Spending time with my grandma, who turned 89 on October 5, 2012, is a blessing for many reasons. It has now been over sixteen years since my grandmother was diagnosed with an advanced stage of cancer (specifically multiple myeloma) and given under a year to live. This faithful prayer warrior, lover of books, volunteer, caregiver…has proven doctors wrong over and over again. Each time they would give her a gloomy prediction, she would be that much more diligent about eating healthy, getting exercise, and enjoying life.
For years after she’d moved down here from Rochester, New York, she lived in her own apartment, drove, would walk an hour a day using two canes to make sure she got exercise, and had a busier social life than most people a third of her age.
Hopefully, the doctors she’s had who predicted she didn’t have long on this earth have taken note that they were wrong by a long shot. Not only did my grandmother far outlive any estimates they made when she was first diagnosed with cancer, but she also showed them that she wasn’t going to give up even when they suggested that’s what we do.
Yesterday in the evening we gathered where my grandmother lives at St. Joseph’s Little Sisters of the Poor to celebrate her 89th birthday with her. My mom brought Chinese food from one of Gram’s favorite restaurants, my sister and her husband, and family friends joined us in the social room for a fun birthday celebration.
I could tell after being there only a few minutes that my grandma was having a very limited memory day. When we dished the food out, she asked what everything was, though we used to get food from that restaurant all the time. My mom patiently told her what was on her plate each time she inquired. Gram was delighted and kept saying how delicious it was.
Throughout the course of the evening, our family, friends, and some of the Little Sisters sang Gram “Happy Birthday.” In the lobby, we sang it once in English, then in French, our friends sang it to her in Arabic, and later the eight year old among us serenaded Gram with a most amusing rendition of the song, which it’s certainly just as well she couldn’t understand.
After taking out the delicious raspberry chocolate cake with candles our friend brought and singing one more traditional “Happy Birthday,” we all shared the decadent dessert. (My husband said that the two of us would split a piece which is why the leftover cake in the fridge belongs to meJ.) The eight-year-old girl asked to sing another birthday song, so everyone quieted down and let her have the floor. Many of you who have children, work with them, or can remember being one yourself, probably are familiar with the lyrics to this less mainstream except with children version of birthday greetings.
Once she had everyone’s attention, the eight year old began:
“Happy Birthday to you! Happy Birthday to you!You look like a monkey, and you smell like one too!
Happy Birthday to you! Happy Birthday to you!
You look like a zebra, and you smell like one, too!”
We were all laughing hysterically that the cute little girl was so eager to share this song that she didn’t see anything wrong with. Gram fortunately hadn’t been able to hear the words and might not have understood their implications if she had. The girl’s poor mother put her face in her hands and shook her head, not quite sure what to say. My mom assured her it was okay. Clearly it wasn’t done maliciously or to hurt anyone’s feelings, which made it really funny and completely innocent.
It was wonderful to see my grandmother so smitten with everything: her company, the food she thought she’d never eaten before in her life, the delicious dessert, the fresh flowers…all of it. Yet again, she proved to be a wonderful example of contentment and appreciation, even if she couldn’t quite recognize or recall the foods on her plate or the names of all of the people gathered around her for the party.