A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about my failed quest to find appropriate greeting cards for the old, the sick, the dying and their caregivers.
Someone from American Greetings reached out to me a few days later on Twitter. I was hoping the card maker wanted my advice — I am a writer with insight into these topics, after all — but alas, the company only wanted my mailing address.
This week, a box, shipped priority mail, arrived at my home with scores of greeting cards the company thought I might find useful, along with a card addressed to me with a hand-written note.
“We know the path you are traveling is difficult, but the work you are doing is so important,” someone at American Greetings penned to me in blue ink. “May you continue to find strength as you care for your parents, as well as many moments of love and peace.”
What a class act. Thank you American Greetings. Makes me proud to be a Clevelander (American Greetings is based in suburban Cleveland) and, I concede, your generosity makes me more likely to choose the American Greetings label.
Inside the box, there were a mix of greeting cards — birthday, encouragement, get well (designed for those who may never fully get well from whatever ails them) and sympathy.
All were appropriate. Most were generous and kind. But none was funny — something that many may appreciate, especially in not-so-happy times (not an easy card-writing assignment, to be sure).
My favorite cards inside the package — and I didn’t know American Greetings was behind this line of cards — were the Papyrus brand, the cards that use a hummingbird as their symbol.
The covers of Papyrus cards are usually tactile — with intricate beading or multiple layers of paper or other adornments. And each is wrapped in a clear, cellophane-type envelope, so there’s no danger of the card getting ruined on a grocery-store conveyor belt.
But the true beauty, to me, is that many Papyrus cards are blank inside, leaving you to be as sentimental, sardonic or supportive as you dare.
If only my handwriting — misshapen, haphazard and coded from years of newspaper reporting in the snow, on doorsteps and in front of unpleasant crowds — was clear enough to read.
Here’s a copy of my blog posting that led American Greetings to send me the cards:
My mom’s cousin, Dorothy, turns 84 this month and I can’t find a birthday card.
Dorothy, like my mom, grew up poor.
(How poor? Dorothy likes to tell a story about coffee grounds: Her mom used them once for a fresh pot, then a second time for a not-so-fresh pot. Afterward, she carefully packed up the grounds and gave them to my grandmother, who squeezed out whatever caffeine was left for a third pot, thankful that her family had coffee at all.)
But like so many of that generation, Dorothy climbed into the middle class, working a good-paying factory job, marrying a man who did the same and frugally saving until they could buy a tidy ranch in a rural swath of Northeast Ohio where they lived for 50 years.
Life was good until last summer when Dorothy fell over picking strawberries in her garden and bonked her head on a stone.
She ended up in the hospital and shortly after, her husband, Lou, fell and broke his ankle.
Dorothy is home now, isolated, unable to drive because her fickle heart sometimes frolics causing her to faint. And Lou is in a nursing home 12 miles away, confused and calling daily, begging her to pick him up, unsure what he’s done to be sent away from his wife and the home he loves.
Happy Birthday? That, to me, implies Dorothy’s past year was swell and her next year — if there is a next year — will be better.
Nevertheless, a birthday card is necessary. If mom doesn’t send one, it’s more than a slight. It’s an invisible white flag conceding life has ended for both mom and Dorothy even though each continues to breathe.
So, as a pharmacist bagged up 28 prescription refills for mom and dad yesterday, I pawed through racks of birthday cards.
I first gravitated toward a slew of funny, acerbic old lady cards that mom and Dorothy would have happily picked for one another just a decade ago. But jokes about diapers or forgetting your name aren’t funny when they’re true.
Next I discovered a whole birthday genre dedicated to: “We’re both so busy, I never tell you how special you are.” Inappropriate when life turns into a series of medical appointments with naps and tv in between.
The rest were a hodge-podge encouraging the birthday girl to party, to swill wine until drunk or to do something special or naughty just for herself. No. No. And double no.
At least 80 cards into my card safari, I abandoned the hunt. I paid the pharmacy clerk $500-plus for drugs extending my own parents’ not-so-pleasant lives and hauled my mini-drugstore home, hundreds of pills in bottles rattling like tiny, sad maracas.
This isn’t the first time I’ve had this card problem. Since my parents moved in, I have been their personal shopper for all cards and gifts they give to each other and anyone else (including me).
Anniversary, Christmas, Sweetest Day (an Ohio tradition concocted generations ago by a clever local chocolatier): Each holiday is filled with land mines and chasms of time that neither candy nor warm bathrobes can cross.
Even buying cards for them is impossible. Most cards grown children give their parents involve “thanks”– thank you for all that you do, thank you for supporting me, thank you for bringing joy to our lives.
I’ve given scores of these sorts of thank-you cards to mom and dad over the years. And I thank them now for being the parents they have been. But the sad truth is, they should be giving me and my husband these thank-you cards now.
And that’s impossible because I would have to buy them. And I wouldn’t, fearing that such a move would trigger a weird psychological echo chamber, maybe even a worm hole for unplanned traveling through time.
But picking out sympathy cards is the worst. And I buy a lot of sympathy cards. Being in your 80s — like my parents are — is not unlike being in your 20s. But you’re sending sympathy cards and attending funerals instead of buying shower gifts and toasting with bad wedding champagne.
Of course it’s sad when anyone loses someone they love. But what is the appropriate sentiment when someone’s body dies years after their brain withered, leaving them a shell? Or when a person, who has longed for the Grim Reaper’s visit, dies after years of suffering, pain and loneliness?
Those passings, I always think to myself, should be celebrated (even if bittersweet).
Unlike so many birthdays, which now seem better off mourned.
I don’t know what we’re going to drop in the mail this year.
Maybe a blank card, scrawled with words of love and an old photo of better times, a snapshot of her and Lou smiling alongside mom and dad, martinis raised in jubilation.
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