"It's your eighteenth birthday, my girl."
The voice above me is startling, if only because of how gentle and kind it sounds as opposed to what I usually hear. Or perhaps because it's been almost a month since I've last heard that voice.
"Sweetie?" That voice, that face imagined in my mind. The graying, receding hair, the long nose, the slightly lopsided mouth… I wish I could move my hands and stroke that face. I wish I could drag my eyelids open and see just what that face looks like now. Perhaps my father cut his cheek shaving this morning. Maybe he didn't even shave and has the rather messy appearance of a beard coming to shape on his face.
A hand slips into mine and squeezes it tight. I can sort of feel it, but not exactly. It's more like I know it's there, but I can't do anything to control it. I wish I could just squeeze back, or even just twitch my finger, but every attempt comes back unanswered, and my hand remains limp in my father's hold.
"So… work's been good. Your mother's been enjoying her book club, I think. I've been enjoying the volunteer time at the library… You know we miss you, sweetheart, right?"
"We should go." It's my mother's voice, certainly. Only she can rip someone's heart out and still speak in a low, light voice. "You know it's not her. See? She's fine."
My mother falls silent for a moment, and the only sound in the room is the slow intake and release of air coming from me.
"There's nothing you can do now," she continues, her voice softening slightly in the way that means she honestly cares about the person she's talking to. "You know that, right?"
"I just want her to respond," he mumbles back. "She's my girl. I want her to hold my hand and laugh and cry."
"So do I." My mother's voice is closer now, but seems somehow weaker. Wearier. "I want that as much as you do…"
"Hey there, Birthday Girl." My father's voice is quiet, barely a whisper now.
"We should go," my mother says again, sounding urgent. There's a hint of tears in her voice. My father's hand squeezes mine again, almost hoping I'll respond. I don't.
I've been in a coma now for one year.
I remember it. Perfectly.
His name was Harrison, and he was my boyfriend. Not my first, certainly, and I never expected him to be my last. Of course, things don't always go how we plan them, and Harrison was to be my last boyfriend. He was my second serious boyfriend, and he'd wanted to go further with me for a while. I kept telling him I wanted to wait. And I did. Want to wait, that is. I wanted it to be a night I'd always remember. And we did wait. He was pretty sweet about it, too. Impatient, but sweet. And finally, when I thought maybe I was ready, it didn't happen.
I woke up on that Sunday and rolled out of bed in that sloth-like manner that was so typical of teenagers. Down the stairs I stomped, slipping a bit when I reached the bottom (my mother always told me not to hurry with socks, because I slipped, and I nearly fell every morning), and finally sliding into the kitchen.
"Morning," I told my mother cheerfully. "It's a pretty fine day today, wouldn't you say?" It was dark out from storm clouds threatening to rain, and the wind was whipping around, tossing the branches on our garden trees back and forth.
"It's fine as long as you don't go sailing," she replied distractedly, not looking up from the magazine on the countertop. After a moment, she looked up and smiled brilliantly. "I'm sorry, darling. Happy birthday." I leaned over and let her give me a small peck on the cheek before opening the refrigerator. "I finished the milk, so have some eggs, okay?"
Disappointed, but unsurprised, I pulled out two eggs, cheese, and a frying pan. After breaking the eggs and mixing them in a cup, I let olive oil heat on the pan, finally dumping the eggs and the cheese in together. I was just scooping the cooked eggs out of the pan and onto a plate, when my father marched in, holding up one fist to his lips, as though playing a trumpet, his other hand behind his back.
He warbled into his fist for a moment, as though playing some sort of march, and then threw out his arm and shouted, "All hail the Queen! Behold the Birthday Girl!" With another dramatic flourish of his arms, he dropped to one knee and waved the bouquet of flowers he had hidden behind his back in my face. The collection of blues and purples and greens sparkled in his hands (the flowers were a bit wet, for some odd reason), and I instantly snatched them out of his hands.
"This servant does not come armed with gifts from his overlord?" I cried, lifting my head up proudly.
"My overlord forgot," my father said meekly, lowering his head in over-dramatized shame. I sighed dramatically as well, and then tossed my tangled mess of hair haughtily.
"Fine!" I announced, and my father lifted his head. "Present what meager offers you do have." I placed the flowers on the table and tapped my foot impatiently. My father rose slowly, and then gave me a huge hug, one I returned with as much love and warmth as he gave. He kissed the top of my head and whispered, "Happy birthday, my girl."
My cheeks filled with color and my eyes were suddenly slightly wet. I loved it every time he called me "my girl". It made me feel special and only his. Like I was his world, and everyone else was just living in it. I hugged him harder, and then finally let go, laughing.
"If you kids won't stop goofing around, I'll punish you both," my mother said sharply, sitting down at the table. "And neither of you has eaten yet."
As usual, my mother turned the situation around. But the day was off to a perfect start – a storm on the way, my father's promise of a gift later in the day ("I've spoken with my lord, your Majesty, and he says the gift is on its way now!"), and the fact that Harrison was coming later to pick me up and take me to a fancy dinner.
Really, it was a typical birthday. I went to lunch with my parents, laughing over the overly fancy names the restaurant gave the simple meals, and overall just enjoying sitting in the warm room while the beginnings of a storm raged outside.
But then dinner came. My mother helped me dress up all fancy, braided my hair, and begged me to tell her everything upon my return. In contrast to our usual stiff and cold attitudes towards the other, it was quite nice to be my mother's equal for once. Maybe even have her as a friend.
So dressed up in a warm but pretty dress, eager for this opportunity to be with my boyfriend (who I was falling more and more in love with by the day, which said something, as I'd been in love with him for months now), I skipped down the stairs and quietly waited for Harrison to come. He finally arrived, ringing the doorbell (like a perfect gentleman), and dressed so nice I was just shocked into silence for a moment.
"Madame," he said when I opened the door, bowing and holding out one hand. I accepted it with delight and yelled, "Bye!" to my parents, before following him to his car. My heels clicked strangely against the cement, and his jacket swished in the increasing wind.
"It's going to rain soon," I predicted as I buckled my seat-belt.
"You smell it?" Harrison asked, carefully starting up the car.
With a grin, I replied, "As always." After a moment, I playfully slapped his knee, and said, "So what's with the clothes? Button up, jacket, nice pants… You sure you're Harris?"
"Damn sure," he said with a short chuckle. "Just figured. Your seventeenth. Something that ought to be celebrated. I owe you on your birthday after all." There was a pause and I quietly thought back. "Why? Don't you like it?" His face was innocent, but there was clearly pleasant teasing in his tone. I slapped his knee again, and he laughed. I smiled involuntarily. I loved the sound of his laugh.
In summary, the restaurant was great. The food was delicious, Harrison was a perfect gentleman, and it had begun to rain outside, falling down gracefully, but slightly tilted as a reminder of the wind whipping about.
I gushed. I cried. I acted like any seventeen-year old in love, out on a perfect date with her boyfriend. I kissed him, held him, hugged him… I quietly prayed that he'd never leave me, that he'd always be there for me.
I'd be willing to bet that anyone who saw us leaving the restaurant would think we were drunk. I was giddy on the rain, Harrison, and the rich food that I had just consumed (though mostly it was that final dessert of chocolate soufflé, one of my favorite things to eat – period). Harrison was, as usual, slightly sturdier, holding onto my hand. I kissed him for a long time there in the rain before he opened the car door (part of his gentlemanly duties, I suppose), and when his hands quietly and gently slipped into my usual warning zone (usually around my hips and onwards), I let them. Then we broke apart and I smiled into his beautiful face, rain dusted face.
"Let's go for a drive," I said, looking up at him.
He didn't say a word; he just opened the door, went to the driver's seat, and began to drive. He kept one hand on the wheel, and the other held mine over in the passenger seat.
Maybe that's the problem. As if I haven't replayed this scene a thousand times in my head since it happened. Maybe if he'd had both hands on the wheel, it wouldn't have happened. But I know that's not true. It had nothing to do with him. It had to do with the rain, the wind, and that car speeding towards us at entirely illegal speeds.
His right hand broke.
I think it's pretty ironic. His right hand, tightly clenching mine, shattered upon impact. Sat in a cast for a month. And I – that girl gripping his hand right back – just shattered.
That was the year I was with Greg. Tall, sweet, but somewhat spoiled and self-centered Greg. The sort of boy I felt so lucky to get to date, but ultimately didn't really want to date. But in the end, Greg was a good guy. We broke up in a pretty friendly way, and then he started getting serious with all these other girls. And I say girls because he seemed unable to not cheat. In the end it didn't really matter. I'd dumped him for Harrison by that point anyways.
That would be a few months later. The morning of my sixteenth birthday, I was more concerned with getting to school on time. Having stayed up all of the night before talking to Greg on the phone (and before and after with my best friend, Adie, filling her in on all the nice things Greg said to me), I overslept and had to prepare for school in record time.
When I got down to the kitchen, my mother had left for work already. My father had offered to take me to school, and after wolfing down a tiny but tasty breakfast (an egg roll – a strange love of mine) I sped off to school, chatting with my father about my plans (as he hinted about a certain gift I might be receiving).
"Love you, my girl," he said quietly as I gave him a hurried kiss. I grinned, pleased.
"Yeah, yeah." I waved and slammed the car door shut, running into the building and literally arriving to class ten seconds before the bell rang, panting and out of breath.
In the gap between first and second period, rushing to the hellish English, Adie pulled my aside and gave me a huge hug.
"It's the Birthday Girl!" she squealed, jumping a bit. "So who's coming to the party in the end?"
"Just the usual. Everyone confirmed." I never liked parties much so I didn't usually invite too many people. I was a bit scared of those kinds of parties on TV where random people showed up with a keg and just trashed the house. My parents were going to be home, so that was fine, but I was still worried a bunch of creeps would show up and ruin my birthday.
"Well, good friends are the best," Adie said wisely. "Anyways, later!"
That was Adie. Quick as a fly, busy as a bee, but sweet and loving like the greatest. Strangely, though, she was the lesser in our duo. I was always the dominant, mature one, carefully paving way for her. Most people didn't believe us when we admitted it to them, but it was true. I was the strong, domineering older sister, and Adie was the goofy, excitable little kid who charmed everyone with her cute smile but often fell behind, afraid and lonely.
The next break – Brunch – was fifteen minutes long, and as I walked in the direction of my next class, Greg caught up with me and gave me a kiss. "Birthday kiss," he explained as I blushed and leaned my head against his chest. "So, Birthday Girl? How's the day going?"
"Great," I admitted, craning my neck to look up at him. As a remarkably short girl, I almost always had to look up when I spoke to people, but Greg, as a remarkably tall boy, simply exceeded my abilities for sight, and I actually had to tilt my whole body upwards just to see his eyes. "I'm really excited for the party."
"Oh, about that…" There was a quiet, somewhat awkward pause as he stopped and looked down at me. A flood of worries struck me, ranging from dying grandmother to a break up.
"What?" I asked. I instantly felt stupid, knowing how breathless and panicked my voice sounded. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing's wrong," Greg said, looking somewhat puzzled at my urgent expression. "It's just that this new kid moved in down the street a few days ago and his mom wants me to get him integrated in our society. He's a real weirdo, this strange loner. Doesn't talk. Seriously."
"No, no, he talks…" Greg sighed. "He'll just sort of say, 'Okay' or something like that. And that's pretty rare too."
"Maybe he's lonely," I said quietly.
"No, he's just weird." I didn't reply, feeling one of those tightening grips around my chest that I got when Greg said something that I really didn't like. "Anyways, my mom and his mom are, like, instant BFFs, and she begged me to take him tonight. Please say you mind."
"Oh, come on," I said lightly, hiding the annoyance. "He'll just sit with some kids, maybe say a few words, and then he'll be better off for it. Is he here at school?"
"Starts next week." Greg held my hand and we resumed walking to class. "You sure you don't care?"
"Bring him," I said firmly. "It's the right thing to do, plus he'll have fun. Maybe he'll turn out to be really cool and you'll be instant BFFs."
The bell rang, and we went our separate ways. All day long, kids came to wish me a happy birthday. My friends kept running up to me and telling me about how I'd love the presents they got for me. I felt that thrill of anticipation, and quietly awaited the end of the day.
My parents had set up the house by the time I got there. The couches were all set up for movie watching (I'd chosen a themed night – Greatest Disney Movies), bowls of popcorn sat on the pushed aside tables, and the stack of video-cassettes and DVDs were placed strategically close to the TV, VCR, and DVD player.
"Oh, come on, my girl. You can see that with your own eyes… And don't ask about the movies either!"
"Fine, fine… Coca Cola?"
"If you call this flimsy brown lunch bag with a small card that says 'Thanks for coming!' a goodie bag, then check."
"Ha. Ha. Um… Wine cabinet locked up?"
"Hope it'll be unnecessary, but yes, it is."
"Okay, I think we're all set up."
I jumped to my feet and took a look around the room. Pictures from Disneyland, Disneyworld, and various other Disney theme parks were spread all around the room, as well as my old posters of Disney movie heroes and moments. Some were even just quotes I rewrote onto a huge piece of paper and taped up.
The party started at four, though the first person arrived at 4:13. Adie bounced in, swinging a bag that was clearly my present. She gave me a quick hug, put the present on the kitchen table, and walked into the TV room.
"Wo-ow, you totally made this room look awesome!" she cried, clapping her hands with delight. "This is going to be the coolest party ever."
"I know," I laughed back, admiring the room myself. "Should we pop in the first movie?"
"Naw, let's wait until someone else shows up," Adie said, plopping down on one of the couches. "Then we'll start with Snow White."
"'Cause it's the first Disney movie."
I sat down next to her, and for a moment we just stared aimlessly at the screen. Then I said, casually, "So Greg's bringing a date."
Adie's eyes widened and she turned to stare at me. "What?"
I laughed at her shocked expression and explained. "Some guy moved in on his street and the moms asked him to be introduced to our awesomeness."
I only used words like awesomeness around Adie. In fact, it was only around Adie that I was ever hyper, cheerful, and in general a nice person. I was usually pretty reclusive, preferring the company of two over that of a large group, but next to Adie I was cheerful, happy, and just a big marker of fun among our group.
The doorbell rang a moment later, and we both jumped up to get it. By the time we got to the hall (having slipped and crashed into each other on the way, giggling madly, of course), my mother had opened it, revealing our friend Jip (not her real name). Adie instantly starting talking and I went to put in Snow White.
No one actually really watched Snow White, except maybe Alice (who arrived a moment later), claiming she'd never seen it. She watched the whole movie in quiet awe, and in the end yelled out, "I am now officially out of the childhood stage!" I was jumping up every two seconds to answer the phone (aunts, uncles, and cousins who lived far away), thanking everyone for wishing me a happy birthday. If it wasn't the phone, it was the door, and I had to greet my friends for the fourth time that day, and also put aside the presents they brought.
Greg was one of the last people to come, accompanied by a somewhat sulking, withdrawn boy. He rolled his eyes at me as he crossed the threshold, and shot a quick, somewhat annoyed glance at the boy.
"Hey," I said to both, smiling brightly. I gave Greg a quick kiss, and then focused my attention on the other boy. "Welcome."
"You're the birthday girl?" His voice was kind of soft, but I heard him all right.
"Sorry, I didn't bring a present," the boy said, meeting my eyes and smiling slightly.
I let out a surprised laugh, and said, "I'll forgive you… this time."
He laughed as well. He had a really nice laugh, kind of quiet like his voice, but still somehow had a commanding presence. He stuck his hand out and I shook it with a serious face. "My name's Harrison," he said, pulling his hand back and jamming it deep in his pocket. "Sorry for crashing your party."
"It's okay." And it really was okay. I'd been apprehensive, but this guy looked nice and intelligent, so I really wasn't worried at all. "Hope you like Disney movies."
"Oh, come on, who doesn't love Mulan or Toy Story?"
"They're two of my favorite movies," I admitted, "and farther down on the list for tonight. C'mon. We're on the first part of Fantasia now."
"So Greg," he asked quietly as I led him to the TV room. "He's your boyfriend."
"Yeah," I said, somewhat surprised. "Has been for quite a while. Almost half a year." Remembering what Greg had said about how this guy didn't speak, I stopped and asked, "Why? What do you think of him?"
"I think I don't know him well enough to make a fair assessment, but he seems like the kind of guy who takes things for granted." There was a pause, and he added, "Including his girlfriend."
I blushed, and looked away. We were standing right outside the entrance to the TV room. "Anyways, you're welcome to sit down." I gestured to the bowls of popcorn and kids sitting around, talking and watching the movie. "Eat, drink. Be merry." The doorbell rang. "I'll go get that. So…" He walked in slowly, and I added, "Enjoy," while turning around and running to open the door.
After everyone had arrived, I sat down on the floor, leaning against the couch, holding Greg's hand. Adie was busy talking to Alice, the two arguing over an essay they'd had to do for history class. All over, everyone was talking and laughing, eating and drinking. Only Harrison sat quietly on one of the couches, watching the movies (though occasionally his eyes flicked over in my direction).
"Like I said," Greg muttered to me. "Weird."
I remember that day well. Mostly because that was the beginning of the end of my relationship with Greg, and the beginning with Harrison. But also just because I can remember how exquisitely happy I was. I had all my friends there and was still close to most of them. As the year progressed, I somehow managed to slip away from most of my friends (except for Adie). And while that day barely added up to the perfection of days I would have later (including my last day), I remember thinking of it as a wonderful day on the whole, a day where I got to be independent, free, and just happy.
It was one of those days where I thought I'd live forever.
Young and free.
It rained on my fifteenth birthday. I remember waking up and hearing the pattering of rain against my rooftop. I was so happy just to hear it rain that I got ready for school at super speeds. I skipped down the stairs, slipped a bit in my socks, and finally slid to a stop in front of the fridge. My parents were already seated at the table, passing different parts of the newspaper back and forth.
"Morning," I told them cheerfully, finally picking an apple to eat. "Can I get a ride?" I usually biked to school, but I really didn't like to bike in the rain.
"Of course," my father said, sounding surprised. "Anyways, you're my girl. What, am I going to let you catch pneumonia? And on your birthday as well? You're the Birthday Girl!"
My parents were overprotective in those days. I mean, when you have a fifteen year old daughter, a sophomore in high school, wouldn't you be as well? My mother had read all about teenage depression and was worried whenever I said anything that sounded remotely angsty. My father was freaked out that I'd suddenly start running with bad kids and doing drugs. I never really did any of that stuff (except maybe write some horrible angst poems), but they still worried. Always. Like I might run away to Australia or something. As if Alex would let me stay.
I remember it was kind of boring. Just another school day (though Adie baked me delicious cupcakes which I completely devoured for lunch). But we were all laughing and playing. Nobody worried about boyfriends (yet) or about finals (yet). It was all cheerful, light, and fun. Adie and I ran in the rain. And chatted on and on about getting our licenses.
Which, by the way, never ended up being nearly as cool as we hoped it would. I mean, I kept telling Adie how nothing would change. And she kept bouncing on about how great it would be. It was our trademark argument:
Me: So instead of our parents taking us to school on rainy days, one of friends will. Just more dangerous!
Adie: Oh, come on! Driving in the rain isn't that much more dangerous!
Me: If you think about, driving in the rain is always more dangerous. And teenage drivers are far more likely to get into car accidents.
Adie: You're just being paranoid. Don't worry! It's not like we'll just get into some crazy car crash and die! What, are you like Jip's parents?
And she was right. Sort of. I didn't even get to die.
My fourteenth birthday was simple. School, presents. The fun stuff.
I remember waking up and expecting it to be something grand. I always had a special relationship with the number 14. I was released from the hospital after fourteen days of life. My birthday is on the fourteenth. My grandmother set aside a beautiful gift for me to be given "to the Birthday Girl of Fourteen Years" (which I did in fact get!). And Harrison visited me in the hospital fourteen days after the accident.
He came in with his broken arm and took my hand. Stroked it. Kissed me on the forehead. And whispered to me that he loved me and was so sorry. And then kissed me on the lips. And then read aloud to me from one of my favorite books, The Mill on the Floss.
I guess the doctors said that talking to me might help. I guess the doctors were wrong.
My grandmother's gift turned out to be a beautiful bracelet. And when someone stole it out of my locker one day during P.E., Harrison tracked down the thief, the bracelet, returned it to me, got the thief in trouble, and also got me a matching ring.
But my fourteenth was quiet. Pleasant.
I don't even remember my actual birthday. I remember the party. Bowling. And Adie and me jumping around, squealing with delight. And then later, when Adie slept over and told me how we'd always be friends. Forever and ever.
She came on day thirteen.
She was crying and blowing her nose. And promising me that the only reason she didn't come earlier was because "those fucking doctors" wouldn't let her come in because she wasn't family. And she held onto my hand and just talked to me. Talked to me about everything. And I was trying so hard to respond somehow, but in the end she just cried harder because I hadn't moved a muscle.
It rained on my twelfth birthday.
Adie and I were sitting in my room in the afternoon, blasting heat and music. Adie was completely obsessed with Michelle Branch that year. I was obsessed with The Prodigy.
"You cannot possibly like this music!" Adie screamed as I put Breathe on again.
"It's good," I snapped back. "And besides, you liked Britney Spears."
"I thought she was funny," Adie retorted. "And anyways, why not listen to Michelle Branch? You like her too!"
"Yeah, but it's about time we listened to something"— I snatched my Prodigy CD back— "different." Adie made a face, so I lowered the volume, and then she smiled.
"So, did you see the new girl… uh, Alice?" Adie asked after a moment, twisting a strand of hair around her finger.
"Yeah," I said. "She seems nice."
"Too… suck-uppy. All quiet and meek."
"That doesn't mean she's a suck up," I said sternly. Adie grinned.
"Well, Birthday Girl? How's the day going?"
"Just as it should," I told her. "I'm here with my best friend—"
"Ahem," she cut in. "Best friend for life."
"Right." I smiled. "Best friend for life. And it's raining. And my grandmother got me the coolest gift ever."
"If you say gift certificate to I will die."
"Yeah, and it's for 200 bucks!"
We laughed for a moment, and then Adie bounced on my bed a little. "You're so lucky," she said with a sigh. "You've got great parents, an awesome grandmother, an incredibly cool group of cousins, and no annoying sibs to deal with."
I made a face. Adie knew perfectly well that I hated being an only child. I'd always wanted a little sister I could mold to my liking, or a big brother who would always look out for me. But my parents seemed perfectly content with just good old me, and that's all I ever had.
"Whatever," I said. "But you'll definitely have a boyfriend before I ever do. And your first kiss before me."
We met each other's eyes, and burst into a fit of giggles for another five minutes.
Adie's predictions almost always came out wrong, even those she didn't know she made. My predictions always came true.
Double-same digit birthday.
"I'm not satisfied with eleven," I told my father on my birthday.
"Why's that?" he asked, rummaging through a folder.
"Well, it's so… dull. I mean, you'd think a number that has the same number twice would be awesome, but it's not nearly as cool as I thought it would be."
"So wait until you're twenty-two," my mother said distractedly from the other side of the room, where she was working on the computer.
"Thanks!" I said cheerfully.
"Don't worry, my girl," my father said quietly, before I could run off. "You never know what this decade will bring you."
"I'm a double-digit! I'm a double-digit!" I skipped down the stairs in my socks, nearly crashing into the wall as I slipped, and stumbled into the kitchen. "I'm a double-digit!" I announced again, just in case my parents hadn't heard.
The kitchen was empty. Angry and frustrated, I ran back up the stairs, checking to see if they were in their room. They weren't there either. But as I passed by my room, it struck me that there was a large purple envelope taped to the door. I snatched it and read the message: Enter the room. Excited and eager, I pushed open my door. On my bed was a huge pile of presents. Mostly books (a large majority of which were far beyond my age-group's reading level, but I was always a bit talented when it came to languages). A bunch of CDs (from my cousin in Australia who ran a music store and got me hooked to all sorts of random music, like indie, techno, or obscure rock) grinned up at me, and I grinned back.
"Mom, Dad! Thank you!" I screamed at the top of my lungs, throwing aside wrapping paper. "This is awesome!"
It was raining.
Ten is such a perfect number.
Alex flew in on my ninth birthday. It was the first time I ever met him, and it wasn't like he was coming for my birthday. He was coming for some random reunion with his high school a few towns away. My aunt Gerry (Geraldine, but don't call her that) also came, though that was mostly to see Alex. My mother and Gerry have a long and complicated history, but they love each other very much. And I love Gerry.
Alex took one look at me (a tiny squirt, aged nine, best friends with a girl named Melinda who was so bossy I nearly always came home angry, and also with Jip) and let out a laugh. "You guys ever let this girl have fun?" he asked my parents.
I got annoyed at him. He was talking to my parents very rudely (or in a nine-year old rude) and I wasn't about to let him get away with it. So I kicked him hard in the shins. Like, really hard.
But he didn't get pissed off or anything. No, not too-cool Alex. He just began to laugh in surprise. And then scooped me up and said, "Come on, mademoiselle Birthday Girl. Want to listen to some music?"
He stayed with us for a month, my dear punk cousin. He was the first "different" cousin I ever met, and he ended up becoming my favorite. My cousin Lolly (her real name, sadly enough), Alex's sister, was a very different sort of girl and I'd grown up knowing her. She was very precise and cold, preferring to distance herself. She's a high school teacher, unsurprisingly. I bet her students all hate her. My other cousins were all just run of the mill. My Minnesota cousins were all really sweet and clever, but dull like their state, and my California cousin Sheryl and Derek were just kind of… mean. And they were all way older than me. I had more cousins, all at least seven years older than me (Derek was closest to me in age), but I didn't know them too well.
And Alex was just awesome. His stories of living in Australia were just so different from my life, and he was really different. Exciting. And it turned out that his music was awesome. After he left, he would call me up once a week and just let me talk his ear off. He was sort of my best friend in the world at that time, and even though I saw him rarely, I loved him like a big brother.
Alex flew in nine days after the accident. And he went straight to the hospital. He didn't stop to take a shower. Didn't stop to change clothes. Came straight to the hospital, stinking of airplanes and body odor, and began to cry. My mother was there too, and she begged him to go home and do this later, it wasn't important. She said it wasn't like I would just jump up and run away. And both were crying and crying.
Goddamn it. I wished I cry too.
I invited my whole class to an ice-skating rink for my eighth birthday. I got lots of presents. My mother wasn't stressed out about work yet (she had heard that she might be getting a promotion soon, but it seemed so far off that she didn't care) and my father loved just devoting his full time and attention to me.
"Make way for the cake!" my father cried as he swooped down. My mother snapped shot after shot as I squealed with joy. My classmates all began to sing a horribly off-key "Happy Birthday", and I joined in, belting the words out at the top of my lungs.
"Sweetheart, blow out the candles," my mother cried over the din. "Hold back your hair, okay?"
"I've got it." My father bent over, pulled back my hair, and I blew out the candles. I laughed as one stubbornly refused to go out and blew at it again. My friends cheered, and everyone leaned in. The cake read Happy Birthday! in purple frosting. No name, no personalization. I wondered why. For about a second, and then my father handed me a plate full of cake on it and I completely forgot.
Everyone enjoyed the cake except for one girl. June. I skipped up to her and asked her why she wouldn't eat. And she looked up sadly and said, "My parents won't let me."
"Why?" I asked, flabbergasted.
"They say cake is unhealthy and I'll get cavities," she replied, somewhat primly.
"Well, I guess," I said, sitting down next to her and stuffing another huge piece of cake into my mouth. "But that's only if you don't brush your teeth."
"My parents say it's unhealthy. I'll get fat. And then I'll have heart trouble."
I raised my eyebrows. My parents told me enough to explain that while overeating junk food was unhealthy, eating a bit of sweet things here or there was fine. "Well," I said after a moment, "why don't you ask my parents for permission? I'm sure they won't mind."
My parents did, in fact, mind, and sat me down after the party for a "scolding". They explained that they had no right to undermine another parent's express requests, no matter how extreme or ridiculous they were.
I asked, "But what if they're her letting them eat at all?"
My parents exchanged that sort of awkward look parents have when they don't know what to say. "That's different, sweetie," my father finally said. "That's not allowed. And if you ever hear of something like that, I'd like you to tell us immediately, okay?"
"But that's exactly what I did!" I exploded. "June's parents don't let her eat anything!"
"Sweets," my mother corrected sternly but kindly. "Junk food. They're things that they think will make her sick. And if they tell their daughter that she cannot eat these things, we, as adults, cannot give her these things either. Not when we've been told not to."
"That's so sad," I said, thinking of skinny June and how she had watched us eating the cake so sadly.
June became Jip. Became rebellious. Snuck candies and junk into her room when her parents weren't looking. Listened to music her parents said was heinous. Read books her parents said were inappropriate. But she never really went too far. Never did drugs, got drunk. Didn't get a boyfriend. Didn't mess around.
Jip came on day 14. Adie was there again, refusing to leave my bedside. And Jip just sat down next to Adie, pulling up the other chair. It scratched against the tile floor.
"She looks so tired," Jip whispered, taking my hand. Her voice was full of tears. "It's totally not fair. What did she ever do?"
"Apparently picked the wrong day to drive with her boyfriend." She sounded hoarse. She hadn't stopped crying yet.
"Where's Harrison? Where's the bastard who did it?" Jip's voice was dangerous through her tears.
"That's his chair you're sitting in." Adie suddenly sounded quiet. "He was here when I got here. His arm's broken."
"Yeah, and that's it," Jip snarled.
It struck me as the chair fell over and scratched against the floor again that Jip's temper had shortened with every rebellious act. The sweet-tempered June had run away to make room for the tough-as-nails, powerful Jip.
And sometimes that made her so pigheaded. I wanted to scream at her, You don't understand! Because she didn't.
Broken bones. Broken hearts. Guess which you see. Guess which hurts more.
My seventh birthday was quiet.
Kind of like how I live now.
I remember it really well. My aunt Gerry came into town, totally loaded with presents. My parents laughed as I ripped off all of the wrapping paper and threw it aside. It rained. I was able to read and enjoyed sounding out the different words. My hair was short and I had bangs. I was incredibly cute.
The doctors moved me to the long term ward on day six.
It was probably the weirdest sensation of all. I mean, I knew they were moving me to a portable bed, because I could hear the bedsprings squeaking as I was lifted up. The doctors were also talking about "moving the machines". Then I sort of knew that I was moving. The bed was rolling down the hall (I could feel the air brushing against my face), and everyone was talking around me.
Finally the bed stopped moving. And then turned. And then once again I was lifted and lowered onto a bed. A new one. It was slightly smaller. Slightly harder. And I could hear my father crying.
Then my mother's quiet suggestion. "Get us some coffee, okay?" Her voice was so gentle and sweet that I just wanted to kiss her. It had been years since I'd heart her speak in such relaxed tones.
The shuffling noise was that of my father walking out. And then my mother bent over me and gave me a kiss on the forehead.
"Sweetheart?" she whispered. "Please, god, wake up. Please, please wake up." Her hand found mine and squeezed hard. I couldn't respond. I couldn't move. I was barely aware that her fingers were touching mine, but I knew they were there. And that they wanted me to hold back.
"Your father is falling apart," my mother continued. Two teardrops fell on my nose, and she gently brushed them away. "He misses you so much. And I don't what to do. Sweetie, I don't know what to do. I've gotten that break you always wanted me to get. A month off. To deal." A series of drops fell on my face, but she didn't wipe them away. She sniffled loudly. "But all I want is to have you back. All I want is my beautiful daughter back."
I still say that one of those tears came out of my eye.
I don't remember it. Kind of.
The first one was just me as a little girl, dressed up nice, smiling brightly.
The second was more confusing. Me, screaming inside my head, yelling out.
The third was nobody hearing.
There was a video made of my fourth birthday. My father sat behind the lens, shakily following my running figure around the house. In the video, I'm wearing a blue dress and have over ten girls from pre-school. We're all screaming and arguing, and my mother looks like she's about to burst into tears herself. But she was really young. And beautiful. And very happy.
My favorite gift from that birthday I remember to this day. My grandmother gave me a gold necklace. The pendant was (is) a gold chick coming out from a broken egg. The two pieces of the egg moved, to my great amusement.
I named him Pasta. My only real excuse is that I was hungry at the time. But Pasta became a really good friend of mine over the years. I never really took him off and everyone knew that they shouldn't get me necklaces because I'd never wear them.
When I was in fourth grade, my mother joked that I would have to be buried with Pasta. I was a bit disturbed by the concept and retorted, "No, I'll give it to one of my grandchildren, like Gran did for me!"
My mother laughed. "Sweetie, you don't ever take it off. We offer to get you beautiful necklaces and you refuse to wear them. Occasionally, you'll wear one of the nice ones you got for occasions, but then you instantly put Pasta back on." Everyone knew to call him Pasta.
"That doesn't mean I'll be buried in it," I said stubbornly. "I'll have plenty of time before I die."
"You're right," my mother agreed, kissing me on the forehead. "You've got years and years. Who knows? You might someday find a necklace shaped like baby bear and decide it's even cuter and then name it Ketchup."
My conversation with my mother ended there. But I remember how nice it was as a young girl to twist the long gold chain around my small fingers. I broke that chain at least seven times (that one year) before my father had the sense to get me a shorter, cheaper one until I was older (the original chain being elegant and intricate, the temporary cheap, simple gold).
On the fourth day, my mother quietly came into the room while my father slept in the hall (as she told me, in a whisper – the doctor's had encouraged them to speak to me, hoping that it would pull me back). She kissed my forehead and slipped something cold around my bare neck. I never felt or saw it, but I know it's Pasta.
And I can only imagine that it's the one bright thing in my existence.
The video shows order and laughter.
The ears heard confusion and cries.
Panicked voices, rough hands. A shout from the hallways. Cries. Someone pleading, begging. A doctor's loud voice. Tubes thrusting themselves into my body. Hands rocking me. Buzzes and chirps and bangs and shouts.
My parents showed me the pictures of my second birthday party all throughout my childhood. Maybe it was just because I was undeniably cheerful that day, or maybe it was because I refused to let go of a book the whole time – I don't know. All I know is that it became the stuff of legend.
There are shots of me getting my stuffed rabbit (Rat, because I couldn't pronounce "rabbit"), shots of me chomping on cake, and shots of me smiling with all me neat little teeth shining up at the camera. My cousins were all there, running around like the little hoodlums they are, pinching and teasing me. My aunts and uncles kept swooping down to pick me and croon about what a beautiful baby I was. And I just sat there, grinning cheerfully, chocolate smeared all over my face.
My body hurt. Hurt beyond belief. Like something had seriously gone wrong with my brain and it was just screaming at every part of me to scream and cry. And I kept trying to call out. I wanted to know where Harrison was.
Where was Harrison, where was Adie, wasn't Gran supposed to come, where were my parents, where, what, no, yes, confused, hurts, hurts, hurts—
And then the pain stopped. And I thought, maybe, maybe, I was fixed. So I tried to pull my eyes open. Used all my strength and thought about my eyes. Imagined them open. Wondered if they were, and I had just gone blind. Tried to lift my hand. Didn't move. Tried to say something. No sound came out. No pain, yeah.
But no me, either.
Couldn't walk, couldn't talk.
Drooled a lot, grinned a bit, blabbered on, laughed at stuff.
Couldn't walk, couldn't talk.
Lay silently, wondering what was going on.
According to my parents, the first thing I felt in this world was a doctor's hand around my neck, cutting the twisted umbilical cord. And that's strictly from a, "Well, you had a nervous system so you felt stuff" view.
I mean, I obviously don't remember it. But I do remember being told my whole life just how lucky I was to be born alive, that the cord could have easily snapped my neck on my way into the world. But the doctor kept his head. Swooped in, cut the cord, yanked me out, and let me breathe. Let me live.
We're not religious people. But my mother admitted to me once that when she was in labor and was told that I had the cord twisted around my neck, all she could think of was, "God, let my baby live."
She got pretty lucky, I guess, because I did live. And I often wondered if that meant that her praying had done something, but I was raised incredibly atheist. Never believed in a higher being for a moment.
I swear; I wish I did now. I wish I wish I wish I could just believe in something that would save my life. So many other people do – why am I just an idiot? It's confusing, having all this quiet time to think. Unnerving. And lonely.
Harrison comes by once a week. He talks to me. Quietly. Kisses me. Holds my hand. Cries. Tells me that he loves me and that he's waiting for me to get better.
"Hey there, Birthday Girl," he says to me now. "How's it going?" He kisses me. On the lips. My parents have already left, and I'm just another statue, frozen on a bed. "It's raining." I hear the rain and the wind. I wish I can tell him that if only I was awake, this would be a perfect birthday.
"I've thought about it," he continues, and his voice cracks a bit. "Adie keeps telling me to move on. She loves you and all, but it killed her, watching you like this." There's a pause as I hear him inhale deeply. A tear falls on my cheek. "I think… I think you're dead to her. And she's got everyone else… all your friends… Everyone's just moving on, moving on. Moving away. I'm going to college here. Remember? I got in. Thanks to you. And… I'm here for you. I swear it. I'll always be here for you."
He stops again, and inside I'm crying. And outside he's crying. But then he goes on. "I'm really sorry." It comes out choked. "I'm beyond sorry. I'm a stupid, dumb, irresponsible kid. And nobody blames me." His hand tightens around mine.
"We weren't driving fast or anything," he whispers, resting his head against my chest, careful not to disturb the many tubes coming out of my body. "That damn driver. He didn't even get that much time in jail. Paid a lot of money and got out. I don't think it's fair that nothing happened to him and you're…"
The room is suddenly silent. He shifts his head, and suddenly I'm aware of how damp my torso is. Within moments, his deep intakes of breath are all that can be heard. His hand still holds mine, almost hoping I'll respond. I don't.
His hand held mine and I squeezed back.
"So…" His voice was light and sweet. "Any particular destination we're headed to?"
"Just drive for a bit," I said quietly as the windshield wipers worked double-time. "A quick clearing of our heads."
Harrison stopped as a light turned orange and leaned over to kiss me. "Clear our heads?" he whispered hoarsely after a moment, pulling away. "More like turn our heads."
"If you're distracted by me, then don't drive," I said, sitting up straight in my seat. I pointed at the light, which had just turned green and Harrison reluctantly turned back towards the road. "But we'll just drive for a bit, see what the situation is, and then decide."
"Decide," he echoed, carefully turning onto another street. "Well, I'll just drive around. Go out to the highway."
"Ooh, yes!" I grinned and gripped his hand tightly. "Exactly."
"Anything for the birthday girl," he said with a slight smile.
We kept driving. We kept talking. Our hands held onto each other, and we smiled as held on tight. And then it happened—
What are those lights? I ask Harrison in my mind.
I don't know, but I'll pull over just in case.
I didn't say that, but he did begin to pull over. Except then the tires slid on the rain and oil. Harrison made to grab the wheel and twisted it hard, trying to get us back straight. But our hands had barely disconnected when something literally rammed into me. And suddenly I felt things shifting out of focus.
First Harrison's bleeding face above mine, screaming. Then the paramedics lifting me up on a stretcher, putting some sort of mask over my face. And then my eyes closed.
It felt like my eyes were rolling back into my head. My brain hurt. Every inch of me hurt. And all I heard around me was panic and confusion. And bit by bit it happened, and I remember it all. My parents, Adie, Harrison, Alex, Jip, Greg, Alice. Gran. Everyone and everything.
Harrison's hand squeezes mine again, almost hoping I'll respond. I don't. I've been in a coma now for one year.
Dedicated to coma patients around the world