I glimpse him through streaky-clean glass as he literally charges up the ramp to the doors of House of Bounce, clearly intent on his destination, flush with purpose. An adult hand opens the door for my eldest son Justin who has moderate autism, and he bounds in, then stops dead in his tracks. A look of confusion, then joy washes over his features as he contemplates the fact that his mom has crashed what he thought was just an ordinary field trip. For a few brief seconds he remains perfectly still. Then he jumps up and down, emits his trademark “eee for happiness”, and runs into my outstretched arms.
My boy is nine years old. Today is his first kid birthday party.
I thought a great deal about what I’d write in this post, considering that nine is a pivotal year in any child’s life. It’s that halfway-mark in childhood, that arbiter of double-digit things to come. I think my son’s age also holds great significance for me because I taught fourth grade for years, and technically, he’ll enter the upper-elementary levels himself this fall. It’s a wonderful year to instruct children, as they’re still generally interested in what their teachers have to say, and usually like to invoke a burgeoning independence that made my job easier. Plus, by that age, they got my jokes most of the time.
This, of course, being a crucial tenet of my career.
I could spend today writing about the things I thought Justin and I would be doing together, the sports events (if he took after his father), the playdates I’d be driving him back and forth to, perhaps camping trips through Boy Scouts (which I’d definitely pawn off on his father). His life trajectory is completely different from the one I projected for him, the one in which when indulging in my most delusional pregnancy states I’d envisioned a literate, bi-lingual pre-school child.
Those hormones will do that to you sometimes.
Justin takes this moment of wool-gathering to remove himself from my embrace, and look me straight in the eyes. I put aside my thoughts of what I’d wished nine would harbor for him, and instead salute my son with a heartfelt “Happy Birthday!” I see the light of recognition illuminate his tawny irises, and as his lips converge in a knowing smile, I am certain he understands why I’m here.
Seconds later his grandma enters the establishment, and with his three favorite women in tow (his teacher completing the triumvirate), he is ecstatic. I’ve wanted to do this for him for years, but for various reasons, the “kid birthday party” has not come to pass. Between out-of-district placements and my son’s increasing desire to leave every destination within the half hour, I really didn’t feel we could pull this off. Due to the latter situation I didn’t think a party would make him happy, and truly, his birthday is supposed to be about him.
Seeing as how I schlepped him around for nine months and have raised him for as many years, perhaps it can still be a little bit about me too.
So when Justin’s school offered to make one of their outings a combo birthday bash for my boy, I jumped on it. His teacher and an aide drove the kids from his class in the school’s vans (seeing as how I barely handle my SUV, I am enormously impressed). House of Bounce basically just asks the parents to show up, which is another reason why I immediately enjoyed the day. Last, I was able to find it without too great a struggle (another point in its favor).
And of course, there’s that smile, that glorious, excited, satisfied smile.
My boy had a fabulous time, and true to his spirit, about an hour after we arrived, he had concluded his business, and was ready to depart. He made it through pizza and Star Wars cupcakes, and of course the pictures that his shutterbug mom had to take. It wasn’t what I’d envisioned his birthday parties would be like all those years ago, both when I was figuring out how to support an extra fifty pounds on a petite frame, and later dealing with a constantly cantankerous toddler. Today is light-years from what I thought my boy’s life would entail, a great divide between the trappings of typical, and what he and his family experience day in, and day out.
But he’s happy. He’s halfway through, and he’s happy. And that’s the best birthday present of all.