Every year, I write a birthday post for my special needs son on my blog. This year, I found the task a bit more difficult. I wasn't quite sure why until this morning.
Owen's fourth birthday was two days ago on Wednesday, a snow day for us here. I walked into his room and said "Owen, there's no school today!" and he responded immediately, "Yeah, cause it my birt-day!"
I didn't have the heart to correct him and explain that school was closed based on meteorological factors, or that the school board hadn't decided that the occasion of his birth warranted an additional holiday built into their calendar. He was overjoyed that he got to wear his favorite light blue flannel bear pajamas all day, and I scooped him out of his bed and deposited him in ours for our morning session of a bottle of milk, cuddles and Sophia the First.
And I should have been happy, sweetly satisfied that day, at that moment. This day should have felt like a celebration -- something to look forward to. If only I could stop myself from looking back, from feeling those feelings from that exact day four years earlier washing over me at random intervals. If only looking forward had more clarity associated with it, rather than being shrouded in the mist and fog of Will he be able to...? and What if he can't...? and Will he ever...?
And I can't stop myself, much as I desperately want to, from thinking about and comparing him to his sister and where she was on her fourth birthday. It wasn't much more than a year ago -- those memories are still so fresh in my mind.
She eagerly anticipated her birthday, talking about it for weeks beforehand, while he doesn't understand the concept of time at all and anticipation is something that comes to him and leaves him as quickly as the old "in one ear and out the other" adage. You tell him about something coming up and his face will light up and he'll say "Das coo!" (That's cool!) but then it is immediately forgotten -- quicker than you can say "Look at the pretty birdy!"
Complicating things further is his genuinely adorable new habit of applying his only concept of time to literally everything. Everything, I mean everything happened last week. Except Owen says it with an accent. Like a 75-year-old Italian man selling cannoli on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx. Ah-lass uh-weet.
Me: "Owen, we are going to go to Florida soon!"
Owen: "Yeah, we go Fah-rih-duh, ah-lass uh-weet!"
Me: "Owen, you need to go to the bathroom now -- before we leave the house."
Owen: "No, I no haff to. I go potty ah-lass uh-weet."
Me: "Owen, it's you're birthday tomorrow!"
Owen: "Yes! My birt-day ah-lass uh-weet!"
And then last week became today. And he was excited. But it felt like he was matching our level of enthusiasm more than exhibiting his own. And we didn't experience joy as we watched him unwrap his presents, because we decided not to wrap them at all after he had needed us to do it for him, becoming frustrated and confused -- confounded by these seemingly arbitrary boundaries that separated him from all of the new toys they likely held -- after his birthday party this weekend. And that was after my husband and I went through all of his gifts while he napped, before he even saw them, to make sure we could ferret out all of this toys that might make him stim, or that could potentially be used as weapons against his sister, or us. We realized the importance of this after a well-meaning and sweet gift last year from my friend. Owen's use of a Tinkertoy stick almost caused permanent ocular injury to his father.
That man doesn't curse often, but we were both grateful that afternoon that Owen only had about a dozen words and wasn't at the point of repeating language at that point (silver lining?).
And I am not comparing him to his sister in terms of words like better or worse. I am not wishing he were more like her, or less like himself. They are just different, and I am only human in noticing that. If anything, I wish that I were less like myself and somehow able to just exist in the present more -- without looking for the elusive answers to all of those what ifs.
It is a hard-won battle to accept that you cannot sing "Happy Birthday" to your child as candles illuminate both his face and the cake they stand within, because he will cover his ears and scream "Too loud!" at the top of his lungs in a repeat performance of his birthday party just days before.
But it is also a wonderful surprise when you have the opportunity the following day to hear the children in his class whisper-singing that same iconic song to him at the prompting of his beloved teacher. To see him beam with a light immeasurably brighter than those candles. How lucky he is to have her, to be in the care of those who have the experience and patience to work around it all, to see where and how and what needs to be altered in order to allow him to experience the simple joys he deserves -- joys like a serenade on his birthday.
It was something that he had tried to tell me the previous evening, when his request for our nightly cuddle and song before bed was that very song he had refused an hour earlier. It wasn't that he didn't want to hear it -- it was how. And so I sang "Happy birthday" to my son on his birthday -- softly, with my face buried in his sweet-smelling hair, in his darkened room, on that same navy-blue glider I have rocked him in every day since the day he came home. And I cried the sweetest tears of happiness -- for him and for me.
I am learning that it is not what you can't, but how you can.
He is teaching me, his teacher is teaching me, that you can't keep looking back at what was -- at how I thought it was supposed to be or how I think it's supposed to be done -- that's all so Ah-lass uh-weet.
And the future? Well, that's Ah-lass uh-weet, too -- according to my little man.
So now is where I will do my best to stay.
Because I am learning that the best birthday present I can give my boy is to actually be in the present.
Happy birthday, Baby Bear.
Mommy loves you from here to last week.
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