury and the pain from it was so debilitating (and remember she lived an hour away) my sister and her family wouldn’t be able to make the party.
We were all so disappointed and concerned for my brother-in-law. And then knowing my sister and family wouldn’t be at my mom’s party added insult to injury.
It was the first in a series of unfortunate events that was to befall before the party.
Things sort of went downhill from there, no pun intended.
Olga Makes an Appearance
First of all, it’s October in Louisiana, which is usually the most beautiful month in the state, with low humidity and clear sunny, cool days. Everyone in Louisiana lives for the cool, crisp humidity free days of October when your hair behaves and your mood improves after the sweltering heat of the summer has passed. But a weather system in the Gulf of Mexico was not behaving very well and had other plans for our party. A tropical storm formed in the gulf on October 25, the day before the event, and heavy rains and winds were expected.
At this point I was making gumbo and pumpkin bread and catching up with my daughter. I didn’t really pay much attention to the weather reports because it was October. Surely it would just fizzle out, right? Tropical storms are for the summer months, aren’t they?
No, not according to Olga. And I’m not talking about my good friend Olga here in Croatia.
That was what they named the storm.
The Storm and its Casualties
While the tropical storm in the gulf was colliding with a cold front from the northeast, a kind, loving grandmother, 97 years young, was taking her last breaths. Mimi, the strong, lively, but most importantly, loving mother, grandmother and great grandmother died in her sleep on October 25, 2019.
My mom got the word the evening before her party that our Aunt Annette‘s mom was gone. While at 97 years old, death is not that uncommon, it was the end of an era in my aunt, uncle and cousin’s lives of a person who was the matriarch of their family for as long as I could remember, as her husband had died many years ago. It was such a sad day for them. And unfortunately for my mom as well.
And while Mimi I’m sure would have wanted the party for my mom to go on, my aunt and uncle certainly wouldn’t be in any mood for this celebration. We mourned their loss of Marie as we would also mourn their absence at my mom’s party.
In weather related events, here’s how Olga made herself known in the wee hours of the morning of my mother’s birthday celebration.
From the National Weather Service website:
“The post-tropical circulation of Tropical Storm Olga moved rapidly across southeast Louisiana and south Mississippi from midnight through late morning of Saturday October 25, 2019, producing strong winds, high tides and locally heavy rainfall.”
So with all of this tumultuous weather, it was only natural we would have issues, but waking up that morning none of us realized what they would be.
A Trip To Nowhere
My niece Andrea’s trip was another casualty of Olga, but not because the weather itself. It was more frustrating than that. As my sister Wanda raced from her home to get to the New Orleans airport at 8 am to pick up her daughter, Andrea was already on the plane heading towards New Orleans.
Here are her words:
dejectedly power wandering
received Orleans officially canceled
My sister’s dog Roux was the official mascot of the day. He was one of the few guests who actually made it to the party.
The True Meaning Of Celebrations
It turns out luckily that while many of the guests were not able to attend, the party went on and we actually had a really great time. My brother managed to find a birthday cake at a local grocery that had a backup generator and it turned out to be really delicious. We sat around munching on the overabundance of food (since so few of the guests made it) and talked and laughed about my mom’s childhood and her life in general. And we had fun taking pictures, too, of course!
The Heart Does Go On
And there we are in the pictures above at my mom’s birthday party, my mom’s face is shining, her happiness beaming out to all of us. We are all smiling because we are happy, and happy she is happy.
Those who truly know my mom know that she is no stranger to unfortunate events, unfortunately.
The course of this party in a way symbolizes her life’s path as she has had many heartaches, some heart-wrenching losses that would break the best of us, and misfortunes that would test her faith, yet she always manages to retain her strength and dignity and carry on.
And she carries on with faith, with fortitude and with hope and passion, always with a helpful heart, always with encouragement for others who are making their way along the bumpy road of life. Always pushing her children and grandchildren to fulfill their dreams, even if they may take them a world away from her loving arms. To Florida. To Texas. To California. Even as far away as Croatia.
So while unfortunate events may occur in our lives, there are no hard and fast rules which say we must let them defeat us, define us. My mom’s life is proof of this theorem. She has been hit with many unfortunate events and if she would have let them defeat her, she would have missed the beauty and love that surrounds her now from all corners of the the world.
And though all of the people who love her so dearly weren’t there on her special day, she knows that their intentions were heartfelt and that they love her always and completely wherever they are.
Oh, and the cake? That’s a lesson we all should remember from the Grinch Who Stole Christmas. That it’s not about the trimmings and gifts and food. Perhaps it is about “something much more.”
Celebrating milestones is about so much more. About celebrating the love we have in our hearts and the tenuous grasp we have on life. The combination of these two things melds together and makes each celebration an acknowledgement that we know we have limited time on this earth and we are grateful and fortunate for this time together. Even if we are not always together.
And this particular series of unfortunate events that struck in October of 2019 made our small gathering and my mom’s important milestone that much more meaningful as we know our moments together are limited and finite and fragile.
And we must hold each other close while we can.