The birthday build-up

It’s my sister’s fortieth birthday tomorrow. Paul turned forty a couple of months ago. I’m feeling old, and not just because I get stiff if I sit down for more than an hour. I’ve been busy with the children today, but now that they’ve gone to bed I’ve started to wonder what we’d be doing to celebrate if things were different. There’s a Michelin-starred restaurant a few miles away that I know Rachel wanted to try, and we never did. I wish we had. There’s nothing like sudden and devastating illness to make you wish you’d just done all the stuff you talked about.

So perhaps, if she hadn’t had her stroke, we’d be going somewhere nice for dinner tomorrow. Rachel and Scott, me and Paul, an assortment of friends. Rachel has a lot of friends. She’s kept in touch with people from every stage of her life, from school and university and from every job she’s ever had. People like her. They always have.

But things are what they are, and her friends and family are coming to her, to a room we’ve been lent in the care home where she lives. She’s made a sign to welcome people. Mum and I have bought some food, a cake. We’re taking some bottles of Prosecco. I don’t know whether Rachel will be allowed to have any. We’re taking decorations, and helium balloons, and a playlist that Paul’s put together, of some of her favourite songs.

I’m looking forward to giving her the big box full of love. Over the past few days, the doorbell has been ringing a lot. Delivery people and friends alike, with envelopes and gifts. At last count, there were almost sixty envelopes in the box, and there’s a load of stuff that won’t fit inside. People keep telling me that she’ll love it, and I really hope she does. It’s often hard to tell what she’s feeling. I’m so grateful to everyone who’s contributed, and I can’t wait to help her open some of them.

This week, I wrote my own letter for the box. It had been on my to-do list for ages, and I kept putting it off. And then on Tuesday morning, it came out in a rush of memories and I cried, hard. And afterwards, I felt a bit better. That’s often the way, when I write and when I cry.

On the way to nursery yesterday, I told Joseph about the party. ‘It has to be quite a quiet party, because it’s in the hospital,’ I told him. ‘No dancing,’ he said, his face serious. ‘No, I don’t think there’ll be any dancing.’ Years ago, for reasons I can’t remember, Paul made up a dance to Atomic Kitten’s Whole Again, and performed it at every opportunity. On a visit to Rach last week, he did it for the first time in a long time, and when I last saw her and asked her about it, she laughed and did the key move (a circle, and then another – whole, again) with her one good arm. This morning, he taught some of it to Joseph, and the song is on the playlist. So maybe there will be a bit of dancing, after all.

Joseph and I played doctors this afternoon. ‘I’ve hurt my finger,’ I said. ‘I’m a tummy doctor,’ he said. ‘There has to be something wrong with your tummy.’ It was bad news, after he’d examined me. ‘There are some things in your tummy,’ he said. ‘A badger, a tin of baked beans, an umbrella, an ice-cream van, and some ants.’ Two minutes later, I was ‘all better’. In his world, people are ill and then they get better. He struggles with the fact that Rachel has been poorly for so long. We all do.

There’s a big part of me that is dreading tomorrow, although I’m looking forward to seeing the faces of many of the people who’ve supported Rachel and Scott these past sixteen months. I hope we’ve done enough to make her happy. I hope we give her a special memory, to summon up on the darker days.

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