I’m not going to lie.
I want you to be excited about today. I wanted you to go to bed last night with those excited butterflies in your tummy like I always did. I want you to wake up and jump out of bed with a smile on your face that stretches from one ear to the other. I want you to pick a special meal, a favorite restaurant, your outfit for the day. I want you to be excited for people to greet you all day long. I want you to go to bed with that same smile from the morning, while clutching a new favorite item. Your whole body filled with that customary happiness most children feel on the best day of the year. The only day on the calendar, out of all 365, that really matters.
Today is your 5th birthday.
But, to you, it’s just Thursday.
I will say “Happy Birthday, Easton!” when I wake you up this morning. You will probably yell at me. You are not a morning person, and this morning is not any different than yesterday morning. To you, “Happy Birthday” doesn’t make sense. To you, those words do not equal instant and automatic happiness like it does for most kids. To you, it’s just Thursday.
We will have our typical morning battle over everything. Getting up, getting dressed, eating breakfast, getting shoes on…nothing will go exactly how you want it to, so you will screech at me, and everything will take three times longer than it should. Every morning, we battle. The battles are anywhere on the scale from mild to epic, but they are battles nonetheless. I never win. You never win. We just get through it, minute by minute. Every morning, I get up a little extra early, allow myself a short amount of time to take in the quietness of the sleeping house, guzzle my coffee, and brace myself. Every morning, I set my internal re-set button and take several deep breaths. I have to remind myself that you are frustrated that you can’t communicate with me like you want to. This morning, I will add an extra deep breath and one more dose of patience. Most kids wake up ecstatic on their birthday. But you are not most kids. You will wake up as your alter-ego, Mr. CrankyPants, just like you did yesterday morning, and every weekday morning before that.
We will make our usual drive to my work, where you also attend part-time preschool. Familiar songs will seep out of my Pandora station, filling the car, and you will sing along, sometimes so loudly that I will jump a little. It will be Kelly Clarkson, or Pink, or Adele, or Bon Jovi, and you will belt out the words in the same tone as Kelly, Pink, Adele, and Jon, and possibly even hum some background harmony. Because you don’t just hear music. You listen to it. You remember it. You sing it loud and proud. And if a song starts playing that you don’t like? You will say “No thank you” from the back seat, repeatedly and louder each time, until I hit the skip button.
As you sing along to Kelly Clarkson today, my mind will wander back to this day 5 years ago, and I will think about why we’re celebrating. Why we’re wishing you a happy day. This is the day that changed us, even though we didn’t realize how much at the time. This is the day you entered the world, making it (and the people around you) better.
Today, we’re celebrating another year of amazement, wonder, and mystery. We’re celebrating you.
Believe me, you are worth celebrating. It’s a big day.
To you, it’s just Thursday.
Once at preschool, people will tell you “Happy Birthday!” Teachers, parents, kids. They all know you. They all love you. You will most likely echo them and say “Happy Birthday!” back. Or nothing at all. Or you might even yell at them a little. We will have to train you to respond with “thank you.” You have been trained to answer “How old are you?” by your therapists. Today, we will have to re-train that answer from “four” to “five” (and you might not be happy about that). You don’t know what it means to be another year older. People will hear you answer the question and think, “Oh! That’s so great! He knows he turns 5 today!” They don’t know you had to be trained to answer that question, and that you really only like answering it if it’s in the exact same order you learned that particular line of personal info questions at therapy. (1) Where do you live? 2) How old are you? 3) When is your birthday? 4) What’s your last name? and 5) What’s your favorite food?) For you, it’s as if you memorized the lines in a script. And if there’s one thing I know about you — you have to follow the script.
We will have a pizza party at lunch time to celebrate your big-day-that’s-actually-just-like-any-other-day because that’s just what we do in the neurotypical world. Birthdays are like holidays for neurotypicals. We celebrate. We bring treats. Typically, kids bring cupcakes, cakes, cookies, donuts. But not you. You’re anything but typical. You don’t like sweets. Which is why our “treat” after pizza will be your favorite food in the whole wide world, the one you would pick over any other, the one that we have single-handedly kept in business. Mini Club Crackers. If they ever stop making these, I will personally write a letter to the President of Keebler. They are your first love.
We will sing the classic Birthday Song to you. You do know the song, so you will probably sing along. To you, it’s just another catchy song, just like Twinkle Twinkle or Itsy Bitsy Spider or This Old Man. The only difference with today’s song is that everyone will be looking at you while they sing it. You will like the attention. You will clap when everyone else claps. (You may even flap a little.) You will flash that smile. Your one-of-a-kind, Easton smile. A smile that is quite literally contagious. You seem to spread happiness in the same way some children spread the common cold.
You will not necessarily open the presents your excited preschool friends brought for you. They love you, they love birthdays, and they love to give. They’re younger than you, and they don’t quite understand all that encompasses you yet, but that’s okay. They know it’s a party, and they know it’s about you. These generous little ones will probably end up opening their gifts for you and try to show them to you. Some may put them right in your face, but you won’t understand what’s going on. Not that you will be unhappy at all — you just won’t understand. You might sit with them and say “cheeeeese!” on command for some photos. Like this one from last year, as your friend opened your card and present behind you.
You’re exceptionally photogenic, so the photos might look like any other kid’s birthday party. But to you? I guess this is a Thursday Party.
Your Dad will take you to therapy. They will tell you “Happy Birthday!” to which you will most likely respond “Happy Birthday!” You will go through therapy, as usual, working incredibly hard to learn basic skills that most people take for granted. I’ll pick you up, and your therapist will tell me you were the highlight of her day, how cute and funny you are, how quickly you learn, how eager you are to sit at your work table, how you know the circle time routine so well, you could lead the group, how she is not used to working with autistic kids that catch on to things as quickly as you do. How smart you are.
Because you are exceptional.
We will ride in the car and possibly sing some Carrie Underwood, Rihanna, or Bruno Mars. When we get home, you will say “iPad? iPad? iPad?” I will say “Ask better, please,” and you will say, “May…I…have…iPad please?” You will look through photo after photo after photo, imitating facial expressions. Every once in a while, you will say “Who is that? Mommy!” when you see a photo. I will fix you a grilled cheese and for your second course, you will have cheese puffs. The ultimate birthday-but-please-let’s-keep-it-as-normal-as-possible meal. Since you don’t really get the whole let’s-open-presents tradition, the rest of the evening will go on as usual. We bought you a few Finding Nemo items over the last month and gave them to you as they arrived, because we don’t go through all the birthday traditions that parents do for “normal” kids. If we did order a cake and put candles on it and tried to have you blow them out? That would not be about you. That would be us, trying to make everything look normal. (Plus, since you don’t like cake, I would end up eating the whole thing myself because we don’t waste cake, and that would just be bad all around. As in, all around my mid-section.) If we did wrap presents for you and made you open them? That would be us, staging a gift opening. That would not be about you.
Instead, tonight, on your why-do-people-keep-saying-happy-birthday, we will let you do you. Whether that be watching Finding Nemo or flipping through photos on the iPad or playing with your little toy laptop computer and pushing the same letter keys over and over and overandoverandover or playing with your new drum set from your aunt and uncle (a gift only an aunt and uncle can give). One thing I know for sure: after your shower (because you decided about a month ago that baths are not for you), I will help you get ready for bed, you will pull your pajama pants up to the middle of your torso like an old man, and then you will say “time for song?”
The two of us will crawl into bed together, I will hand you my phone, and you will type in my 5-digit pass code and navigate the touchscreen with ease to find your bedtime song, the one we have listened to every night for I-don’t-know-how-long. The Barenaked Ladies. If I Had a Million Dollars.
You will sing along to the same parts of the song as always. You will smile at the line “they have pre-wrapped sausages but they don’t have pre-wrapped bacon,” you will belt out the “mon-KEY!” part of the “haven’t you always wanted a monkey?” line, and you will chime in on the harmonious humming of the background singers that starts with exactly one minute and 19 seconds left in the song. The humming that most people probably don’t notice. The humming that you noticed months ago and hit it right on key every time. After you yell the final line, “I’D BE RICH!” You will hand over my phone, and say “Kaaaay. Time for bed” in an exact replica of my own voice.
I will tuck you in, say “Goodnight, Easton,” close the door, you will yell “nigh-night Mom!” one last time and I will yell “Goodnight, Easton!” from outside the door.
We always follow the script.
I will think about the last 5 years. But, I’m not going to allow myself think about the lows tonight. Only the highs. I’m not going to worry about your future and what it will bring and the people that might not get you and the kids that might not accept you and the struggles you will inevitably face that are beyond my control. Not tonight. I’m not going to think about the ungranted wishes I had for you to be excited about this one single day on the calendar. I’m not going to wonder which birthday, if any, you will understand.
I’m not going to let that unwanted thought enter my brain. The thought I’m not supposed to think. The thought I’m not supposed to talk about. That selfish thought that induces a level of guilt on myself that is impossible to describe. The one where I wish that for just one day, your autism didn’t exist. That I knew what it would be like to see you understand what it means to open presents, to have a party, to march down a hallway, proudly proclaiming to your world that it’s your birthday, that you are now five years old.
Tonight, I’m going to think about the funny, happy, adorable, silly, smart, remarkable, and endearingly strange boy you are. Because you are far from ordinary.
You are exceptional.
And I wish you a very Happy Thursday.