I struggle with the door.
The shopkeeper comes to assist, receiving me into creamy scents—candles and soap. Too many years have passed to ask each other’s names. Her big eyes drop straight to my swollen belly, blinding her to the rest of me—insect thin arms, sallow skin.
“You’re expecting again! How wonderful!” She imagines a longed-for second baby, neatly tucked up inside.
It’s just fluid, snarls my inside voice. The final cruelty of this disease, blowing me up.
But I don’t flinch, as her hands move in, smothering me in womanly warmth. It feels nice. Hardly anyone comes near me, not these days. Cancer’s catching, right?
“A sibling for your daughter!” Hannah loves this gift shop, rushing to the soft toys every time we pop in. “I’m so happy for you.” She moves toward the till, smiling. “After anything in particular?”
I nod—not trusting myself to speak—and sway to the back, the imprint of her hands lingering.
Here are the cards, sending out vanilla smells. My eyes sweep up the display, taking in the numbers: 11, 12, 13 . . . 18, 21, 30 . . . greetings for a whole lifetime, all the way to 80 and beyond.
My damp fingers pluck at one, a style Hannah would like.
I swipe at more, greedily, cellophane slippery in my hands.
Everything I will miss is here. Exams, graduation, engagement. Even, first baby.
Another customer enters, smartly dressed, and seeing me—crouched and sweaty, scrabbling at cards—backs away, nose upturned.
Do I trail a bad smell?
I should never have come out. The world is for well people, with futures.
I return them all. A foolish idea.
But this one—perfect for my little nature lover.
WHO’S TEN, THEN? A felt squirrel, mouse and rabbit gather round a present. I brush their fur, press a sweetly sequinned eye …
Hannah’s tastes won’t change, will they? She’ll be the same twirling woodland sprite?
A motherless one.
A tear soaks into the paper.
Inside, the blank white space accosts my eyes. I use my proper ink pen for important cards. I feel it now, moving fluidly in my hand.
To my darling Hannie,
I hope you have a most brilliant birthday. You must—
She must, what?
I see her little fingers opening this message—elfin face turning pale, the words backfiring, raking over her grief. I see her narrow shoulders hunched over a caterpillar cake. She offers Giles a quick smile, to hide her hurt. I’m not there, to make it better.
Giles will try his best.
But birthdays were my department.
Now I stand like a stalker from the past, wrecking my family’s fragile recovery with these imperfect, posthumous words.
The hospital sent a brochure on “preparing for the end.” Suggested I record video messages, digitally delivered on pre-selected dates. My face is far too haggard for that. Cards, though, seemed doable.
Thing is, you can’t compress a lifetime’s love into a few words.
I drop the card.
“Nothing take your fancy?”
A jangling bell answers for me.