This story is by Michelle Kumnick and was part of our 2018 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
I hope that it doesn’t turn out the way it did last year. All that agitation. Those volatile emotions and the different way she was retelling stories about the same catalogue of events of times past. How badly the slights against her had traumatised her for life. All of it was not suited to the occasion that we were preparing for. The three of us have been adults for some time now, with the wicked witch having given birth to the other two individuals on separate occasions over thirty years ago. The least that the complainer could have done for her deteriorating father when we went to see him and his partner of twenty years at the retirement village was to be ourselves. For my mother to be at peace with the past so that the prelude and subsequent visit would have been an enjoyable one for all, and hopefully with the bonus prize of being memorable for the overwhelming radiance of positive vibes.
Or, maybe I should put that another way. Perhaps for our mother to act like a normal person for once and let us behave as we would under any other circumstance. Maybe I was expecting too much last year when we visited him for his eighty-ninth birthday. Just for her to be civil towards her children and exuding a neutral to positive demeanour beforehand, to carry on in the same vein until the visit’s conclusion. Just the absence of negativity so that I didn’t dread the upcoming milestone birthday. Dread it like I did other family get-togethers. We hadn’t had any of our other grandparents survive for that length of time, never mind any of their brothers and sisters, as they all came later on in the queue in their respective family units.
I can’t be bothered with being in an atmosphere seemingly as stifling as that of a rainforest in the aftermath of an extended downpour within each the various venues we have to visit on the big day. To be there to help him acknowledge or deal with his milestone year. He seemed to have enjoyed the last two landmark birthdays, but some of my friends have remarked that they thought the ones to mark the last two decades of a person’s century on earth had seemed like a chore for their relatives or those they have come across on the feel-good spot during the evening news show. But his partner has left him not long ago in the hope of joining the afterlife, so that’s not a good start.
It is easy for me to suppose that the same, nasty witch whose demeanour is as prickly as a porcupine will be waiting for my younger sister and myself when she opens the door. Easy since the preludes and outcomes for major family events have always been emotionally draining to some degree.
Could it be different, just this once?
I’m feeling proud of my achievements having cooked a curry that hasn’t triggered any burping or passing of wind. Thus far, my stomach has been able to cope with the combination and toxicity of the spice mix I added to the meat and vegetable tomato stew. I pause to admire my efforts to make the kitchen look neat and sparkly. To build on the meditative state that the task has induced within me, I decide to remove the vacuum seal from the expensive bottle of shiraz I had opened after learning that I had pulled through my audit methods exam with more than a decent grade to show for my efforts in completing the dry and uninspiring subject.
After resealing the bottle, I take the partially filled glass over and place it on the square table next to the chaise lounge. Sitting with my legs outstretched on its flat, plush, pale blue surface, I close my eyes, enjoying the feel of melting into the backrest. Taking five long and controlled deep breaths, I decided to keep my eyes closed and repeat the breathing sequence. Just focusing on the breathing and acknowledging that I was tense all over. I resolve to refrain from partaking in the alcohol despite the aroma of berries and spice it exudes as my body is communicating its wisdom to me that I am uptight, deep down, about tomorrow. To repeat the cycle again and again, until I am in a state that I would be able to savour what would eventually pass my lips.
Counting eight more repetitions of the breathing routine, I have a go at rolling my shoulders and do a few easy stretches. My body is giving me signs that it needs further work to be free, but I find that there is a welcome absence of negative forces playing a tug of war between my ears. Tonight is a good a time as any to put into action all those tips on mindfulness and meditation that I have been reading in those women’s health and well-being magazines that have proliferated in the magazine displays of our local newsagency.
Building on the breathing exercise, I actively employ the absence of thought meditation process. Acknowledgement and acceptance. Of positive or negative energy or thought. Breathe in, breathe out. Thoughts are occurring to me that I feel calm. Feeling calm, radiating calm as I am here with my eyes closed, with the only movement being the rise and fall of my chest and of my hair falling forward as my chin gravitates towards the anatomical snuffbox.
Is it possible to radiate calm tomorrow, I find myself thinking. Acknowledge this thought. Accept the possibility. It can’t be possible with her around, I think. Acknowledge this reaction. That is okay. That is normal. Don’t be ridiculous! Her vibe is poisonous! Breathe in, acknowledge. Breathe out, accept.
After what seems ages, the time it would take for the water storage tank out the back to empty its contents, my feeling of calmness is a polar opposite to the tenseness that the situation would normally evoke. The concept of radiating calmness tomorrow doesn’t seem as mammoth as the massive task of trying to find the stray cattle on the outskirts of the station last weekend. It appears that I will be able to achieve it, despite all the grooming that I have received over the last thirty-five years in how to prepare for battle with my relatives.
Going into battle does not have to be an option. Acknowledge. Breathe in. Radiate calm. Acknowledge and accept, breathe out. Breathe in and breathe out, slowly, evenly. Stay with how your body feels. Breathe in, breathe out.
You can be calm. You have been able to restore calm at work. Since when I think. I feel another few rises and fall of my chest, focusing on and accepting the doubt. The fear. The increased heart rate and increasing shallowness of my breathing. I’m not able to determine for how long that I’ve been able to be a mediator at work, let alone with any of my friends who get a bit fiery when we debate either political issues or philosophical questions.
By being calm, you are asserting yourself. It is your right to be assertive. You can control the situation if you remain calm. Feeling calm, like I’m enjoying the current feeling of serenity. Good. It could be an antidote for the poison she is likely to administer or spell that she could put on us when she lays eyes on us tomorrow. That is way out there, Meredith. Don’t be silly. Breathe in, breathe out. It is worth a try. Trying to get a different reaction from the wicked witch is a long shot but not impossible.
After staying with the calmness, convincing myself that behaving differently may work, I slowly bring myself to the present moment and begin to notice the aroma of the wine. I open my eyes to reveal a foggy scenery. Wriggling my legs, my arms, I roll over onto my side, propping myself up so that the palm of my left hand sinks into the soft surface just above my hip and reach for the wine.
As the haze disappears, I take my first sip of wine and resolve to remain calm as I pick my sister up, while driving her to lunch. To have a good time before going to the witches cave. So we’re both relaxed as we are when we hang out together.
The trick is to keep going as we approach the cave. Then after ringing the doorbell.
We decide at lunchtime that we will cast our own spell on our mother. The spell of togetherness and having a good time. Thinking of it this way, the three of us will make the old guy’s ninetieth an enjoyable day despite the loss of his partner two months ago. The wicked witch will not appear.
We approach the cave. We smile as we greet her warmly in unison.
She smiles back.
That is a start.