My dear daughter turned four this past weekend. 4! It always amazes me how four years have passed so quickly while one Monday can take forever (seriously, I know it’s Thursday but I started this on Monday). And apparently James had the same feelings about Margaret’s birthday party. While we would never dare decorate with balloons, this year’s festivities included a homemade pinata (which once upon a time contained a balloon and is therefore on the list of phobias) and the ever-endearing-but-just-out-of-tune-enough-to-make-James-hide-and-cry-somewhere birthday song.
And James doesn’t just hide and cry during Happy Birthday. He’s been around the block enough times by now to fret in anticipation of the tune for the entire day leading up to the big event, and then during the party until the song is over. He also made himself scarce when everyone went downstairs to gleefully beat the crap out of the pinata – you know, the one it took a week to build and ten minutes to destroy. His nervous behavior is expected by now, and we let him deal with it how he sees fit on a party-by-party basis – some go more smoothly than others. We let him know when it’s time for each event and invite him to join us, but don’t make him. And in general he doesn’t. But this year, James’s mood didn’t automatically improve after the song was over.
When I went up to tuck him into bed I found him pretending to browse through his favorite Sonic the Hedgehog comic with an almost comically worried look on his face. Read more…
As we finished opening presents this evening for my daughter’s 3rd birthday I asked, “Who’s ready for cupcakes?!”
“Meeeee!” squealed my younger two.
“I don’t want to sing, I just want to eat cupcakes,” James said, making his best effort to sound casual. Remember from past posts that the Birthday Song is one of James’s original phobias and has plagued him for over a decade now.
“What do you think, Margaret?” I asked. “Do you want us to sing?”
“Yes,” she replied immediately.
“It’s not a big deal, right?” I asked James. “It’s just you and me tonight.”
Though James looked like it was very much a big deal, he reluctantly agreed and sat down at the table (my cupcakes are worth a little torture, I think).
I couldn’t find a candle and the crowd was growing restless. In desperation I lit a match and stuck it vertically into the cupcake. “Happy Birthday to you,” I sang hurriedly as I rushed the barely burning flame into the dining room. James watched me sing but didn’t join in.
Margaret didn’t blink. She eagerly “blew out” the smoking match at which point my 16 month old became hysterical laughing. I headed back into the kitchen to get 2 more cupcakes and he shouted, “more birthday!” I lit another match and headed back into the dining room.
By our fourth time through the birthday song, James started singing too. At this point I couldn’t tell if it was the lighting of the matches or Adam laughing that had him so engaged, but each and every time Margaret blew out the “candle,” Adam would burst into fits of laughter and James would echo his cries of “more birthday candle!”
After the twelfth chorus, I “ran out” of match nubs to light on fire and we had to call it quits.
Margaret turned 3 and James sang the birthday song to her 8 times this evening. As I watched three very happy faces around the table I couldn’t help but feel a bit smug as I tossed a few more milestones, for each of my children, into the growing mountain we like to call progress.
So yesterday when I came to pick James up from school I was met by his para, Ms. T, before the class came outside. “Did James have a fun day?” I asked. Her eyes were wide. “The whole cafeteria sang happy birthday to him,” she announced. “The minute I saw what was happening I ran over as fast as I could, but it was too late.”
Let’s pause here. For those of you who know James, you are probably reading this knowing what kind of catastrophe I just told you about. For the rest, here is a little background. Since James’s very first birthday, he has been terrified of the birthday song. I actually have a photo of him on his first birthday – in his highchair with a chocolate cake in front of him while relatives sing Happy Birthday. He’s sobbing, which only looks more pathetic with a glob of chocolate frosting on your cheek.
It’s not quite like his phobia of balloons (there’s really nothing out there that matches that) but it’s significant enough to bring him to tears every time someone sings the song to him, especially groups of people. It’s also significant enough that we can’t drop him off at a birthday party, just in case, making it hard for him to attend very many. All the way through his school career, when a classmate has a birthday he asks to leave the room and “get a drink of water” while they sing “Happy Birthday.” Thankfully the teachers have all been very supportive of this practice.
Over the last year or so we have seen improvement in certain situations – for example, if “the song” is sung to someone else while there is a lot of background noise, or if it sung to another family member in our house. We even sang it to James as a family last year in a very understated, casual way that did not reduce him to tears (we asked him first if it would be okay).
But back to yesterday. I’m pretty sure that when Ms. T told me about the cafeteria incident my eyes bugged out of my head like a cartoon character. “Is he okay?” I asked. She replied, “Well, when they started singing he stood up, and I ran over there. He stood on the table while the whole cafeteria sang and saluted. He told me he was a birthday soldier.” “Was he crying?” I asked. It still hadn’t occurred to me that any of this story took place without a boatload of tears. “No,” Ms. T said. “He stood on the table like he has seen all of the other kids do on their birthdays and told me he was being saluted on his birthday.”
I can’t appropriately convey to you how huge this is, what an amazing milestone this is. And of course, like the ferris wheel over the summer, nobody I’ve told so far has reacted in the insanely excited way I think appropriate for the situation (totally not expecting anyone to). But to me this is so much bigger than finally going on the ferris wheel or even swimming in the ocean. There are plenty of children, and adults, who are fearful of ferris wheels and big waves, but there are very few who cry during the birthday song. For James to be able to participate in and enjoy something so “normal,” something that has excluded him from his peers for so long, is a giant step toward James being able to function in the world without us one day. And even more wonderful than being able to function, being able to relax and enjoy the fun things like birthday songs.
On the way home I casually said, “So I heard the kids sang to you in the cafeteria today. That sounds pretty cool.” James replied, “Yeah, they all saluted me. It was really awesome.”
But just because James was on his best behavior for his birthday doesn’t mean my other kids were cooperating. Ordering Chinese that evening with the babies in full gear took 3 phone calls. I’m pretty sure the restaurant thought I was crank-calling them with my huge order and all of the noise in the background, not to mention two hang ups (third time’s a charm!). However, I didn’t think that explaining I dropped the first call because I had bad cell reception with my back pressed against the door of my bedroom while trying to order and blockade the noise of my screaming children, and the second time had to hang up really quick because while blockading the door my 11 month old started putting clean laundry into the toilet would even sound realistic. Calling back a third time and shouting my Mastercard numbers into the phone over two crying children seemed to be evidence enough.
Needless to say I was incredibly grateful that James decided he really wanted to order in (instead of our usual birthday dinner out), because I couldn’t imagine taking that caravan out to dinner last night. But for the record, I would’ve taken him in a second had he wanted to, just to see how many more people I could get to sing “happy birthday” to James and witness the miracle for myself.