Susan's Blog

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Happy Birthday to Nat

Today my oldest boy is 16. This is always a very emotional day for me, I’m sure you parents out there can relate, particularly when it is your firstborn’s birthday.

At the beginning of my book I say,

The saddest day of the year for me is November 15, Nat’s birthday.

I want to begin this new year of Nat’s life by taking that back. I apologize to you, Nat. But your mom is still learning. Yes, the book has only been out 2 1/2 months and already I am editing it! But I have learned something new since the pub date. I guess it is in part thanks to the neurodiversity crowd and partly due to my own process that I am feeling so different today about Nat’s birthday than in previous years.

There were so many years where I would feel a blankness inside, an empty waiting, as November 15 unfolded. I would go through the motions of a mother preparing for a child’s birthday, all the while with a cloud following me around. Because I knew that none of it would have the meaning of “birthday” that I wanted it to have for him. To me, birthdays are the most fun day of the year. Until I left home at 17 for college, I would wake up on October 18 with my parents and sister and a pile of presents sitting at the foot of my bed. There’d be phone calls all day long from grandparents, cards would gather on the piano, and I’d feel like a queen. To this day, my parents and sister still make a huge fuss over birthdays, with singing into the phone and cards and presents.

So it took me a long time to adjust to the way Nat does birthdays. As a baby, Nat would stare wide-eyed at the brightly-colored boxes, and would not know what do do. I would rip the presents open for him, shout about what the present was, try to show him how to play with it, and wait. He would usually be interested in the wrapping paper. Or the box. Maybe he’d put the present in his mouth.

For years I would think about the big let-down for me, but I would not talk about it. It is only now that I realize, what a big let-down birthdays might have been for him! From his neurologically sensitive perspective, a sudden deluge of mysterious boxes, loud ripping of paper, shouting parents, new expectations — sounds like a precious bit of hell! And I won’t even go into the huge birthday parties I have thrown for him over the years.

Now I understand what a Nat birthday should be like: any other day, plus frosting. Maybe an orange balloon or two. Nothing wrapped. Cards — pretty much useless. New presents: stagger them, one a day, giving him time to absorb it.

And for me, there are no tears this year. No feeling of letdown. No heavy sighs for what might have been. I even played Melissa by the Allman Brothers, from Eat a Peach, which is the song that I was playing when I was about to give birth to Nat, the song that is sure to rip me to shreds around this time of year, because I remember my “innocent,” and “naive” self, the me who did not know what was coming.

Melissa has lost its power. I still love the song, but I am hearing it with a smile, remembering tiny Nat, fragile Nat, special Nat. There is nothing to mourn. He is himself, and always has been. No one has been stolen from me.

Thank you, Nathaniel Isaac (in Hebrew this means: “Gift of God,” and “he will laugh”), for being part of my life. It is all the richer because of you, Sweet Guy.

Here’s what we did to celebrate.


Happy birthday Nat!!

— added by Kev on Wednesday, November 16, 2005 at 4:38 am

That “swimming pool” birthday cake picture is the cutest thing I have seen in a long time!

It’s true that birthday celebrations can be problematic for autistic kids, but please don’t beat yourself up about not realizing that earlier. Even if Nat had some difficulties with past birthdays, that doesn’t necessarily mean they were “hell” for him.

My family is about evenly split between social party-lovers and “bah humbug” autistics, and while we have had our share of birthday misunderstandings, it’s generally understood that everyone means well.

I had some birthday parties as a child, and I rather enjoyed the cake and presents and party games and pretty wrapping paper and shiny sparkly ribbons and bows, even though it was all very overstimulating and made me hyper. I think my mother may have been trying to improve my popularity by inviting all the kids from my class to our house. After a few years, she figured out it probably wasn’t the best idea.

My son, who will be 16 in June, has always preferred quieter birthdays because of the sensory issues. His idea of a good birthday is a few presents and a round of miniature golf with a friend, or something like that. His little sister, on the other hand, is very social and loves planning big birthday parties for herself.

As for your comments about feeling sad or upset when family members don’t put as much importance on birthdays as you do, I believe that let-down feeling is a fairly common reaction. My husband still carries a grudge because his father never paid much attention to his birthday (I’m not sure if his father is autistic, but his father is quite aloof and unsentimental).

When my husband and I were still dating, I won a nice color TV in a promotional giveaway and decided to give it to him for his birthday. It arrived a few days after his birthday. I didn’t think that made much of a difference, but he explained to me that he would have felt much happier if I had given him a card on the actual day of his birthday, so that he wouldn’t have thought his birthday was forgotten. I would have done that, if I had thought about it, but until then I just didn’t understand that birthdays were big emotional events for some people!

I guess what I’m trying to say is that it’s a confusing process for all of us, learning how to deal with others’ differences.

I hope Nat had a good day on his birthday. (I’m sure you all enjoyed that yummy cake!)

— added by Bonnie Ventura on Wednesday, November 16, 2005 at 8:46 am

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