My mind was drifting away from the quiet chatter of the room. I could feel the soft trace of the breeze on my exposed collarbone; the sensation made me shiver.
“Rhiannon? It’s your turn to speak sweetie.”
All around me were family and friends I had grown up with. People who had experienced the same loss I had, who were all feeling the ache of a decade without her.
I stood up slowly, fishing in my blazer pocket for the palm cards I had prepared weeks in advance.
“Go on sweetheart, up to the…” His voice cracked slightly. “Up to the front.”
Hands patted me as I walked; the sympathetic tap of those who understood exactly what I was feeling.
I wiped my palms on my freshly pressed pants, looked up at the room and exhaled quietly.
“My Grandma was the greatest woman I have had the pleasure of being around. She’s always been my hero. Looking back on the years I got to spend with her there are certain memories that stick out to me the most.”
I look up quickly, scanning the room. My sister smiles back at me from the central table. Suddenly, the room feels too crowded, the balloons seem tacky and the “Happy Birthday Judy!” sign seems offensive considering she isn’t here to see it. I try to calm my heartbeat, breathing steadily out through my nose.
“There were the little books she made of our adventures to the beach that I would dictate to her and she would design. They were the first stories I ever wrote. Then there was all the Christmas’ spent at their home in Casino, the drives to Lake Ainsworth where she took the photo of me chasing sunbeams across the glistening surface and the hours spent pouring over photo albums of my family at various stages of life. Then there was the trip to Canarvan Gorge, in all its glory.”
The memory surges, rising from my mind, playing out to the crowd like a camera reel as I speak.
“I was six, Grandpa was busy stacking the land rover with our weeks’ worth of supplies and I was sitting on the front step with Grandma, watching the train hurtle along the tracks on the other side of the dusty oval.”
I stare at the train as it moves along the track, humming to myself. I can feel Grandma watching me, a small smile playing at the corner of her lip. As its noise disappears, I turn to face her.
“46 carriages!” I say proudly.
“Nah, there was 47!” Jordan yells from behind the screen door.
Grandma looks back at the door and then smiles warmly at me.
“I counted 46,” she whispers.
I can’t help the grin breaking out across my face. She puts a single finger to her lips and winks.
The car door slams shut, and Grandpa wanders back in through the front gate.
“Righto kids, let’s get in and get moving.” He announces, clapping his hands happily.
I leap up, rushing to the back seat and strapping myself in. First in gets to pick the first CD, out of all of Grandpa’s CD’s I desperately wanted to hear Fleetwood Mac sing about me again.
Within moments we’re away. We move away from the outskirts, through the main drag and West to Summerland Way. At least that’s what Grandpa announces as he takes each corner, laying out our exact route to Grandma as she traces calmly with her finger. She’s the navigator, even though Grandpa really doesn’t need one.
As our speed steadily creeps up along the highway, I watch the world fly by out the window. I count the white posts dotting the side of the road and imagine a monkey swinging along the powerlines.
The Bee Gee’s lull me to sleep as the sound of car tyres on the highway provide backing vocals.
We stop at McDonalds somewhere around noon and then we’re off again. Flying along the highway at what feels like the speed of light.
It’s starting to get dark when we arrive at our campsite.
Grandpa unhooks the caravan, bustling around setting up camp; Grandma starts unloading the food supplies and the bedding for the tent. Jordan and I flick each other and argue about who gets to pick the activities for tomorrow.
Our first night away is uneventful.
We make dinner and eat inside the caravan. I fall asleep to the sounds of cicada’s outside the tent fabric.
I dreamt of monkey’s dancing on tightropes made of powerlines and McDonald’s burgers raining from the sky.
The birds wake us.
Grandpa is already awake; he’s lacing his shoes in preparation for his morning walk. We get dressed hurriedly, trying to keep quiet as Grandma’s snoozes.
“She’s very tired, we’ll have to be very quiet today.”
We nod our understanding.
Grandpa helps us down the steps of the old caravan that he reminds us has seen many a trip across Australia.
As we start our walk he talks about those trips. The adventures they took my dad and our aunt and uncle on every school holiday.
I listen, but soon my mind drifts to focus on what is around me.
We’re surrounded by trees. Massive ones, the ones that stretch all the way up to the clouds. They smell amazing. I hold Grandpa’s hand as he leads us down a dark earthy track, criss-crossing around rocks the size of my head and small streams of water.
I lean down to touch it; it’s so cold my hands numb almost instantly.
All around us are the sounds of nature, birds calling to each other, leaves crunching as we walk among them on the path and the wind singing across the treetops.
After a while we loop back around on the path and make our way back to our campsite.
Grandma is still asleep.
Jordan and I sit at the small table in the centre of the campsite while Grandpa kisses her cheek and whispers to her. I think about the bacon fry-ups my dad cooks on Sundays.
“Grandma isn’t feeling well girls.” Grandpa announces as he starts collecting the bowls and spoons for breakfast.
I smile at him.
“It’s okay Grandpa, we can play snakes and ladders!”
Grandma coughs quietly from the bed.
We spend the rest of the day giggling and competing in various boardgames on our camp table outside the caravan.
As the campsite darkens, we walk over to the communal barbeque area and cook a feast of sausages, meat patties and onions.
Grandma walks over from the caravan carrying a large salad freshly prepared and tossed. She walks slowly towards us and I find myself ignoring the bags under her eyes.
“Hi Grandma!” I squeal, running over to hug her legs.
Grandpa beats me to her, taking the salad out of her hands and whispering to her.
“Are you okay sweetheart? How are you feeling?”
She pats his shoulder gently, smiling weakly.
“I’m fine, I took the medication, it’s all fine.” She gestures at my sister and I, standing happily nearby. “Let’s just enjoy dinner together.”
She moves to sit beside me on the cool metal seat, passing out the plastic plates and placing napkins gently next to them.
He sighs and continues to pull the sausages from the BBQ and place them neatly on the plate in the centre of the table. He looks tired too. As he sits, he meets Grandma’s eyes for a moment, and I watch.
My stomach flips, I feel like I’ve just gone over the big bend on a roller coaster and I’m now hurtling down the other side. I look across at my sister for guidance, but she just smiles and fills her plate.
The trip starts to go by quickly.
We spend the days walking through the trees with Grandpa’s maps.
He takes us to waterfalls and rock formations, pointing out different types of birds and animals as they scurry around the bush.
As we walk, he tells stories about his trips, the places he’s been and the enormous list of things he’s seen.
I listen, kicking at rocks along the path and splashing water in the thousands of streams that cross in front of us.
We spend days repeating this routine and never seem to tire seeing the trees, finding a new path to follow, eating more sausages for dinner and sandwiches for lunch.
She spends the days sleeping or reading in the sunshine in the afternoons. Sometimes I join her, cuddled in her lap and she reads to me.
On the last day she doesn’t get up from bed.
She coughs constantly and we start to worry, she tells us she’s just tired, that her age is catching up to her and we believe her.
Grandpa sits by her and we play outside.
On the last day we pack up the caravan and the tent, fold up the picnic blankets and fill the car again.
By noon we’re coasting at a comfortable speed, the Bee Gee’s are still crying out about something, but the car feels heavier.
There’s less of a joy to the conversations about the weather and the endless I-Spy guesses. Something has changed among us.
Grandma coughs again from the passenger seat as the road continues to stretch out in front of us.
A part of me wished the drive would never end.
“I was watching the water slap up against the side of the houseboat, on a holiday with my mother and sister, when I found out. I had been waiting for my sister to make up her mind about which yellow card she was going to drop onto the deck in between us. I had been waiting so long in fact that I had given up and started watching the water instead.”
A faint chuckle tiptoed around the edge of the room.
“My mother has never been one to beat around the bush you know. When she came and sat down next to me on the bench in silence, I knew something was wrong. She wrapped an arm around me and looked at the two of us, my sister still immersed in her hand of cards and me looking back at her with the naivety only a six-year-old can know. Then she told us Grandma had died.”
Someone in the back of the room coughed.
“You never know how much something means to you until you lose it. That trip with her was the greatest trip I have ever been on because it was with her.” I paused, swallowing hard.
“I wish I had understood what was going on, worked out that she was really sick. Not with the flu, but with the cancer that would eventually catch her.I’d give anything to go back and let her read to me again in the sunshine at Canarvan Gorge.”
I hold up the glass of water in front of me and smile around at the room. In unison the room lifts their own glasses, tear filled eyes gleaming back at me.
“To Judy, happy 75th birthday, you’re very missed.”
“To Judy,” the crowd hums back.
I can almost smell the rain from the nights in the gorge coming back to me as I drink. Somewhere up there she is trickling the sensations back to me, reminding me, letting me remember her through the smell of the rainforest and the tap of raindrops on my nose.
“Thanks, Grandma.” I whisper.