Four years ago my husband and I went out to dinner to celebrate my birthday. When we returned, my phone was blinking. A message. I played it back and there were my parents singing "Happy Birthday" to me. My mom led and my father's gruff voice picked up the melody. "Ba da bom bom" my dad added at the end. Then silence. "What should I do now?" my mom asks. My dad replies, "Hang it up". It still makes me chuckle when I hear that, such a typical exchange.
Both of my parents had lost memory. My dad had been losing memory for years, my mother's memory loss was just becoming apparent. For years my mother helped my dad, together since they were 16 and 17, she had always been the keeper of their memories.
Then my mother's memory began to deteriorate too.
I was amazed that they were able to call me and sing. That seemed like a complex task beyond their abilities. My mother had stopped making long distance calls. My father bought phone cards with lengthy codes to input. The whole process intimidated my mother even when her memory was intact. Now it presented an insurmountable obstacle. My father would never have remembered a birthday without my mother's prompting. Together they were able to accomplish something that they could not individually.
Exactly three months later my father passed away. The message was preserved by my phone answering system and I saved it on my computer. When my next birthday rolled around, I started the day with that bittersweet recording. The following year I was at my mother's on my birthday. We were going to Israel, a trip she had always wanted to do. Anxious to begin our trip, I woke up at 5am, I heard my mother awake as well. I went into her bedroom. "Are you up?" I asked quietly. Together we perched on the side of her bed. I reminded her that it was my birthday. "Oh, Happy Birthday!" she offered enthusiastically. She no longer remembered birthdays.
I played the recording of her and my father singing together. Enough time had passed that it was now more sweet than bitter. "I play this each birthday" I said. "It's my birthday ritual. Someday when I'm your age, I'll be listening to you and dad singing Happy Birthday to me."
It dawned on me then that it was a milestone birthday for me, one of those decade markers that reminds one of aging. I turned to the mirror and took a picture of us in her bedroom, a "reflective" moment my husband termed it. I wanted to capture the full surroundings, cluttered bedroom and all. It was one of those strange moments where I was in the moment, but also looking at it from a distant point. I was thinking of myself at my mother's age looking back at my relative youth from a far more distant age, much like I view pictures of me in my thirties now.
She passed away this year and on this birthday I once again played the recording four years after I first received it, both parents now gone, but singing to me once again.
When I decided to paint this I thought of the components, my parents, the old wall phone they had when I was growing up and a curved row of birthday cakes denoting birthdays through time. Always with my parents raising their voices in song. Candles cast the glow of memory. Flickering them into the present, my birthday present.