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  • maryharwell

Bittersweet Birthdays

Updated: Mar 21, 2021

My son’s birthday is this week and I am planing a party for him. He will be 14 years old and we are having a Sesame Street themed party with an Oscar the Grouch cake. The party guest will be me, his dad, his younger sister and his grandmother, That is his limit. More than four very familiar people will overwhelm him. This is what birthdays with severe autism and developmental delay look like for us.

When Jack was born I had several friends who had baby boys around the same time. Needless to say my visions of our boys growing up together, having play dates, going to the same school and being on the same sports teams did not pan out. I’m still friends with these moms but mostly just through social media. I’ve seen pictures of their sons' fourteenth birthday celebrations over the past few months. Their boys are starting to look like men. Some are now taller than their moms. Of course they have outgrown themed birthday parties. Rather, they are going out to dinner with a few friends or possibly having a few friends to spend the night and going to a movie or a sporting event.

Meanwhile, I am planning a Sesame Street party for the 12th year in a row. I had to search Amazon for Sesame Street decorations that didn’t have 'Happy 2nd Birthday' written on them. The emotions this stirs up are hard to put into words.

I’m excited about Jack’s birthday. Why wouldn’t I be excited to celebrate the day of his birth, the day this brave, funny, loving soul entered the world fighting for his life and introducing us to a love we had never known before.

A part of me feels lucky that I don’t have to say goodbye to the days of preschool themed parties. Fourteen years later and I still have a child who loves to play peek-a-boo and read board books. I still have a child who calls me mommy and needs me by his side to fall asleep at night. In many ways it feels like time stands still for us when it comes to Jack. We sit here, frozen at age 2, only his body and ours continue to age. It’s bizarre and confusing.

I can't help but wonder if we will still be having Sesame Street parties for him when he is 30 and his dad and I are entering our senior years. I am quite sure we will. While the uncertainty of his future and ours terrifies me, I love that he will most likely still find pure joy in Sesame Street characters in 15 years while other 30 year olds are immersed in the stresses of everyday adult life. I love that he will never fully understand that there is cruelty and injustice in our world. I love that he will never understand that some people judge others for their differences, the color of their skin or who they love. I love that he will forever have a childlike innocence that the rest of us lose pretty quickly along the way.

Tomorrow we will wake him up and remind him that it’s his birthday. We will tell him how old he is and continue to tell him the same thing every 30 minutes or so for the rest of the day. We will stick to his regular schedule so that he does not get derailed or overstimulated. We will order pizza for dinner like we do every year for his birthday. We will light the candles on his cake and sing happy birthday to him. We will feel the happiest we will ever feel if he enjoys it and laughs and blows his candles out. If he gets overwhelmed we will stop and try again later. We will give him a few presents all of which will be slinkys, his favorite toy. Then he will be relieved to go back to his daily routine.

At Jack's request, we will talk about the party every day for the next year until his 15th birthday, when we will happily celebrate with a Sesame Street party again.

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