Not Just a Simple Birthday Cake

Gabi Eimbinder, Staff Writer

“Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you,” I belt out as I carry my handmade, round, double-layer cake decorated with vanilla buttercream icing and pink writing that says, “Happy Birthday, Mary!” 

Mary Smith turned 92 on December 22, but I was the only person who celebrated this milestone with her. Mary lives in a small, blue ranch house hidden behind giant oak trees; she and her house have been on Hickory Avenue since the 1930s. 

Cars pass Mary’s house each day on their way to Tenafly High School, yet no one knows the hidden treasure behind her door. Every time I visit Mary, I find her sitting in her rustic, wooden chair with its hand-sewn cushion at the tiny table for one. I can hardly see one inch of the table top as it is cluttered with medicine bottles, Christmas cards, catalogs, and the ancient-looking phonebook with a sticky note of my phone number on its cover. There is little room in the kitchen to walk between the cans and vegetables I delivered last week, the walker and cane pulled beside her, and the bags of Depends. 

After I move her plate with a half-eaten English muffin to the sink, I place the cake in front of Mary. I light the candles. She closes her eyes, pondering her wish. As I sing, tears roll down her face. Through her tears, she says, “You are young. You don’t need to waste your time with someone old like me.” My eyes fill up with tears, blurring my sight, as I tightly grab Mary’s hands like a baby holding onto its mother’s hand.

In the past three years, I have watched my grandfather, Papa, as I call him, completely deteriorate, suffering from Alzheimer’s. I will always think of Papa with his salt-and-pepper hair, impeccably combed, all one inch of it; always wearing his Peter Millar pink, striped, collared shirt with a cashmere quarter-zip sweater on top; loafers to match his khakis; and a watch from his extensive collection. The old Papa––who picked me up from school every day with a box of Munchkins or a cupcake, who played endless rounds of Monopoly with me, and who talked to me for hours and hours about anything and everything––has completely vanished. No longer can we debate whether the dress in the picture is gold or blue; he can’t even remember my name, who I am, or even to say “hello.” My visits to his home have gone from swimming in the pool together to me watching him sleep, as he sleeps for 23 hours a day now. The man who once was proud and intelligent and charismatic has turned into a weak ghost, and now has someone putting a spoon to his mouth or dressing him.   

I hug Mary as she thanks me for giving her “the best birthday ever.” Screaming so her almost deaf ears can hear me, I say, “Thank you, Mary, but the gift you have given me is even bigger than the birthday cake.” What is this gift? Mary has given me the gift of a grandparent, the one I lost three years ago. I do not know Mary’s story, nor will I ever ask, and she does not know mine. I know that the relationship that we have fills a void in both of our lives; Mary has become a grandparent to me, and I have become her granddaughter. 

As Mary blows out the candles on her birthday cake, she makes a wish. She doesn’t realize that I, too, make a wish: to celebrate her 93rd birthday next year with her.