Last year I planned an amazing party for Owen’s third birthday party. He was neck deep in love with anything having to do with firemen and even though I have always struggled with theme parties, it was easy to get excited about this one. I ordered fireman themed plates and bowls, candles, hats, favors, and even practiced making natural dye red icing for the fire truck shaped cake I was determined to construct. To be fair, the icing never really looked red; it looked, and sadly tasted like magenta dirt, which made sense since it was made out of beet root powder and strawberry juice. I booked a day at the YMCA which provided a room and an hour of indoor play complete with bouncy castle and sent out invitations. I have never been so prepared for a party outside of my wedding. And then Friday, February 28th, six days before his birthday, I went in to check on him during a nap and found him unconscious, having vomited, and apparently still having a seizure. In that moment, I thought that I had lost him. We went by ambulance to the hospital where he did not regain consciousness until the next morning.
We stayed in the hospital for six days, and in fact thought we would spend his birthday in the hospital, in isolation. The nurses promised to make it special and I tried hard to believe them. At some point during his hospitalization, I snuck down to the children’s playroom that we could not go into because Owen was in isolation and called the YMCA to cancel his party and then sobbed. Somehow, in a small miracle we were released on his birthday, perhaps the best birthday gift possible. I don’t think I have ever bought a birthday cake for anyone in my life. I love making homemade cakes, have been making cakes for family and friends since I was seven and aside from the one year I put in a tablespoon of baking soda and baking powder instead of a teaspoon of each in a cake for my grandfather, I have been fairly successful. But last year, physically and emotionally exhausted, I could not make Owen a cake. My husband took Owen to the local gourmet grocery store and bought him one, a big expensive chocolate cake, twice as large as we needed because when Owen asked for it in the store, my husband could not say no, could not think of anything other than the fact in that moment, we were so thankful to have him home and alive, he would have bought him every cake in the store if he could have. The lady behind them in line rolled her eyes, muttering something about entitled children. My husband did not say anything, just paid for the cake and brought it home and we put the special fire fighter candles on it and sang to him around the dining room table.
This year we are one week out from Owen’s birthday. Owen is still madly in love with firefighters but I couldn’t bring myself to make it his theme. As is, we don’t even have a theme but I will make a cake, possibly two. The party feels important somehow, that because we did not get to have one last year, this will somehow serve as a milestone, something solid to say, “Here we are a year later, still on medication but seizure free. Here we are approaching normal, a different type of normal, but normal.” But as the anniversary of his seizure approaches, I find myself getting more and more anxious, sliding back into the behavior of the weeks and months immediately following his hospitalization where I could not let him nap without checking on him constantly, laying my hand on his chest to make sure he was breathing, pressing my lips constantly to his forehead to check for fever, running my fingers across his limbs like a seismologist searching for subtle tremors. And my fear is not contained to Owen, is has somehow transferred onto Nora, my younger daughter. She has a bad cold, a cough that settled deep into her chest and at night I can hear her choke, then pause, and each pause feels to me like death and I stay awake trying to decide if I should go back in and check on her. What if the end of February is a doomed time for me, as if the days themselves were still hungry for tragedy, unsatisfied?
Roughly eight years ago, I was driving up I-95 from NYC. It was roughly 6:30 in the morning, just slipping into daylight and the roads were empty aside from a few trucks and other cars. Then in front of me, a tire rolled off a truck. I watched it fall, watched it bump and fly across lanes in front of me, hurtling towards my car. The car in front of me swerved and I swerved too. I managed to stop before I hit the car in front of me but the car behind me hit me. I was shaken and scared but fine, as were the other drivers. I eventually continued on to work, training some teachers at a high school. But on the way home, I narrowly avoided two other accidents. It felt like the accident I had escaped was chasing me, wanting to sink its still hungry fangs into my neck. And this feeling followed me for days as cars seemed continually drawn towards me as if I was magnetic north. As I move towards the end of February, I feel a nasty presence in the same way, like I’m waiting for tragedy to come. I am not sure where this comes from but I try to be kind to myself and not tell myself to get over it, to feel that I am not entitled to this amount of grief, that that is reserved for someone with real tragedy.
But there it is. Here we are, one day away from the day that changed my life as a mother but also didn’t. I am thankful for that and even more thankful that this month is almost over and in one week we will be having a wonderful, if theme-less party.