Twenty-one years ago, my son David turned three. But to tell this story, one must really go back twenty-two years, when he turned two.
David turned two, and I don't remember much about it. David turned two in the spring after a very difficult winter, and the fact that we survived was the overwhelming point. But yes, David turned two.
Approximately four months after David turned two, Laura turned one, and there was a cake and a modest celebration. I do not believe that Laura's birthday was what instigated the trouble.
Two weeks after Laura turned one, Shannon turned four. Shannon had a party, a princess party with quite a few little girls filling the house. There were dress up clothes, play jewelry, treats and party bags, games, candles and singing. After the party was over, the family enjoyed a rather rustic cake that I had tried to make in the shape of a castle, with lollipops topping the four turret-y things on the corners, supposedly like flags. We have rather a famous picture of David crying his heart out because he wanted the orange lollipop.
The morning after Shannon's party, David came sobbing to the breakfast table, proclaiming, "You forgot my birthday!"
I had a momentary panic. He was two, not even quite two-and-a-half. Yet, he was convinced that we had forgotten to celebrate his birthday.
Could I reason with him and help him remember the cake he'd had back in May? I considered his moist red face and decided to try working the other direction.
"We didn't forget your birthday, Davey," I assured him. "Your birthday is not until May." I picked him up and carried him to the calendar on the wall. "See," I showed him, "It is October right now . . . " I paged through the calendar, showing him October, November and December, explaining that we had to finish all these months, then even buy a new calendar, before we would get to May again and celebrate his birthday.
He settled reluctantly, and all was well until the end of December which was complicated by (1) my birthday and (2) the purchase of a new calendar. "You forgot my birthday!" David wept in despair.
"Oh honey," I explained, "this is the new calendar, but we have to go through all these pages before we get to May, when your birthday is. Your birthday is in May." I demonstrated how we count days off, starting with church on Sunday each week, and at the end of the grid of boxes for one month, we would turn the page to the next month.
He sort of relaxed.
In February, Shawn had his birthday, which resurrected the trauma. Like clockwork, the next morning Davey arose in tears, "You forgot my birthday!" Trying hard to be patient, I explained again. He looked very suspicious. He was watching closely now. At random times throughout March and April, distress arose, and David desperately accused me, "You forgot my birthday!" Again and again, I took him to the calendar and showed him the picture for May. "Not until we get to this page, the May page. Your birthday is in May," I told him.
At some point in the middle of April, it occurred to me that we would soon be turning the page to May, and David's birthday would still be 22 days away. My heart shriveled in my throat. My hands began to sweat.
When Shawn got home from work, I told him, "We are going to have to celebrate David's birthday on May 1. He's been waiting for it since last October, and he is beside himself. When the calendar flips to May, if he doesn't get a party, he will be sure that we have totally disregarded his birthday." Shawn thought it would be a good learning experience for David to wait. He was not the one who had been fielding all the anxiety for the last six months. I pleaded. I prevailed.
I don't even remember what kind of a party it was. Maybe it was Elmo; maybe it was cowboys? I suppose I could figure it out if I pulled out my picture bins and searched. I do remember that there was a table full of little boys, and a colorful paper table cover. David wore Oshkosh denim overalls and a red striped shirt, and his blue eyes were literally glazed over with thrill. It was his birthday, his actual, real, long-anticipated birthday, the very day. Well, not really. It was May 1. But it was the day he had been waiting for so long. He stood intensely in his chair at the end of the table, rising above his guests, memorizing the colors, the smells, the burning candles on his cake.
"It's your birthday, Davey," we cheered. "It's your birthday!"
You have never seen a child listen to the singing of the birthday song and blow his candles out with more pageant and solemnity. His face was white, his eyes were glassy, and his hair shone like gold under the dining room light. With all the fiber of his nearly three-year-old consciousness, he intently drank in every last moment of the event.
I wonder if he thought it was the only birthday he'd have in his life? I probably had not explained that we each get a birthday every year we are alive.