This morning I sent my mother the card. It features a beautiful hand-drawn hibiscus. The red bloom opens like the blazing sun. The corolla has five petals that unfold gracefully like pieces of a cloud. Eleven years ago, she would have opened this Mother's Day card and squealed with delight. But this year, on this special day she will gaze at it curiously and perhaps sing a quiet song only she can understand. My mother suffers from Alzheimer's. She is 90 years old. She's forgotten what holidays mean. Every day unfolds in ritual. My father feeds her breakfast. A nurse comes to bathe her. She'll watch cartoons on television. This will be a Mother's Day she won't remember. The light will filter like a prism through her pale-blue bedroom, casting rays across the hospital bed my father has set up for her. She may take the card and cast it aside.
A week ago I called my father and told him I missed my mother calling me. I would answer the phone and I would hear her distinctive voice. She would alter it to sound like the voice of a little girl whose feelings had been hurt. "This is your mother," she would say, suppressing a tiny giggle. "Have you forgotten the mother who gave birth to you after hours of labor?" Cuban guilt. I would answer in the same way each time she called. "Of course not. You're the most special mom in the whole world," I'd say. And then I would hear the sound of her laughter like a wave crashing on a Havana beach. It was thunderous and wonderful. I knew she was happy.
My father could hear the sadness in my voice. "Here, say something to your mother," he urged. "I'll put the phone right to her mouth," he said excitedly. I shouted loudly: "Mami, mami, I love you." There was a pause followed by a litany of gibberish. "Ta- ra -ra. Si- Si- Si. Lee-La-Lee. Pero-que-no-no-no." My father came back on the phone. "Did you hear her?" he'd asked. "She's very happy. She understood you," he said. I wasn't so sure. I had heard her voice. And that was enough.
I remember thinking my mom was the most beautiful woman in the world. She was a curvy Elizabeth Taylor type of mom. I used to be so proud walking with her into school for an awards ceremony or just walking down the street. I imagined she was the envy of all the other moms. But my mother was hardly a "bombshell." She was kind and considerate and always advised me to "be nice" in whatever situation I faced (and in whatever indignity I might have suffered). "But were you nice, Charlito?" she would always say when I would relate an argument or something unpleasant that had transpired at school. "If you are nice, that is what people remember. They remember how you made them feel."
Through the years I always sent bouquets of roses or perfume to my mother on Mother's Day. And there was always a beautiful card. But as my mother began developing symptoms of Alzheimer's, my father advised me not to send perfume. Now the scent caused her to sneeze instead of swoon. I asked my father if I could send flowers. "No, don't send any." he said "She won't know what they are." His words were painful. My mother loved flowers. She planted beautiful rose bushes in our Hialeah, Fla. front yard. She also loved gardenias, which grew in abundance in her native Cuba. She replicated the bushes that grew outside of her aunt's home in Havana. I remember her giving tours of her gardenias to guests who visited our home. "Smell these," she would urge our visitors. "Isn't this the most heavenly smell in the world?" When she became older and joined a church group, she discovered the enchantment of orchids. The members of the group traveled to Hawaii and she saw orchids everywhere. "They were so beautiful, Charlito," she would tell me when she returned home. So she decided to plant orchids in our backyard. A year later they had bloomed everywhere. She had attached several of the orchids in a beautiful shade of lavender to our huge backyard sapote fruit tree. The mamey sapote tree is a species of tree native to Central America. Our tree was over 70 feet tall and filled with large orange mamey sapotes. A guest led on one of my mother's tours would see a large tree filled with brightly-hued orange fruit that looked like tiny suns blazing against a backdrop of green. And on the large trunk up to a dozen orchids, cultivated by my mother's astonishing green thumb, blossomed in shades of white and purple and multi-colored splendor. " And here is my own version of paradise," my mother would exclaim to visitors on one Mother's Day many years ago. It's a day I remember in my heart.
Mother's Day is a day to remember that special person that means more to us than anyone else in our life. This Mother's Day, my brother and sister-in-law will travel from Weston, Fla to visit her. And I will call when they are there. Together we will take turns talking to our mom and telling her how much we love her. She is no longer the robust woman of our childhood, but frail and delicate. She has lost many of her teeth. But my mother still knows how to smile. And when she sees her loved ones, her smile is wide and her joy is contagious. On this Mother's Day, the card I drew by hand for my mother will lay beside her in her bed. Perhaps she'll look at it from time to time. And perhaps the petals from the hibiscus flower, which is so common in her native Cuba, will bring a radiant smile to her face. And in that radiance will be the reflection of joy and love. It's a Mother's Day she may not ultimately remember. But it's a Mother's Day to cherish nevertheless.
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