3am, September 5th. The pre-dawn is cold and dark. I have two hours to prepare before my father rises at 5am for work. The previous night I’d purchased balloons, permanent markers, party hats and an array of confectionery. I blow up the balloons and draw faces on them before tiptoeing downstairs to the kitchen. I keep the lights off and press my back firmly against the hallway wall so I walk on the floorboards that I know don’t creak. It’s my father’s 43rd birthday. I’m 13 and surprising him with a party full of imaginary friends. The friends are made out of balloons. The year is 1990.
I place the balloon heads around the dining table and carefully place a party hat on the head of each one. I put up a “Happy Birthday” banner, and decorate the room with the remaining balloons and ribbons. I put some bowls of confectionery on the table in front of the balloon people.
I creep back upstairs and wait. Soon I hear a loud laugh, followed by my father shouting, “Simone!! Simone!!” He runs up the stairs enthusiastically yelling, “Come downstairs! Oh my God!” We bump into each other on the staircase and laugh. Without speaking, we turn and excitedly race to the kitchen, nearly knocking each other over in the process. He calls out, “Mary! Mary! Come and look at this! Come and see what Simone’s done!” My poor mother stumbles out of the bedroom, bleary eyed. She smiles at my handiwork, amused but possibly more exasperated by the shared and rapidly accelerating energy between her husband and daughter. After a decade, she’s resigned to our antics.
Giddy with excitement, Dad heads off to work. Later that day he’ll discover that in his packed lunch I’ve placed a cupcake, a birthday card and a birthday badge. When he arrives home he’s so excited that he’s barely able to blurt out his account of telling his colleagues about his surprise party with the balloon people and the opening of his lunch. In our dynamic, he’s the child and I’m the parent.
Twenty-two years later, 5th September 2012, Dad’s mental and physical health has significantly declined. I hand him the only thing he wanted for his birthday, a simple egg poacher. He receives it with his usual excessive enthusiasm. “Oh God, that’s exactly what I wanted! I’m going to use it right now!” He pauses, then says quietly “Can you please show me how?” I spend the next half an hour demonstrating how to poach an egg, slowly and methodically … again and again. We go through almost a dozen eggs during his supervised attempts at poaching. My father isn’t a quick learner.
Eventually the pain from standing becomes too much for him. He stumbles to an arm-chair and sits down. While he regains his composure, I get him a cup of coffee and a piece of toast.
Dad (looking at me and smiling mischievously): If only I had some balloon friends to poach my eggs for me.
Me (grinning, surprised at his sudden memory): You’ve not forgotten that?
Dad: God, no! That was the best birthday ever. I still laugh about it.
Today, 10th November, 2012, Dad’s been in hospital for over a week for the sixth time this year. He’s not a well man. I phone some shops to arrange for balloons to be sent to him, but I’d rather be able to blow up my own, draw faces on them and deliver them myself. I feel a long way from home.