Today was your birthday. Last night I kissed you before bed, hugging you close while your little brother made siren noises and flapped his arms like a wild bird. I whispered in your ear about your special gift, the one you gave me, when you made me a mother seven years ago.
Your annoyance at your brother–completely understandable because, boy, is that kid loud–began to fade and a sweet smile spread across your face. I told you about the night you were born, a story you’ve heard dozens of times, and you drank it up like a thirsty bird.
How I was lying in bed, frantically going over my labor notes from class, wondering how on earth I was going to have a baby, when suddenly, I felt a stabbing pain in my abdomen, and bam, just like that, it was on.
“Did it help to read the notes?” you asked, brow furrowed. I laughed. “No,” I said, “there are certain things you can’t prepare for, you just have to live through them.” This answer didn’t satisfy you, an anxious child who prefers schedules and routines to the unknown.
After you and your brother went to bed, I decorated so you could wake up feeling special on your big day. I colored a Happy Birthday banner using your markers and left a trail of shiny purple stars from your room to the kitchen where I hung three felt butterfly garlands.
You loved it.
At breakfast we ate your daddy’s homemade waffles as sunlight poured in through the sliding glass windows. Syrup dripped from your fingers and you couldn’t stop grinning. You were so excited to have your birthday at school.
Your dad and I exchanged glances over your head. Sometimes your excitement outshines the event itself. Also, not that long ago, you shied away from any kind of attention. You still don’t like when people sing Happy Birthday.
Before we left, you admitted that you felt a little bit scared. We gave you hugs and went over what to expect. A birthday bracelet and pencil from your teacher, a special snack I prepared for your class. You nodded, convincing yourself, before running outside to swing.
I drove you to school and your brother, who is sometimes stingy with kisses, gave you extras, calling you back so he could “rub them in.” You let him and then walked away, glancing at us shyly over your shoulder. I saw you steel yourself a little bit before entering the school.
After taking your brother to preschool, I returned to drop off your birthday treats. Several boxes of those disgusting fruit roll-ups that you love, the kind that make your whole mouth and tongue turn blue and green, and fresh fruit.
Earlier, I had counted out blueberries and strawberries, trying to make each cup equal. But nothing can be perfectly equal, not in fruit cups and not in life.
A year ago I might have written your name across one of the cups, just to make sure you didn’t get stuck with a seedy slice of watermelon or green tinged berries, but this time I didn’t. I can’t shelter you from disappointment, my dearest girl, not even on your birthday.
After dropping off the fruit, I headed to the bakery to pick up your cake. You designed it. A former chocoholic, you’ve turned 180 degrees to everything vanilla.
You asked for white frosting with pink, purple, and orange flowers. When you started making more specific requests, I gently stopped you. It will be beautiful and delicious no matter what. Reluctantly, you agreed.
On the drive over, I listened to public radio, a welcome reprieve from the pop music you and your brother gobble up like candy. For a few seconds I enjoyed the broadcaster’s British accent, but the news on your birthday, like any other day, was dark.
I turned off the radio. The lesson that the world is not a safe or fair place, that people you know may cause you the most harm, is not news to me, but it cuts close to my heart. I brought you into this world, but how can I protect you from danger, from sorrow?
At the bakery, I was eager to see your design come to life, but when I opened the box, I blinked at the pink frosted cake with white flowers. I gripped the counter and politely explained that I had ordered a white cake. The owner apologized and offered a generous discount. It was just a mistake, but you are a sensitive kid. I knew you’d be disappointed.
And you were. Your face froze when I warned you, and you cried as I raised the lid. It was not your cake. But a few minutes later, your cheeks still damp with tears, you agreed that it was pretty. You bore the disappointment like a champ, wiping your eyes, and smiling for the pictures after I lit the purple candle shaped like a seven.
“Make a wish” I said, and you looked confused. “What’s a wish?”
“Oh, just something you want to happen.”
You thought about this and shrugged. “I don’t have any wishes,” and you blew out the candle fast. Then you leaned close to the smoldering wick and breathed in the gray column of smoke. “I just love this smell,” you said.
I looked at you, your eyes still glossy with tears but your face glowing with pleasure. Perhaps you don’t have any wishes right now because you have everything you need.
Then you looked up at us, your eyes twinkling. “Can I have a big piece?” you asked, the corners of your mouth rising as if you could already taste the sugar on your tongue.
Yes, I said, smiling back. Perhaps you will know this firsthand someday, perhaps not, but it sure is nice when a mom can give her child exactly what she wants.
Happy Birthday, my sweet girl. I can’t wait to see who you grow into next.
Dana Schwartz lives in New Hope, Pennsylvania with her husband and two children. She was a contributor to The HerStories Project on female friendship, and will be in the forthcoming anthology, Mothering Through the Darkness (November 2015). She writes about parenting and the creative process at Writing at the Table.
Photo: Dana Schwartz