Birthday Candles

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1 – Birthday Candles

 

The morning sun squinted back at me through the gaps in the long window my shade just barely failed to cover. It showered my room in a comforting glow, illuminating the tiny speckles of dust suspended in its rays. On the other side of the glass, the birds began to sing their airy song and the soft wind moaned sweetly through the rustling leaves as the world hummed to life. Normally, the pervasiveness of the coming day would have failed to rouse me. This morning however, I was a brazen watcher as the sun stumbled out of its slumber.


I stirred restlessly in my bed, clenching the cold sheets into a wrinkled ball before attempting to iron them out again; I counted sheep out of spite. I could not sleep a wink that night. Practically overflowing with excitement at the mere thought of turning double-digits, I awaited morning.


With fingers nimble and anxious, I threw off the covers and barreled out of my bedroom headfirst. A fit of thundering footsteps cut through the silence as I stampeded downstairs with enough speed to send me flying at any moment if I were clumsy enough to trip. Exploding into the kitchen, I expected to see the table piled high with colorfully wrapped boxes and pink birthday cards; my parents crowding around it all, cameras in hand.


I rounded the corner. There were no presents, no birthday cards, and no parents. Crestfallen, my eyes darted to the sharp green numbers that glowed outwards from the microwave nestled into its cubby on the wall. The time read 8:01 am; my parents should have been up by now. My excitement didn’t render me senseless; I had not been too quick to rush my 10th birthday, although in part I wish that were the case.


A frail woman skipped into the kitchen, her lively bob of chestnut brown hair bounced wildly as she moved. I recognized Andrea immediately, she taught art at my school.


“Happy Birthday, Katy!” she cooed, rushing over to hug me.  The tray of chocolate cupcakes she had been carrying landed on the counter with a sharp clink.


“Thank you Andrea, these look so good! Did you make them?” I asked, struggling to keep my features soft and my voice pleasant.


“I did! Your parents asked me to watch you and Alex today, so I figured I’d bring a little something over to celebrate,” she said as she fumbled around the kitchen. Opening up the fridge, she drew out two eggs and a large jug of orange juice. “Do you want something to eat?” she offered.


“I’m okay,” I mumbled softly, trying to rein in the tears before continuing. “Where’s Mom and Dad?”


Abandoning her eggs, which were now sizzling in the frying pan, she rushed over to comfort me. “Oh sweetie! I know, I’m sorry they couldn’t be here today.” They had a very important event for work they couldn’t miss. But they’ll be back later tonight, I promise!”


I felt her warm hands as they brushed my shoulders; her voice was soft and sweet, like honeysuckle. The sound seemed to linger.

                      ***********


I was surrounded by noise but I wanted the bodies. A small flame burning on the tip of a pink candle twitched restlessly. I squeezed my eyes shut, as my head filled with air. I awaited the end of the song, scrambling to formulate a wish I had lost interest in making. Truthfully, this makeshift birthday celebration had lost its appeal. But watchful eyes probed me expectantly and I didn’t want to arise suspicion of my discontent or linger under their gaze any longer. A hush of air slipped from my lips, causing Alex and Andrea to erupt in a fit of clapping. The slow flame flickered out.

 

2 – Death as a metaphor

 

A sea of black ebbed outwards from a small hole in the ground. And I was a figure among the masses. This brings me strange comfort, for I wish to go unnoticed. I am afraid that my dry eyes may come across as insensitive, but not because my heart is hard or cold; I’m simply indifferent. I had never known him. To me, death is no more than a stranger in the ground.


The same cannot be said for my mother. I nervously glanced up at her; her wrinkled features were so distorted that they no longer looked human; instead they resembled the rough, crinkly skin of an elephant. Although her face twisted with anguish, she did not cry, she couldn’t. I have never seen my mother cry. Don’t get me wrong, my mother knew pain like no other but the raw vulnerability akin to crying is something that’s simply not in her. If it is, it's something that only comes out in the dark.


Prayer hymns regained their former cadence. My mother stepped out from the crowd, bending the casket, as she bid her final goodbye. When she returned her eyes were hard, black beads with no being behind them. My Uncle was a thief in the night, and he had good hiding spots for the things he stole, for they will never be recovered. When he stole his own life, my mom disappeared alongside him.


Knowing I couldn’t reach her from where I stood, I slinked back into the crowd.

 

3 – Mommy Knows Best

 

We headed North, chasing the blizzard.


It was the longest car ride I had ever been on. Snow had begun to stick to the Earth like wet paste. The black road before us seemed stretch out for miles, and the headlights glistened off the wet pavement as we sliced through the howling wind. Shifting uncomfortably in my seat, I kicked one of the boxes that leaned into me. The air smelled of musty packaging tape and a peculiar feeling swirled in the pit of my stomach; it reminded me that things would never be the same.


When my mother told me she thought I could be doing more I asked her why she didn’t just say what she really meant.


“Why aren’t I enough, Mom?”


“Katy,” my mother heaved breathlessly, “I just feel like you don’t appreciate everything we sacrifice for you.”


“How could you say that? I know it’s not easy for you and Dad to pay for school, and I acknowledge that, but don’t you see how hard I try? I devote sleepless nights to my studies without relent, and yeah in part it’s because I want to do well but its also because I want to show you that I’m taking advantage of this opportunity. How can you not see that?”


“Don’t fool yourself Katy, that’s not for us, that’s for yourself.” Her voice was shrill and the harsh words kept rolling. “It just feels like we’re giving you so much. We arrange our lives around you and you do nothing for us.”


Her words hit me like a brick, wiping out any desire to rebuttal. Instead, I sat there in silence, unable to remove myself from the feeling gnawing away at my insides. In an attempt to distract myself from the tension, I looked out the window, focusing all my energy on the sound of the tires as they grinded over fallen snow. My mom kept her eyes on the road, expression stone cold, watching absentmindedly as her headlights ate away at the darkness.

 

4 – Rooted

 

People are afraid to touch hot things because they’ve been burnt. If not firsthand, they’ve witnessed the way fire leaves patches of charred flesh on skin that isn’t their own. To me, this fear is perfectly reasonable and avoidable: just don’t get too close.


People are afraid to swim because they fear they might drown. To me, this fear is perfectly reasonable as it is a testament to our strength, both physical and mental, and the results are often unforeseen.


People are afraid of death because they are curious. The lack of answers as to what happens next is quite unsettling. And the permanence of it all, I think, is the scariest part. The thought of simply being gone is unfathomable. To me, this fear is perfectly reasonable: just live with caution.


But do fears begin with the beginning or do they just mature along the way? Have I always been afraid of heights and of losing my mother’s affection? Have I always been afraid to fall, or worse, to fail? To me my fears are inexplicably unreasonable, for my body simply seems to decide when it’s time to be afraid. And when it does, anxiety is waiting to collect its ransom.

 

5 – The Lion’s Testament

 

I’m not enough.
I’m not enough.
I’m not enough.


Invisible hands snaked their way around my throat and I felt them tighten, gradually at first, then all at once, as if they intended to steal the air right out of my lungs. As air continued to evade me, my breathing quickened, my lungs running to catch up. Fear pushed me under the open window. Unable to move, I stuck my neck out into the frigid night and stared into the darkness.


Sweat covered my body like thick paste and my skin felt cold and lifeless. Salty water filled my mouth, burning holes into the fleshy surface of my tongue. I tried to count my breathing.


One. Two. Three. Four.


I was curled up in a ball, rocking back and forth restlessly. My body pressed into the rough, itchy carpet, tickling my bare skin. I think I’m shaking, I thought as I struggled to swallow air that was much too thin.


Five. Six. Seven. Eight.


I stumbled desperately through the night. Scrambling to turn on the light, I nudged my brother frantically until he woke up. 

“Tell me,” I sputtered through intervals of uncontrollable breathing. “Hold me and tell me if I’m shaking.”


Nine. Ten. Eleven. Twelve.


I feel like I’m dying.


Thirteen. Fourteen. Fifteen. Sixteen.


I squirmed uncontrollably in the stiff hospital bed. My entire body felt like sand trickling through the tiny slit of an hourglass. I thrashed about wildly in an attempt to regain control of my limbs, which had grown numb. I felt my heart lurch violently, as if it were trying to claw its way up and out of my throat. A brilliant white light shined from the overhead, causing me to turn away.


“What’s happening to her?” My mother’s shaky voice called from behind me.


“She’s having an anxiety attack ma’am. The excessive hyperventilation is causing too much carbon dioxide to leave her muscles, which leads to numb feelings especially in the hands and face. It doesn’t matter where she is or what the situation was but this kind of panic, when triggered, causes the body to respond as if it were in danger. It is not uncommon for patients to believe they are experiencing a heart attack or to think they’re dying. I’m not really sure how to describe it exactly. Anxiety attacks, especially to this degree, are similar to the feeling of being chased by a lion.”
 

Seventeen. Eighteen. Nineteen. Twenty.






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