birthday... party?
5 May 2001
Damian turned three today. At three fifty five a.m., to be exact. I believe at that very moment, he was lying on top of me, snoring slightly, and radiating heat like a little self-fueled furnace. Poor kid’s got the flu. When I asked him Thursday if he felt sick, he nodded solemnly. He can’t tell me how it feels, not yet, but he can look sad and reach his arms to be held and he can sag against mommy or daddy like an overheated rag doll. And he can shake his head, emphatically refusing medicine, but listen carefully as we tell him it'll help him feel better and then reluctantly swallow it down. My sweet feverish child.

As I write this, I hear the creak-creak-creak of the porch swing. Dan sits rocking rhythmically. Damian sits on his lap, his back against his daddy’s chest. They’re watching the teenage boys across the street zip down the street on skateboards and periodically crash into cars. A worthwhile spectator sport. Not exactly the way most three year olds spend their birthday weekend, is it?

Even if Damian hadn’t gotten sick, we’d hardly be trekking to Chuck E Cheese for a blowout celebration or stocking up on messy party games for our (as yet) nonexistent back yard. No point. Everyone would have a good time except the birthday boy himself.

We hosted a party for Damian’s first birthday. Bought a cake, flowers, balloons, and invited a bunch of friends, even a few kidlings. At the last minute, I popped Damian into the sling for a last minute jaunt around the corner to 7-11 for more ice cream. Our first guests had arrived by the time we got back. We stepped into the house, said hello, and Damian started to wail.

I spent the first hour of my son’s birthday party in his room with the door closed, soothing him. Every time I suggested going back out to the party, he burst into tears. Eventually Dan and I traded places and he rocked Damian to sleep. Sleep, the escape of the spooked and shaken child.

He was much more sanguine when he woke up. He tasted his cake, he opened his presents, he played. Alone. He kept his head down and didn’t look anyone in the face. Yes, there were signs back then. Clear signs. Painful in hindsight.

So no big party this year, not for a child with social issues. Not for our little boy who has gone through so much in the past few months.

It’s just another reminder of how much those months have taught us. I know now how different he is from his fellow three year olds. How much harder he has to work to achieve what they do so effortlessly. How much catching up he has to do still before he can be their equal in certain basic ways.

But I also know how quick a study he is, how much he’s achieved in such a short time, and how hungry he is for the knowledge. Three months ago, he couldn’t summon words on demand, couldn’t tell us what he wanted. He didn’t know to nod or shake his head, and he whispered his thoughts when he spoke at all. Now he speaks aloud much of the time, he’s beginning to use words spontaneously instead of using our words as his template, and he’s learned to express levels of enthusiasm by how emphatically he nods. And that only skims the surface of what he’s learned and how he’s grown.

Four months ago when my mother came to visit for the holidays, she thought he didn’t much like her. He reluctantly perched on the edge of her lap when she read to him, he avoided her touch when she tried to stroke his hair. I’d have thought the same thing in her shoes: kid doesn’t like me. Grandma, go home. He was warm and engaged with us but withdrawn with everyone else. Including grandparents.

Two weeks ago, my mother arrived during one of Damian’s now-rare naps. When he woke, I told him Grandma Leya was here, lying down on the bed in the study. He trotted right in to see for himself. He clambered on the bed and examined her up close (he’d been looking at her pictures). By the next day, he was running to the dining room to wave hi to her in the morning, greeting her with a big smile and a hug. He was zooming around the house in a game of Grandma-chases-me, squealing with delight. He was pulling her hand to come play with him on the floor. She said it was the first time she’s felt like a real grandma.

Monday after Dance and Jingle (a Mommy & Me music class with neuro-typical kids), Damian ran around the room as Gabriel chased him, both joyous. That was a first. Spontaneous play with another kid. Six months ago, he’d have retreated behind my legs. Two months ago, he would have watched in wary fascination but not participated. Now he’s learning other kids can be fun -- in small doses. The chase game ended a few minutes later, and when Gaby called to Damian to come join him in a plastic "house", Damian refused. So it was a small step forward, not a big leap. Those small steps, though. They accumulate faster than you’d think.

Last year we didn’t have a party for him. I knew he wouldn’t enjoy it even though I didn’t yet know why. But now that we know why, we can make a fun birthday for him. Which is what we did. The Dance and Jingle group sang Happy Birthday to him on Monday. He looked pleased. On Wednesday, Heidi -- his occupational therapist -- brought him a cupcake with a candle nestled on top. We all sang Happy Birthday again and he blew out the candle. Then he picked the sprinkles off one by one -- assiduously avoiding the sticky frosting -- and ate the cakey bottom -- still assiduously avoiding that frosting. But sneaky Heidi smeared some frosting on his cake bites and on into his mouth. His face was a study in conflict: the texture was odd and uncomfortable in his mouth but the taste... He ate more. And still more. And this morning he ate a whole peanut butter and jelly sandwich, the first time he’s ever deigned to eat such a combination of flavors and textures. Cake plus frosting leads to bread plus peanut butter plus peach jam. A lovely little birthday treat, that unfolding of taste awareness.

Today I bought a carrot cake (no time to make one, I’m afraid) and wrapped presents while Damian cuddled in Dan’s lap and watched a Winnie-the-Pooh video. His beloved sitter Jami showed up at three. She hasn’t been here in two weeks. When she heard him say "hi" aloud to her, her eyes brimmed with tears, and I thought, "Oh, of course. She hasn’t heard his voice in months. She didn’t know."

So Damian got to rip open wrapping paper, get excited at the contents of some and metaphorically roll his eyes at the contents of others. He got to hear Happy Birthday to You once more. He got to blow out birthday candles, turn his nose up at the cake (oh well), and eat too-cold vanilla ice cream. He got to try out his new presents: string the beads and race the fire truck around the Little People town and paint a picture on his brand new easel. He got to run away from Jami and back again, gleefully yelling "roar!" He got to stomp on the wrapping paper scattered around the living room and then settle back into our welcoming embrace.

He got to be a brand new three year old in a comfortable, safe, fun setting. We got to give him a birthday party he’d appreciate. Maybe next year, we’ll have a small party for him in our new back yard. I think he’ll be ready to enjoy that.

last // home // next

current log / Damian essay archive / other essays archive / what's all this, then?

copyright 2001 Tamar