Saturday, 12 March 2022
How do you celebrate the birthday of someone who doesn't remember what day it is?
Julia wishes she knew, because then she could convince herself Father knew she still loved him. Deep down, she doesn't despise him; she empathises with him, even. But mostly she just avoids him and goes about her life as though he's already gone.
She squints at him from across the table until she can pretend he's a healthier version of himself. No cannula, no washed-out complexion, no distant eyes--he's happy, and he's excited to celebrate his birthday with his family. He used to be a great father, or so Julia believed. He was doting without spoiling her too much, goofy but firm when he needed to be. He never had a short temper, a trait Julia sometimes wishes she'd inherited from him. Instead, she ended up with Mom's anxiety and Uncle Wil's patience, which on most days is in the negative range, or used to be. These days he mopes about in his room, too depressed to leave the palace, only venturing down the hall to attend daily sessions of therapy. He isn't improving. Julia knows not how to help him, but he and she have never been close. He was absent the first eight years of her life. Al is somewhat close with him, and Hildegarde loves everybody, but Julia sees too much of herself reflected in her crotchety uncle.
Grandmother dragged him out of his hideout to eat breakfast with them today, at least. He's picking at his food and generally ignoring everyone, just as Julia is ignoring Al's incessant whining about having maths homework. Purple has taken a permanent residence beneath her uncle's eyes in recent months, and his skin is so wan that the shadows seem like bruises. He hasn't spoken a word that Julia has heard in weeks; part of her forgets what his voice sounds like.
They're not in the hospital this year, at least. She tries not to think about the afternoons she spent watching Father staring at nothing, barely responding when someone held his held or kissed his forehead. By his birthday, he was fully conscious and able to talk, but 'twas painfully clear how extensive his injuries were.
Julia scowls and chomps into her hardboiled egg.
"Everything alright, dear?"
"Ja." Even with her mouth full of egg, she feels obligated to reply to her mother.
Mother gives her a tired half-smile, which is all she can muster. Between running the country and trying to hold the family together, she has little time to herself, and what little time she does have she spends with Father. "Why don't you come join us?"
"In? I'm already here."
She bites back a scoff. "What's wrong with eating and not talking? Is that not acceptable anymore?"
"Julia, just," Mother lowers her voice so no one else can overhear, "humor him for a day. One day. Please? 'Tis his birthday."
Julia sneaks a glance at Father, who is busy eating his breakfast. Yesterday afternoon, she was sitting with him on the couch like a dutiful daughter when she mentioned his birthday in passing. He'd twitched and turned his head slightly toward her, his normally slack expression touched by surprise, and echoed, "Tomorrow is my birthday?" in his slurred voice.
"Fine." She's sitting diagonally from him, close enough that she could reach out and take his hand. She doesn't; he needs his right hand to feed himself.
"Dad?" Slowly, his eyes flick in the direction of her voice. "Uh...happy birthday."
His mouth quirks, but he doesn't say anything.
She returns to her breakfast, her heart stony. She still hasn't figured out how to interact with him in a way that isn't uncomfortable. Every fond memory she has with him is soured by the knowledge that he was drinking himself to death, even when he seemed joyful, but he was never really joyful, was he? Mayhap when she and her siblings were born, but not so joyful that he didn't feel the need to poison himself.
Was she never enough for him? Was that it? Was she not good enough of a reason for him to seek help? Or was he just so lost that he believed himself beyond treatment?
When she finishes her breakfast, she doesn't join the rest of her family in the parlor to be with Dad. Instead, she wanders around the halls lined with tapestries Father used to show her when she was small. Tapestries depicting family and national history as though any of it is laudable, when in actuality 'tis as mediocre as everything else. Her country is too small to be more than a dot on the world map, her father is a drunkard, her future is one consigned to the droll of politics. Mother is pushing her more and more to focus on her royal duties, and she's more than willing to ease her mother's stress; the more she learns, the more she can help Mother, and the more Mother can concentrate on herself. She's fiercely independent and beyond stubborn, as is Julia, but she often forgets to engage in self-care. The last time she treated herself to a pastry or read a novel was--well, Julia cannot pinpoint when. Two years ago? It must have been when Father went over the edge, or just before.
She stops before a tapestry that was erected a few months before Grandfather died. It depicts Grandfather as a younger man, not as a king but as a father, with his arms around his wife and children. The cherubic likeness of Father as a boy smiles mischievously with one hand behind his back, while the other is wrapped around Grandfather's waist. He seems too carefree and impish to be the same man who gave her life, but this is a depiction of a memory Father probably doesn't have anymore. If he does, he's never mentioned it, mainly because he forgets this tapestry exists.
Her throat tightens. She wanted to be just like he was when she grew up before she grasped what emulating him meant. Nowadays she eschews any piece of herself that reminds her of him, tears it out, and rips it into unrecognizable shreds.
Turning on her heels, Julia presses her hand into her eyes and sprints away from the tapestry and Father's wide blue eyes.
"Do you want to open your presents?" Marie kneels before Allie and squeezes his hands, which lie curled on his lap. They're bony and frigid, but they move when she takes them in hers.
"My presents?" he questions after a minute or so of silence. Is it taking him longer to respond to things, or is it her imagination?
"Today is your birthday." She ignores the pang in her heart as he peers at her with a bemused countenance. "You're 47. Just like I am."
"Oh. Right, I'm...47." Nothing about his body language changes, but his hesitation betrays his unease.
"Can I? Is everyone here?"
"They are." She isn't sure what he means by "everyone," but all the royal occupants of the palace are present. Marie cannot risk large gatherings with him because of his immunocompromised state. He's been doing so well since his transplant, and to put that all in jeopardy for a party would make this birthday his last.
It isn't, she tells herself. He'll live a few more years, possibly to 50; he won't die before his next birthday. He'll still be here. He'll always be here.
She summons her children to gather round Allie so he can open his presents. Briefly, she notices that Julia's face is red, but there is not much more she can do than try to smile. It feels clunky and unnatural to smile, but she tries anyway, because what kind of mother would she be if she did not show empathy toward her child?
"Which one do you want to open first?"
Unsurprisingly, he replies with a faint "Yours."
She hands him a gift bag stuffed with red wrapping paper. Its presentation is less than spectacular, but she was so busy trying to ensure his party was special that she almost forgot to package his gift. Ironically, 'tis also she who does most of the unwrapping, as his hands do not move as quickly as they used to, and his coordination is poor. She must guide his arm into the bag to extract his gift, then place his other hand upon it so he can see what it is.
His face breaks into a lopsided grin as he registers what's before him. A homemade scrapbook with the title ALASTAIR'S FAVOURITE MEMORIES spelled out in foam letters rests in his hands. She opens the book for him and points to its inscription, a simple "To/From" thing with a humorous line from Hamlet printed below. "Look. It has photos of you holding our children when they were born, our Singapore trip, our wedding day...."
Suddenly, his arms fling out and around her to encircle her in a hug. He fervently kisses the side of her face, his lips chapped but familiar, and grins at her again. "I love it."
"I'm so glad." She runs her hand along his hair, which has gotten unruly again. "I love you so much, Allie." Even after everything you did to me, I love you.