Today would have been my niece’s 21st birthday. It’s hard to know what to write next – that sentence stops me in my tracks.
Would have. Could have. Should have.
Earlier today I stopped in to see Sherie, my Shanghai-ese beautician, and I found her frantic: tomorrow, she told me, is her daughter’s 21st birthday party. I smiled as broadly as I could with a trembling lip, and asked all about the preparations.
“My flat, it look like a bottle shop,” Sherie told me, waving her arms for emphasis. “I told my daughter, I no cooking! No! No cooking for me!”
Sherie always makes me laugh, and today was no exception. So I forced myself to focus on what she was saying, and swallowed hard, and finally managed not to cry (although the wheels have since well and truly fallen off that barrow).
“I hope your daughter has a wonderful birthday,” I said as I was leaving. Sherie gave me a quick hug, and then she was off, already back on the phone organising sushi platters and a great big pair of cakes.
I had a great time at my own 21st. I was an undergraduate at the ANU in Canberra, so I had my party down there at a terrific joint called ‘Tilly’s,’ still one of my favourite places on earth. I love Tilly’s, although I couldn’t tell you how long it’s been since I was last there. Gosh, years and years. A very long time. But Tilly’s exists somewhere else, it’s buried deep in my heart along with all those other special places – it’s a big warehouse of fond memories and feeling in there, and so for me Tilly’s never goes out of style. In fact, Tilly’s never goes out of style period. It just is cool. And I had such a lovely party, such a wonderful night.
I ought to be going to my niece’s 21st. My sister ought to be in an organisational minefield, racing around gathering spare chairs and bags of ice. My grown-up niece ought to be deciding what to wear – Sherie’s daughter is currently chained to her sewing machine; she went to design school, so she’s wearing an original. And as Sherie excitedly nattered on, complete with whirring sound-effects and a mime of her daughter feeding fabric through a hungry machine, I couldn’t help wondering what my niece might have worn, and what she might have looked like today, had she lived.
It’s a terrible thing that happened to her, and it ought never to happen, not to anyone, not ever. It makes my blood run cold to think of it – it was the start of my insomnia, and it remains the waking nightmare from which there will be no escape. It does not improve with age, and it never dims. There’s just the hideous, evil fact of it, forever.
Would have. Could have. Should have.
My regrets in life are few, because I understand there’s truly nothing so futile, but as impossible as it is going back and changing the past, this is the one thing I can never shake: the abiding regret that I cancelled on my niece the last time she was due to stay with us. She ended up staying at Nana’s place instead, and I will always, always be plagued by the hopeless fantasy of an alternative outcome. Maybe that path would have diverted all other paths. Maybe those plans, if kept, might have altered all the plans that followed. Maybe being with us that night might have set in motion a different chain reaction, a different series of events at the end of which she would not die. Maybe that was my chance to change things, save her, and in this I failed.
And I’m so sorry, I’ll always be sorry, even though sorry doesn’t help. Sorry doesn’t change things. I’m sorry for what I know my sister’s going through today, I’m sorry for everything we’ve missed out on knowing. Who would she be now? What would she be like? My sister and I spoke on the phone last week, and she told me they’re having all my niece’s favourite foods today, and then she said she realised it was possible she might even have been a grandmother by now.
“But then again I doubt it,” she added. “Because I’m sure she would have been doing other things, like studying at NIDA or travelling overseas.”
“Yeah, I always think she would have been an adventurer,” I admitted. “Off seeing the world. Taking it by storm.”
“Oh, I think so,” my sister said proudly. “Yes, I definitely think so.”
And I believe she is.
Happy Birthday, sweetheart, wherever you are.