Her home wasn't fancy. She'd lived most of her life without art. Except for a few donations that lined a living room shelf, she still didn't have any. No one counted the framed drawings in multi-color crayon that she'd acquired over the years. Of those, roughly half had been made by her children, the rest by her grandchildren. They lined the back of a kitchen countertop. The two she liked best sat on either side of a photograph of her former husband.
On the morning of her birthday, she rose to prepare the kitchen for her guests. She rolled over and sat up. Her muscles felt weak but she was lighter than she used to be, so it evened out. Her feet met the floor. She shuffled to her dresser. With unsteady hands, she pulled out the middle drawer. After a moment of fumbling, she found her best blouse.
It took her longer than usual to get ready. The blouse was her problem. At the bottom, it had small buttons. At the top, it fastened with pegs and loops. She could feel that she hadn't gotten the buttons to work. She could clasp the top half. She knew the bottom wasn't right. After a while, she gave up, exhausted, and sat on the bed.
She sat long enough to catch her breath, then stood to try again. This time she could hardly feel the buttons, much less fit them into their buttonholes.
"Son!" she shouted.
Exasperated with herself, she sat back down. In a minute, her oldest child appeared at the bedroom door. Not long ago, she would have found it humiliating to need help to get dressed. Now she was merely glad that someone had come over early.
In the kitchen, she put her son to work for as long as she could. Unfortunately, they both needed to take breaks to sit, rest, and have tea. They didn't quite finish their preparations. Her son started playing host as soon as the guests arrived. The earliest were his wife, their kids, and their grandchild. Their grandchild was a two-year-old girl who ran around the living room screaming for no reason other than she could.
Inside of an hour, the rest of the extended family had arrived, including other grandchildren and other great-grandchildren.
"How suspicious," she said. Once more, she helped herself to the stool in the kitchen. Younger women had taken over the details anyway.
"What is?" asked her son.
"A lot of great-grandchildren seem to have shown up this time." She pulled off her glasses and rubbed her eyes. "In fact, I think it's all of them."
"Good for them."
"Maybe." Her index finger pressed the glasses back onto her nose. She blinked and studied the young men and women laying out food on the dining table. "Good for this party you're throwing, you mean."
"What I mean is that the little ones don't see you much. You don't get around."
He'd made a similar comment yesterday when he arrived. Of course, he was the oldest and he'd already lost his younger brother. He was facing mandatory retirement soon, too. His company was forcing him out of his job.
"You're worried that this is my last birthday, aren't you?" she said.
"Well, it could be," he allowed in a rather weak voice.
"I do feel like sort of an old beaver."
"Mom?" He looked at her as if he were wondering if her mind might not be working right. "I hope you're about to make a joke about dams or something."
"No. I mean, I feel like a wild animal that has to hunker down in the winter." Sometimes her mind wasn't quite right, she thought, but this time she knew what she meant. "I might not make it through next season."
They looked out over the kitchen, dining area, and most of the living room, all of them full of family and friends.
"I can see how you might feel that way." He nodded slowly. "But maybe you'll outlive me. I don't know. Maybe this is my last chance to see everyone but it's still not yours."
"But then I would be seeing them at your funeral."
"Probably." He smiled. He didn't seem at all upset by the idea.
"No thanks. I've had plenty of last chances." It took her a moment to compile a list in her head. Even so, she couldn't really grasp them all. There were too many and the ones at the top of her list were only examples. "I had my last chance with your father but I didn't understand it. I couldn't comprehend him dying. Before him, I had my last chance to hold your brother. Earlier I had my last talk with my mother. And with my father, of course, although he didn't want to say anything."
"At the time, I was mad. Later, I understood that he was just in pain." She'd been a self-centered young woman, she thought, to have misunderstood. She'd assumed it was about her somehow. "Likely enough, the pain was all he could think about. But he still didn't want to talk about it."
"Couldn't a doctor have helped?"
"It wasn't done." She shook her head and looked on the counter for her drink. Unfortunately, she hadn't poured one for herself yet. "Anyway, I learned. I've had a lot of last chances at this point."
"Did you appreciate them all?"
"Not always." She sighed and set her hands in her lap. "But it's always a last chance for something. Are you appreciating this? I mean, this moment. You organized it."
He grinned as he surveyed the family members and extended families. There were so many. Even the people who had been friends and neighbors, who weren't related, could have filled a room. A smile crept onto her face as she took in the sight of him looking over the crowd.