Spring days in Iowa can be sunny and breezy or rainy and dreary. That day in May ten years ago was a beautiful, sunny day. The grasses were emerald. In the small garden under our bedroom window, the roses had just started to bloom.
My husband and a friend were out on the deck, setting up two folding tables and all our chairs. My dad and mom were in the house, fussing over breakfast for our son. I went in and out, tying balloons on the railing of the deck, smoothing the plastic tablecloths, and keeping them in place against the breeze with several pots of African violets I had picked up when I went to HyVee for the cake and catered lunch of sandwich sliders. I was glad that the large deck was nice and strong, with rafters that could supposedly sustain the damage of a hurricane, a feature pointed out by the previous homeowner of our first house, a small ranch. They had parties with a hundred people on this deck, the wife had said.
We didn’t have a hundred people, but we had a good number of friends, neighbors, and family there for my son’s first birthday.
I became a mother late in life. Being a mother was not high on my priority list, but when I had my son, the world suddenly came into a sharp focus. I would be a great mom, as my parenting magazines told me, which I believed, because I was older. Responsibility and financial stability came with age. We read Dr. Seuss to him in utero and listened to Mozart through a headphone placed on my belly. I took prescribed prenatal vitamins and DHA supplements. I ate well and gained healthy weight. My medical records had stellar blood pressure and glucose numbers, fit to be framed and hung on the wall. There were some difficulties, like the emergency Cesarean and the sleepless nights when we tried to “train” him to sleep on his own, but he was happy and healthy. I would like to think that I had done all I could to make it so, from breastfeeding for twelve months to eventually abandoning sleep training for attachment parenting.
That day I took that precious one-year-old in my arms and shared him with family and friends. I had overdressed him in a red, blue and yellow striped shirt, little jeans and new shoes my sister sent. Asian moms overdress their babies, my husband likes to say. Not only that but I did also have his future planned out, if you must know, starting with the only private prep school in town, ending at one of the ivy leagues, perhaps? I imagined having birthday parties for him, no presents but donations for food pantries requested. I imagined teaching him love, acceptance, and above all, being kind. And yes, he would need to have good grades.
In a way, that first birthday party was for me, not him. I ordered a cake decorated with a strong ox, an animal that’s strong, hard-working, and loyal. He was born in the year of the Ox, and he was a Taurus, so I gave him a Chinese nickname Ben Ben, two characters made of six oxen.
My son turns eleven this year, and his height has reached my chin. There’s no birthday party for him, which I knew before the pandemic hit us. It is hard to have a birthday party for an child who is sensitive to noises and does not interact with neurotypical children as expected, no matter how much he loves his friends─something we learned in the years following that perfect first birthday party. The me from ten years ago might have considered no birthday party for him the greatest collateral of the pandemic, In reality, however, I saw the silver lining of the dark pandemic cloud: that we could not have a typical party. Instead, we had cupcakes set out on the front porch. A couple of his friends came at different times, had a cupcake, talked at a safe social distance under the watchful eyes of parents, and gave each other drawings and notes. It was perfect, just like ten years ago.
*Photo © Giraffe Photography 2019
X. H Collins holds a Ph.D in nutrition and is a biology professor at a community college in Illinois. She also writes fiction, and her first novel will be published by Midwest Writing Center Press this fall. She’s the lucky mom of an amazing boy who happens to be on the Autism Spectrum.
She encourages readers to research and donate to the Penguin Project at penguinproject.org. The Penguin Project is a non-profit organization with the mission to empower children with special needs through theatre. The author’s son was a happy participant in one season (a delightful dancing napkin in Beauty and the Beast) and plans to participate again in the future. Visit penguinproject.org.