“Happy Birthday, dear Mary, Happy Birthday to you!” A glow suffused the eyes of her extended family gathered around the dining room table covered with a Christmas cloth. In front of her, five striped candles flamed atop the chocolate Bundt cake dribbled with white icing. As she filled her lungs and blew, exclamations splintered the hush and conversations picked up.

“We’ve got several flavors of ice cream and decaf coffee to go with the cake,” said Karen, as she smoothed loose strands of hair behind her ear and picked up the cake plate. “The grandkids will take orders.” But they were no longer kids, having matured into young adults, two of whom were planning weddings in 2020.

Decades of such birthdays had been celebrated in Mary’s home, with hand-made frosted cakes bedecked with sprinkles, gaily-wrapped gifts and hugs. Conversations buzzed, bonding deepened, spirits embellished as evenings evaporated within time’s memory. As always, she missed Tom, my brother.

Mary’s involvement with her growing family also extended beyond birthdays and other milestones to include overnights, movies, lunches, and athletic competitions. Her heartfelt smile affirmed their efforts to grow. She was their Nama.

Now in her eighty-fifth year, Mary’s widowed spirit faces daunting challenges: her convalescing from hip surgery, her recent downsizing, her diminishing energy. But no matter, she still dresses to the nines and participates in whatever engages her. Daily Mass in her parish remains her lodestone: the fire that inflames her spirit, keeps it willing and sacrificial. She remains the cheerful woman for others.

I know. I, too have been included around those birthday tables.