The last birthday party I remember attending with my son was at least 365 days ago. The day was ordinary – beautiful blue Colorado skies, a breakfast of gluten free pancakes and almond milk, and an hour of Saturday-morning cartoons (streamed cartoons, mind you). We were gearing-up for a birthday party and the day was off to a grand start. As we hustled to the car, my daughter prancing with her silver kitten purse, my son looking up into the sky, and we talked about what the party would be like.
“Buddy,” I reminded my son, “there be other humans at the birthday party.”
“Yea, Mom. I know,” my son replied.
“And I have a special gluten-free, dairy-free treat for you, too,” I added.
“Okay, Mom,” my son said.
“And, Buddy, we need to stop and get Diego a birthday gift. What does he like? Any ideas?” I asked my son.
“I don’t know Mom. Let’s just go into the store and find something,” said my son in a matter-of-fact tone.
And we did just that. We hustled into a store, my daughter now skipping with her silver kitten purse, and my son now talking in an army commander voice.
“Mom, I think we should buy Diego this,” my son pointed to the $60 Lego with dinosaurs and bones. He smiled when he looked at the box.
“Looks like that is something you’d like. I’ll remember that for your birthday,” I replied with a smile.
“Ah-yai-yai,” mumbled my son.
After multiple attempts to purchase his friend Diego less expensive $40 Lego, Buddy finally settled on a lesser value Lego and a National Geographic encyclopedia. He picked out a gift bag, too. The bag had a map of the world on it with lines running both horizontally and diagonally, showing the longitude and latitude.
“Mom, this bag is so cool! Look, here is New Zealand,” my son shouted!
Excitedly we raced back to the car, my daughter twirling around-and-around with her silver kitten purse and my son jumping up-and-down in excitement for the party.
“Mom, do you think there will be party bags? And what about watermelon? I like watermelon,” said my son.
“And, Mommy, do you think they will have girl party bags? I don’t like all those boy toys. Ugh. Ick. Gross.” responded my daughter with a gentle grin across her face.
This conversation and questions continued for the next 10-minutes as we drove through one neighborhood to the next. The excitement for the party bubbled with giggles and goofy faces between my son and daughter. And, when we approached the birthday boy’s home, I slowed my car to a stop and turned-off the car.
“Okay, let’s go!” I called out to my kiddos.
My daughter grabbed her silver kitten purse and pranced out of the car. But Buddy didn’t unbuckle his seat belt. He slouched in his seat and rubbed his belly.
“Mom, I have a tummy ache,” he said to me a shaky voice.
Always prepared, I pulled out my ginger chews and peppermint candies. I offered both to my son; he refused. Then, I climbed into the car and sat in the seat next to him.
“Buddy, what is wrong?” I asked.
“Mom, there are too many humans already,” he said when he pointed with his eyes to the group of boys running around outside.
“Buddy, these are your friends from school. You know all of these boys, ” I responded.
“No, Mom. I don’t know one of the humans. I’m not sure of him. I can’t go to the party,” my son said with a tone of sad confidence.
I looked out the window with him, the boys running and chasing in the long green yard. There were balloons and a grill smoking some delicious hamburgers. Boys were jumping up and then ducking as if they were playing a game of Nerf Gun@ wars or tag. The party was all rough and tumble and totally unpredictable.
“Mom, what are we going to do at the party?” my son asked.
“I’m sure there will be some play-time and some cake and opening presents and …” I replied.
“Yea, but what will we play? I want to know. What if I don’t like what we play? Then what?” he questioned. “Ugh. My tummy really hurts. There is a torpedo inside. I can’t go to this party, Mom, ” he said, again.
At this point, my daughter returned to the inside of the car and began digging through her silver kitten purse, pulling out lip gloss and a fan. She instinctually knew this scenario. We were going to sit in the car for ten-minutes and decide whether to attend the party or leave. She already felt the struggle that mounted in the confines of the car. So, she began to play with her lip gloss and fan, pretending she was a fashionable character from one of her favorite TV shows.
And, we did just that. We waited. And the tummy ache became worse. And the group of humans running across the green grass grew to 50 boys (according to my son). So, we pulled away from the home and we left. We left with the world map gift bag filled with a Lego and National Geographic encyclopedia untouched. We left without any words to the birthday boy. We left because the tears took over and the tummy ache increased and the day suddenly felt like it would crumble.
This was the last birthday party I remember with my son. …
Until now. After many more failed attempts at birthday parties, play-dates with peers from school, and other social, human interactions, something quite miraculous happened. My son’s four-legged service dog entered into our lives. She came to us a dog with lots of waggles and wiggles. She came to us, knowing more about the needs of our small family, then we could ever possibly pin-point. She came to us and showed my son what it meant to love and be loved. She gave my son chances to brush her teeth (yes, brush a dog’s teeth) and clean between her paws. She let him sit with her in the kennel, listening to the loud clashes of thunder during afternoon storms. And she responded to him, every single time he called her name.
And all of these small interactions with his dog, his Aussie girl, did something miraculous. His confidence sprouted. The hard shell that often sheltered my son from the world, began to crack. And, suddenly, he was talking to people he didn’t know while he was walking his Aussie girl. He started to take the trash outside and make his bed in the mornings. And, he found his confidence to attend a birthday party for another friend.
This birthday party started similar to the previous. The only difference: Aussie dog waited for my son at home. My son was eager to share his experience at the party with Aussie. The mere notion that his dog was at home – and would always be at home (or right by his side) after (or during) his journeys into the world – gave him the confidence to step into himself. He walked into the party holding my hand. He kept me close to his side as other humans arrived at the party. And he started to drift away when he watched his friends begin to jump and then chase and then bolt. He took a step and he joined them. And, he bolted and chased and zoomed around with all the boys. He laughed loud. His face dripped with sweat and flushed with pink.
After four hours at the birthday party, I had to actually firmly tell him we needed to leave. After four hours at the birthday party, my son had interacted with more than 15 of his peers and played, really played hard with all of them. After four hours at the birthday party, I felt a spark of joy. A sigh of relief. A moment of, “Wow! So, this is what it feels like to be a parent who gets to socialize with other moms and sip blood-orange sparkling water under an umbrella.” And that moment stayed with me. And it continues to stay with me.
These past few weeks with our Aussie dog have been nothing less than transformational. New things happen every day. However, more importantly, I feel like the pieces of my son that I never met – that I never knew existed – are now emerging and and taking shape. And I cry happy, joyful tears because these are the moments that move my family forward.