Smelling the Cake


“If the whole world were put into one scale and my mother in the other, the whole world would kick the beam.”  — Lord Langdale

It’s been a tumultuous few weeks. Every family has their own version of our story, the story of a parent’s decline.

Three weeks ago, my 90-year-old mother suffered a stroke. Up until that morning, she was living in her own condo, cooking her meals and filling her freezer with batches of her homemade soup or restaurant leftovers, mentally packing for her March trip to Arizona, and planning a summertime move to a pretty plush independent living apartment.

But as the saying goes, “We make plans; God laughs.”

In the past three weeks, she’s gone from  her local hospital to an acute rehabilitation hospital, then to a subacute rehab. She has been stripped, we hope temporarily,  of her ability to use her left arm and leg, and her speech is somewhat slurred. The other day she said, “I see the people walking with a walker, and I get jealous.” Entitled to hold the world’s biggest pity party, I’d say.

Well, Mary doesn’t hold pity parties. She gets to work. no complaints. She’s the star pupil with the PTs.  Determined  to walk, to put on a sweater with no one helping her, she’s focused on a move into an assisted living place, even if it is a step down from the independent living spot she’d had her sights on just weeks ago.

“Whatever you decide is okay with me,” she’s assuring me and my four siblings as we figure out what to do next. Today, she urged my brother Tim to put her condo on the market. Matter-of-factly, she said, “I’ll never go back there, so we may as well sell now before the market heats up.”

So, onward.

We have our marching orders.

Yesterday, I cleaned out her fridge. (“There’s some unopened cheese. Don’t throw that out.”) As directed,  I brought all of her boxes of photographs home with me, to be dispersed among the family.

I came across one of our family favorites, from my nephew Brendan’s first birthday, in 1990.

An old prank in our family is to get little kids to smell their birthday cake, and then pop them in the face with it. Not really as cruel as it sounds, I swear. On Brendan’s first birthday, the little kids decided that Grandma should smell her piece of cake. “Grandma, Grandma, Grandma!” they chanted, and she gamely leaned over her dessert. Mick snuck around from behind and pushed her face downward, smearing her cheeks and forehead and glasses with frosting. The crew of grandkids went wild. What on earth could be funnier? Grandma smelled her cake!

On that day, no one laughed harder or longer that my mother. The event became a prominent one in Dineen family lore. We talked about it again today and she’s still laughing about it.

Her hand and leg may not obey her mental commands right now, but her spunk and sense of humor are unscathed.

Maybe on her 91st birthday in two months, we should reprise her role as a birthday-cake-smeller. There are now eleven great-grands, and I think Mom might get a kick out of entertaining the new generation with an encore.