I had 24 favors for his seventh birthday party. A table full of food. Balloons woven into the fence. A sign on the front door: Welcome! We're in the back yard. I had wine and juice and a homemade red velvet cake decorated with gummy worms and plastic bugs.
The party started at two o’clock. At 2:05, I looked at my watch. He played with my daughter, his beloved little sister, without regard for the time. His mother and stepfather showed up at 2:15. Finally the first guest came. And then the second.
They crafted and popped balloons and grazed on strawberries. We waited. He migrated to the front yard to look for more guests. He’d always had good attendance at past parties.
At three o'clock, we suggested we start the activities. He looked at us with innocent eyes. “But we need more people!”
He waited until later to make a scene. He was angry with me, the stepmommy who failed to make it perfect. He raged at his father, the daddy who spent his weekend beautifying our sprawling yard. He wanted us to go back in time and fix it. Or else throw him another party.
But we’d given him the party he requested. Fun and games at our pretty Victorian house with a sweeping view-in spite of the location, clear on the other side of Seattle from the neighborhood where his mom lives and he attends public school. We do the drive all the time, we never considered it a deal breaker. Neither did the guest who came by bus.
We didn't know that another child in his class, a girl with parents well-connected to the community, also had her birthday party that afternoon. We didn't know that one child, our potential third guest, would show up three hours early because his mom didn't notice the email announcing the time change. We’d settled on that time and date because his step father splits his time between two countries and we had to catch him on this side of the planet. We wanted all of his parents to be present.
Which is what we told our boy later, searching for a place to grab onto through the grief. It was more important that all of his parents be at his birthday than all of his friends. We told him that he was able to pay more attention to the friends who did come. We explained the concept of quality over quantity.
And finally, we gently reminded him of his refusal to speak of the party to his friends. Both my husband and I urged him on many occasions to promote it. We’d invited every kid in his class, so it wasn't an exclusive event. Still, he felt shy and maybe fearful. He wanted the invitation to be enough. We want so many things that never come true.
As I planned and labored over the party, I, too, was fearful. That I wouldn’t be appreciated for it. That he would never understand just how much I wanted his birthday party to be ceremonious and symbolic of a great year ahead. That he could never know how desperately I wanted to be a good mother to him.
What happens when our fears come true? We learn from them, or at least we try. My son and I have learned that expectations aren’t guarantees. That taking something for granted can backfire. That we have very little control in life, and this is precisely why we must seize the control we do have.