The room is full of people all expecting me to be pleased, to be proud, to be happy.
And so I smile, pat the heads of the older children, cuddle the younger ones as best as I can. In a way I am happy, today. It is lovely to see everyone again.
They have brought me a big cake and presents, as though the passing of yet another year is something to celebrate. Never mind that I will hardly be able to eat the cake. It is the sort that will give me indigestion, because my bowels don’t work very well any more – they are freezing up like the rest of my body.
And as for the presents!
A lovely needlework set, though Annie really ought to know that I can’t do needlework any more. Certainly not this sort of fine work that requires eyes far sharper than mine and fingers far more dexterous.
And why would anyone think that I would like a dried flower arrangement? I have never liked dried flowers – I’ve never seen the point of them really. Do they think that now that I am all dried up and faded as well that I would see them as kindred spirits? Is that what they’re trying to say?
Smelly soap, and silk scarves in pastel colours. They can go in the cupboard with the ones from last year.
And toffee! When was the last time I was able to eat toffee?
Still, it’s nice to have everybody here in the house, making the sitting room look suddenly smaller, though now that they’ve all wished me a Happy Birthday, they are all gossiping amongst themselves, drinking tea and eating cake, and I am virtually forgotten. I think it’s just too much effort for them to talk to me. They have to raise their voices much louder than usual in order for me to hear what they’re saying, and then quite often they have to repeat themselves as well. They end up summarising everything they say, to the point where they sound as though they’re talking to a small and rather stupid child and then they get embarrassed and decide that it’s just easier not to talk to me at all. But I don’t mind too much. If it means that they will stay a bit longer than that’s fine by me. In a short while they will be gone and it will be just me and the television, and the room will seem much bigger again.
It will be another year before they all come again. Another year of sitting in this chair, watching the world go past the window.
Another year of television with the subtitles; news programmes which say the same old things days after day; politicians telling the same sorts of lies; people making the same sorts of complaints.
Another year of slow, concentrated trips to the bathroom to wash or pee.
Another year of marking the passing of time by the pills I take at different times each day.
Another year of the banal guessing games I play to try and give myself something else to think about: What will Angela be wearing when she comes today? What will Angela cook for my dinner? What will Angela complain about today? Will it be her husband or the kids or the dog?
Another year of doing Sudoku puzzles till I want to scream and throw them across the room.
I look up to see Jamie, the youngest of my great grandchildren, placing something on my knee. Another present.
“Is that a present for me?” I say, and he nods solemnly. I reach out an arm to give him a hug, but he retreats to cling to the jeans clad legs of his mother. He hardly ever comes to see me and I think he finds me quite scary. I’m the only person he knows who has a wheelchair and a face that’s so crumpled up, and his mother told me once that when she first brought him to visit, he was upset by the fact that everybody shouted at me all the time.
She shouts at me now.
“I HOPE YOU LIKE IT GRANNY! HE INSISTED ON CHOOSING IT HIMSELF. HE WAS SURE IT WAS JUST WHAT YOU WOULD WANT!”
I look down at the present.
It is long and thin and very light and wrapped in brightly coloured Bob the Builder wrapping paper.
So no lavender soap or silk scarf here then, I think with a flicker of anticipation.
With some difficulty, I find the edge of the sticky tape and try to peel it off, but my hands are not very good at such tasks any more.
I look up at Jamie.
“Will you help me with this dear?” I ask, and he comes hesitantly over. He starts by very carefully trying to pick at the sticky tape, but soon grows impatient and rips the paper off, revealing what looks like a huge green stick insect sitting on my lap.
“Look Granny, it’s a kite,” he explains excitedly, pulling it open so I can see it properly.
It is a wonderful kite – a Dragon – painted beautifully with green and gold scales and a tongue of fire curling out of its mouth.
I don’t think I’ve been given a kite since I was a child – a very long time ago. I can’t help laughing.
“What do you expect me to do with this, young man?” I ask.
Jamie’s face falls, but his mother answers for him.
“FLY IT, OF COURSE!”
“I can’t fly a kite!” I respond, indignantly. “How old do you think I am?”
“OF COURSE YOU CAN FLY IT,” she answers. “LOOK, IT’S THE PERFECT DAY FOR KITE FLYING! LET’S GO AND FLY IT NOW IN THE GARDEN!”
And suddenly the room is full of excitement, and laughter. We are all going out into the garden to fly a kite.
Someone wraps one of my new scarves round my neck and someone else finds another rug for my lap. Someone starts whistling the song from Mary Poppins and everybody else starts to laugh or to join in singing:
“Let’s go fly a kite, up to the highest height!”
The French windows which give out onto the garden are opened and they wheel me, in state, outside, where it is indeed the perfect day for flying a kite. I watch them all, my children and their spouses, grandchildren and great grandchildren, all spilling out of the house and onto the lawn and I am filled with an excitement that I haven’t known for years.
“Put her there!” Someone shouts and I am wheeled over to a part of the lawn where there are few trees overhead to tangle the kite that I am clutching happily to my chest.
The sun is warm and I close my eyes to breathe in the scent of the gum trees and feel the flicker of breeze blown shadows fly over my face and I feel my lips stretching out into a smile.
My son, Jason, comes and takes the Kite.
“OKAY GRANNY! HOLD THAT STRING!” he yells and he walks away with the kite, pulling the string out longer and longer till he is standing at the other end of the garden.
Then he turns to face me, holding the great green dragon above his head and there is a tense silence from everybody as they wait for the wind to catch hold, as though they are all at the final of the Australian Open, not standing in a suburban garden waiting for an old lady to fly her kite.
I lift the handle of the kite higher, bringing the string taut and then I feel it: a great rush of breath thrumming all the way up the strings and into my hands and up my arms, as though the kite has just burst into life, and I can feel its desperation to go, to soar up into the great blue heaven above.
“AND – SHE’S – OFFF!!!!” Jason yells and the kite leaps out of his hands, soaring up and up into the sky, higher and higher, like a shout of joy.
I don’t know if I’ve ever felt such freedom. I am weightless, uninhibited by pain or stiffness, free to soar through the sky. It seems as though I can see the whole world from here, all spread out for my benefit, just for me and the occasional bird. Rooftops shining in the sun, the glitter of swimming pools, trees and gardens laid out like Lego models, people moving around like ants. I spread out my big green wings and feel the wind pressing me up, higher still, and I laugh with unrestrained glee, a river of sparks that shoot from my mouth. I am giddy as though I have drunk a bottle of champagne, but I don’t care, I am not afraid! I soar and spin and glide, flicking my tail in the breeze and dancing to the music of the wind.
I am free, I am free, I am free!
I look down at my family all assembled below and my only worry now is that Jamie will be okay.
I hope he will understand that he gave me what I really wanted.
The Australian Literature Review