Breath & Shadow
A Journal of Disability Culture and Literature
by Selina O'Brien
It was my birthday yesterday. Wish me happy birthday? Thank you. My star sign is Libra, which according to the Dine astrology chart means that I am supposed to like a good balance of leisure and social activity and that I enjoy smooth and uncomplicated relationships. Yet, I prefer to think of myself as a Leo. I do like to stand out from the crowd and enjoy being the life of the party. In addition, I have a real desire to assist others and help out around the house, as much as She will let me.
I am not very good at keeping track of time: it is not one of my many positive qualities. Nevertheless, I always know when it is my birthday because my personal health provider, Dr. Keith, sends me a birthday card. It arrives in the mail and She brings it to me. For a few years, it used to have different Garfield pictures on the front — one of my Heroes — but for the last few years there have just been photographs of anonymous cats. Garfield was better. No photograph of a cat can do justice to the real feline personality, which takes years of hard work to achieve.
The card is not the only thing I receive for my birthday. A few days after the card arrives, which She always puts on the refrigerator door, down at my eye level so that I can see it, Dr. Keith himself arrives. He brings me several presents. He gives me a big cuddle, especially around my ribs and tummy area, and we play hide and seek for a while. I run and hide and he has to find me. I think I enjoy that game more than he does, but it is my birthday, so that is all right. After the games, I accept my presents. He gives me a special rub on the back of the neck, which is sooooo nice at firs,t but hurts a little at the end, and then he gives me a lolly. It tastes all right, but I have tasted better. Finally I receive another cuddle and then off he goes. He is very nice and I do like him, but I have to admit that he is not very creative in the gift-giving department. He has been giving me the same presents for years and years. I do not like to say anything in case I offend him, but it does mean that my birthdays have a certain monotony about them.
She has birthdays too, but Hers are more varied than mine. She used to go out for a meal with a group of friends. Like me, She has no family, but as the fridge magnet says — friends are the family we make for ourselves. Sometimes, She and Her friends would go out during the day and other times at night. Whatever time She went out, however, She always came back with lots of presents, and even better, lots of wrapping paper and ribbons — things that Dr. Keith does not seem to know about.
Before She became sick, Her birthday meals were just part of a busy life, which included leftover birthday cake for breakfast the next day. I used to like the cream icing. However, with Her sickness, came a different approach to these birthday celebrations. She would rest for several days before the planned dining out. She would prepare as much as She could the day before, putting out Her clothes and handbag. On the day, or the evening, She would carefully and slowly get ready, often having a series of rests between one activity and the next: shower then rest; make-up and hair then rest; dress and then rest. It was like a knight preparing to go into battle. And when She came home after the event, She looked like She had really been in a battle. She looked terrible and was very tired. It was often the next day before She brought in Her presents and the wrapping paper and ribbon for me.
One year it was especially bad. Apparently, it was an important birthday. All birthdays are important to me, but She explained that it was Her fiftieth, a significant celebration — for want of a better word. She prepared with especial care and, during Her rests, She explained why this was so special. Her good friend had organised an exceptional dinner at an expensive restaurant and there would be more friends there than usual, some of whom She had not seen for some time. It was important also, because She would see many of those friends She had known well but who had not really kept in contact with Her once She became ill. I was rather worried about Her, as She seemed quite stressed. I can handle stress very well — I just choose to pat and bat something around for a while, but She does not handle it as well as I do.
When She came home, She was totally exhausted and I did not get to play with my wrapping paper and ribbons until late the next day. As we folded the paper and unwound the ribbons together, She explained that the night before, the dinner had been like a farewell to Her lost life. I guess if you only have one life every part of it is very significant.
This year, She decided not to have a birthday but rather a birthweek. Seven days of wrapping paper and ribbons!!! One day, She went out to have a casual lunch with two friends in the local shopping centre. Purple curly ribbons - I like those type of ribbons as they fight back.
The following night, after a day in the lounge chair, She went to dinner at a quiet local cafe with a good friend. Pink ribbons! The next day was a repeat performance. We spent a day resting and playing with the ribbons and that night She met another friend at a local club for an early mid week dinner. Purple ribbons again - her friends must know She likes that colour. I prefer green, but I get purple and have to lump it. Then She rested for two days and continued Her birthweek at a local coffee shop with another friend. No ribbons, but a pretty bag with glitter to pat around, and a new place to hide. The birthweek finished with yet another friend taking Her to the local markets for a walk around and lunch. A good birthweek. The only drawback was that there was no birthday cake. She said that she had a very tasty apple slice when She went to the coffee shop. However, she did not bring any home for me because She said that I would not like it, as it didn’t have cream on it. What is gluten-free?
She was tired by the end of that week, but not exhausted, and She told me that it had been a good idea. She was glad that She had had the courage to tell people what She wanted. I rather liked being given the paper and ribbons in stages. Stages are good for Her, as She is so easily tired and becomes sick if She tries to do things in one go or with a large group of people. I understand about the group of people thing. I prefer one on one. Crowds are distracting and can be tiring. I think next year that I shall have a birthweek instead of a birthday. All I have to do is find enough friends to celebrate with. Perhaps, I should not have scratched as many people as I did. I shall have to try to rebuild some bridges so I can party as She has this year. Birthweeks suit Her. More people should do it.
Selina O'Brien is a school teacher who has been on extended sick leave since developing Chronic Fatigue Syndrome nine years ago. She lives in usually sunny Queensland and is developing an interest in writing, supervised by her companion cat.
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