Today is your 19th birthday. You’ve been home 4 days and because it’s Saturday and there are no classes on the weekends, your boyfriend, who will later become your first ex-louse, has come up for the day to celebrate with you. Your mother, who has been uncharacteristically loving toward you since your surgery, does not care for him (of course). She has baked a lovely cake and decorated it with buttercream icing bedpans and surgical masks, exactly as you had requested. Dinner will be “roast beast” with mashed potatoes, fresh string beans and fruit salad, all prepared by your mother just for you.
Everything is going swimmingly. You are thrilled that your boyfriend could get a ride up, not so thrilled that his ride, a guy you can’t stand, has decided to hang around for a home-cooked meal. He and your boyfriend sneak out for a surreptitious smoke and when they return, your mother sniffs the air, sniffs the guys and announces that there will be no smoking anywhere in or around our home. Future ex-louse acquiesces, but does not apologize. His hair is long and thin, he wears roundish, rimless glasses and bears a striking resemblance to John Lennon of Beatles fame. Your father displays no discernable feeling about him one way or another.
The noise level in the living room, where your hospital bed is parked, is overwhelming. You ask everyone to please go into the family room to continue their conversations. You explain that you are tired and need to nap before the big party begins. They migrate through the kitchen to the family room on the other side of the house and finally it’s quiet. Through the wide expanse of picture windows, you look out over the back yard with its shrubs and the flower gardens your mother used to spend her summer days weeding and cultivating before she went back to work to pay for your little surgical adventure. Spring has just barely arrived; the ground is still brown, the trees bare. The shrubs growing underneath the windows are holly or something, green year round. Your reverie is broken by the thump of a bird flying into the window. This happens nearly every day. This is the double plate glass window that in a fit of rage in ninth grade, you broke when you threw your shoe through it after your mother had betrayed you one time too many. You drift off to sleep because you have been awake since 2:00 am. Your days and nights are confused, and healing from a spinal fusion takes a lot of energy.
You have no idea how long you’ve been asleep when you are awakened by raised voices in the kitchen. Your mother is angry, again, with your father. You figure out later that she is angry that she has to keep working at her age, with arthritis, diabetes and some other painful something that her doctor cannot diagnose. Your father says something in his booming voice, which probably the entire neighborhood can hear even with the windows closed, and suddenly, there’s a crash and a thud. Your boyfriend comes in through the other room, avoiding the kitchen, to tell you that he and his ride have to go now, although dinner has not yet been served and your cake awaits. You are, at once, mortified and relieved. You say goodbye and turn back to the windows. The kitchen is now quiet and your brothers and sisters-in-law are all in the family room, hiding and waiting for dinner. Your father comes in to say that dinner will be delayed a little while, and can he get you anything in the meantime. He strokes your cheek and smiles, smooths your hair away from your forehead. You tell him, no thanks, you’ll just go back to sleep for a while.
It’s time to eat. Dad brings you a plate heaped with mashed potatoes, string beans and fruit salad in a cup, so it won’t touch the other stuff, but you have no appetite. Everyone files into the living room with their plates to join you for dinner. You wish they’d all just go home so you can have cake and watch the early show on the black and white Kenmore console TV. Your parents have not yet discovered the wonders of color television. As usual, everyone is talking at once, six conversations going on amongst 10 people. The noise is deafening and you want to shout at the top of your lungs, “Everyone just stop talking!” Your mother brings out the cake, and because it is virtually impossible to blow out 19 candles in one breath lying flat on your back, you ask one of your baby brothers to do the honors. Everyone eats cake, compliments your mother on how fabulous it tastes and then gets ready to leave. The atmosphere is fraught with tension, you really have no idea what happened earlier or why everyone is acting so peculiar and no one has volunteered that information. You don’t really care, it’s not the first time and you know it won’t be the last. It’s getting late, and now, you wish everyone would stay; you know that the moment the guests are gone, your mother will start in again on your father. He will get disgusted and go for a walk, your little brothers will go into hiding downstairs, and you will be left alone with a crazy woman.
You lie awake in the growing darkness, wishing you were anywhere but here. The house is quiet, save for the angry clanging and banging of pots and pans and your mother still ranting about “your father,” who should have been back from his walk by now. You have to pee, but you don’t dare call for her to bring the bedpan; the boys can’t hear you downstairs if you call for them. You want to cry, but you know that crying is a sign of weakness that leads to open season. The only acceptable emotion in the house is the mounting anger you feel, desperate in your helplessness. It’s your birthday. You never did get around to opening presents, and you’ll be damned if you bring it up tonight. You heave a deep sigh of relief as the front door opens. Dad is back. You call out to him and he brings the bedpan.
The kitchen is silent now; you can hear the TV on in the family room. Your circadian rhythms are out of whack and it feels like midnight at 7:45pm. Dad brushes your hair, braids it and puts it up for the night; he makes you both a cup of tea and sits with you as you sip slowly through your glass straw. When you’ve finished, he brings you a cup of water and some Oreos in case you awaken thirsty or hungry during the night. As you close your eyes, he strokes your cheek, smooths the stray hairs from your face, gives you a kiss goodnight and tells you he loves his favorite daughter.