Saturday was my birthday and J and I enjoyed a New York extravaganza: two Broadway shows, dinner with a close friend, a night in a hotel, brunch with family and a museum visit. I enjoyed every moment. My only sadness was that I had to plan the whole weekend myself.
J, who has lived with an Alzheimer’s diagnosis since 2010, doesn’t remember my birthday – after 31 years together. Nor could she hold in her memory on the actual day that it was my birthday.
When I reminded J in the morning, she joyously burst into song, but she couldn’t remember all the words to “Happy Birthday.” When we met our friend for dinner on Saturday night, she blurted, “I have Alzheimer’s disease. I don’t know who you are.” (Fortunately, the friend took it in stride. “No problem. I know who you are,” she replied, with a warm smile.)
I am painfully aware that the problems of one little birthday-centric person don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world, but the birthday issue has a long history in my relationship with J. When I turned 50, it was before J’s diagnosis. Although she well knew the extreme bordering on nutty importance I attach to birthdays, J did nothing. No card, no present. Certainly no party. Worse yet, my birthday is the same day as another close friend whose husband did throw her a surprise party. How could he pull this off, I thought, when my wife won’t even say the words, “Happy birthday” to me?
For several tense months, I even considered leaving. How could I be with someone who couldn’t acknowledge what I regarded as a major milestone in even a minor way?
Then the diagnosis came and my eyes opened. J’s failure to mark my 50th birthday had nothing to do with me, and everything to do with how she was functioning at that time.
Six years later, J and I spent a perfect couple of days in Manhattan. On the train ride home, she flashed a broad smile and said, “I love you so much.” That might exceed any, “Happy birthday.”