From the instant panic that crawled into a pit of cold nausea in my stomach you would think I was holding a writ of execution rather than an innocuous birthday party invitation. Of course, taking a child with autism to a birthday party always comes with some level of drama, so maybe the nausea is warranted. As I begin to mentally replay the parties of the past-parties that always ended in meltdown-I see a minefield disguised by balloons, ponies, and party games.
Each segment of the party has the potential to end in total disaster. A single balloon pop could send my son cowering under the table for an hour. A game of musical chairs could get really ugly when the pain of too much touching turns into tipping over all the chairs. God forbid that there are clowns, because we won’t even be able to get out of the car. Even just the talking, laughing, and rustling of opening the presents might be too much to handle. If, by some miracle, we grit our way through all of those pitfalls, there is always the Birthday Song. The Birthday Song has always been the defeating blow for my son. Before the final Happy Birthday to Yooooouuuu can ring out, he is running away with tears and screams.
Steeling myself for whatever comes, we drive to another birthday party. I paint on a plastic smile to counterbalance the pit of nausea, and marvel that motherhood produces a love so powerful that we are willing to masochistically put ourselves in the line of fire for the sake of our children. The first hour of the party passes without incident. There are no personal space invading party games, all the balloons stay inflated, and, praise to the party gods, there are no clowns. It’s almost a victory, but like the tell-tale heart, the hour of the dreaded Birthday Song is approaching.
The birthday mom summons all the kids to the table for the cake, and they assemble all giggles and excitement. As the cake appears, I take my position just behind my son and prepare for the singing to begin. As he is getting older and beginning to be embarrassed by his struggles, I just place my hand on his leg as a sign that I am there and ready to help him. Never taking his eyes off the approaching cake, he places his hand on top of mine and assuredly pushes it away, as if to silently say “I’ve got this, mom.” With a glint in his eye, he belts out the words to the song all the way to the very last Happy Birthday to Yoooouuuu. As he sings, I swear, the heavens open up and a crowd of angels join in the chorus.
Wanting to drink in the beauty of the moment, I look around and notice the disconnect from all of the other parents. Some are mindless chatting, some are checking their phones, some are mouthing the words, but their minds are clearly elsewhere. I have always envied this checked out luxury that the parents of neurotypical kids are afforded. There is never a moment when I am able to check out, a fact I sometimes resent, if I am honest. In this moment of angelic singing-a moment of extraordinary triumph-I suddenly see the gift of the constant attention. I feel as though I have been given a sacred window into the miracle of the ordinary, a view that only a lucky few are ever able to see.
Before the frozen moment of victory is interrupted by the regularly scheduled birthday party festivities, my son locks proud eyes with me and we share a private understanding. This moment that was so mundane for others was anything but ordinary for us. Joining in the laughter and festivity, he turns back to the party and enjoys his very first piece of birthday cake that didn’t follow tears and panic. Left alone to soak in the magnitude of that moment, I notice the pit of nausea has been replaced with a soaring spirit that can hardly be contained and decide that Happy Birthday to You is my new favorite song.