Bombs, birds and twenty firsts

I don’t remember the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I wasn’t born yet, but the other day talking about the war in Ukraine, a colleague told me the instigators named the first bomb ‘Little Boy’ and the second ‘Fat Boy’. Such sinister names for sinister entities that wiped out millions of lives in the moment and beyond

I have had multiple encounters this week with people extolling the virtues of categorising, of diagnosis, of giving something a label. It riles me even as I found myself on another walk with the dogs collecting corella feathers. They’re scattered over the nature strips around our neighbourhood, under trees. 

I felt like a child looking out for each feather, white with yellow traces on the edges, small or large. I compared the condition of each quill, clean or ratty. The smaller ones pure white with fluffy down at their roots. 

My daughter reminded me when I came home that bird feathers carry disease and in this time of Covid I shuddered. But my other urge during the time of Covid and while out walking dogs has been to collect abandoned masks.

There are many of them strewn far and wide across the streets. Whenever I walk, I play a game in my head called ‘spot the mask’. Most walks I will encounter at least two or three and some of them superior masks, cloth made, not just the throw away.

I do not touch them for fear of contamination, a fear that goes back to the early days of Covid where every single surface threatened to contain traces of the dreaded virus and handwashing became a national pastime.

I’m less paranoid about the masks on the ground and about the bird feathers but even then I washed my hands after I stowed my feathers in a vase.

Emily Dickinson writes that Grief is ‘that thing with feathers’. Grief or hope or some other such virtue. I can’t remember which, but I relish the idea of anything with feathers. They allow us to fly, beyond the ordinariness of our tired and tawdry lives, to soar high above rooftops and away into other places.

In the year I turned 21, my boyfriend’s mother offered to host a barbeque in her back garden to celebrate my coming of age. During this year of twenty-firsts most of my contemporaries celebrated their birthdays in various ways, usually a party at their parents’ home, or for the wealthier ones in a restaurant somewhere. The stag and hounds in Templestowe, The Willow restaurant in Albert Park. Posh places to honour their child’s arrival into adulthood. 

It seemed a good idea at the time. My boyfriend’s mother made salads. My boyfriend bought the sausages and mince which his mother converted into patties and slipped between several slices of fresh white bread. There was red tomato sauce and yellow mustard laid on tables replete with potato crisps and Twisties for the snackers. There was beer and wine, red and white, plus a small quantity of champagne for the toasts. Lemonade for the non-drinkers and children.

I helped to blow up balloons, including some my boyfriend tied to trees in the back garden and a bunch of them at his letter box in the front to signify a party about to happen in this house.

Most of the balloons had burst by the time our visitors arrived.

My memories of this event are thin. No colourful details to add. No amazing events when I look back on the photos someone took, copies of which I still hold in my green photo album, the chronicle of my childhood into early adulthood. Among them I see my younger brother as a fourteen-year-old, mullet haircut and looking fresh and happy alongside my youngest sister. Not much older than him and every bit a teenager. Elsewhere there are photos of university friends, people I have not seen in forty years and all of them full to the brim with the pleasure of enjoying someone else’s party. 

For isn’t this the way of things. It’s a joy to celebrate another’s birthday but our own birthdays are bittersweet. For me almost unbearable that year when I turned twenty-one.

Someone told me I’d need to make a speech and the thought infiltrated my mind throughout the first half of proceedings, so much so I imagined a glug of whiskey to the tune of a glass full might give me the courage I needed to speak fluently to my friends.

As it was, all I could do was blurt out a few words of thanks and I was done. The prickles of anxiety, the red-hot shame that shot through me as I stood up, the centre of attention that night could not be softened by the weight of several ounces of neat whiskey. It only made things wiorse.. 

After I had embarrassed myself by having nothing of any worth to say beyond the trite thankyou that are a speech maker’s staple I slunk inside. I found my way into the darkened lounge room and there on the carpeted floor beside my boyfriend’s mothers’ armchair, I had a little kip.

Just a few moments to sleep off the whiskey which by now had entered my blood stream like a deadweight. My mind slipped out of gear into a fuzzy blur and all I could do was close my eyes. Hours later my boyfriend shook me awake.

‘People were looking for you,’ he said. ‘They wanted to say goodbye.’

He was not bothered by this it seemed to me then. Nor was his mother who stood at the door, now draped in her pink dressing gown, hair pulled back ready for bed. She did not look as though I had committed the crime of abandoning my own party, the one she had arranged for me.

No one said a word about my absence which in some strange way only made things worse. As if what I had done was so bad it needed to be filed away in the wardrobe of unmentionables where it might gather dust and lose all toxicity.

I have celebrated other birthdays since, mostly the big markers, the ones that are multiples of five and ten, the thirties, forties, fifties and sixties, but I do not enjoy such events. Bittersweet pointers to our arrival into the world. They mark the beginning of our lives, at least of our lives in the world and are a constant reminder of the passage of time until we die.

It’s the first question a person asks when we hear the news of a death: how old were they? How many years had they been visible on this earth? 

It is a marker for how much grief we might then extend. If they managed to hit their eighties or nineties, even their seventies or sixties, we can give a sigh of relief.

At least they had a long enough life. But if they did not make it to twenty-one, if they only managed years in single digits, if their lives were cut off in their prime, we lament all the more fiercely for what might have been. A life like a house demolished too soon, its doors flung open to the elements.