The flower-decorated cake says Happy 100th Birthday. We hand out forks and napkins. Around fifty elders, over 90% women, murmur at the tables, their eyes filled with chocolate anticipation. Unlike many of us who always run late, people show up early at a senior residence. The party is scheduled for 2:00.
“Where the hell is she?” I mutter as I wait for the elevator. “I make this party happen and she refuses to come? Or she fell down? Or what?”
Pausing at her apartment door, I hear laughter. If I hear it, you know it’s loud.
Inside, Virginia sits on her red couch dressed in white slacks and a white shirt. An elderly gentleman sits near her and Dawn sits nearby. All three lean toward the coffee table and an open bottle of champagne. The man and Virginia raise glasses sparkling with golden bubbles. Virginia opened his birthday gift before the party.
Virginia is one hundred, drinking champagne, and bubbling inside and out. This scene is my reward for putting up with years of animosity and the effort it takes to help her live in her apartment.
“Hey, folks. It’s time to go downstairs,” I say.
“Oh, we’ll be there in a minute,” Virginia says with a flip of her hand.
“They’re waiting for us,” I say even though I hate breaking up this circle.
Dawn slides a sequined jacket over Virginia’s white shirt. I remember Virginia forty years ago, the woman who loved wearing white. That woman is still here.
Even though she’s nearly blind, Virginia grabs her walker handles like a grocery cart and heads for the elevator ahead of all of us. Is it the gentleman or the champagne?
Downstairs, when the crowd breaks into the Happy Birthday song, Virginia blushes and glows like a debutante. She grabs the old man’s arm and he walks her to a chair. Seated at the head of the table, she turns and throws her adoring fans a kiss.
I snap photos while McGraw House staff cuts and passes out cake. I show slides of her life on my computer, the same slide show her son Vic made for her ninetieth birthday party. I hand out Clementines for those who can’t eat cake or don’t buy fruit for themselves.
Virginia’s white pants are smeared with chocolate icing. She can’t see it. No one cares. She’s grins as everyone wishes her a Happy Birthday. We move the slides close to her. She squints and tells stories about what she barely sees. She doesn’t mention the many photos of Vic who died in 2008.
When the cake is gone and most people have left, Virginia looks up at me. “I Love You,” she says. Her voice is loud and clear.
What? She loves me? I met Virginia in 1967. She has never told me she loves me. Not once. After hesitating, I say, “I love you, too,” even though I’m not sure I do. She has exposed her heart to me as she never has before. I’ll figure out how I feel later.
When we walk back to her room, Virginia flops on her couch with a sigh and opens a gift that came in the mail.
“Elaine, why don’t you take these chocolates to Vic,” she says. Before I can respond, tears pool in her eyes. She remembers that her only child, the one she loved more than life, is dead.
“So would you like to have these chocolates?” she asks me.
After Vic and I met in 1966, he became a bearded anti-war hippie before turning to meditation and vegetarianism. His mother was not pleased with any of this or with me. I finally made her happy by giving birth to two sons, her grandsons. During Vic’s illness, she counted on me and blamed me for not being able to save him. I haven’t shared much about this confusing relationship. How much of the problem was my fault? Will her temperament turn again? If you didn’t read my previous blog about Virginia, see To Forget and To Remember. It could have been titled, “I am not 100.” For earlier adventures in our long relationship, see Mother-in-Law Blues.