Birthdays can easily disappoint thanks to unfailingly high expectations. I suppose all social holidays carry some potential for upset. Near one end of the spectrum sits Halloween, relatively safe what with the costumes to entertain and candy to console. New Year’s Eve marks the far end. A holiday structured around drinking alcohol is like a career aimed solely at accumulating wealth and buying grown-up toys: you’ll never think you’ve had enough until you realize you’re not having fun anymore. Birthdays present additional peril due to their singular focus. If no one has a good time on New Year’s then it was a terrible New Year’s. If no one has a good time on your birthday it’s because no one loves you. (It follows that the ubiquitous forgetfulness feint preceding a surprise party lands high on my list of surprisingly dumb ideas.) From your loved ones’ perspective, of course, it’s because they failed to put in enough expense or effort to demonstrate their affection. Adding to the pressure is the milestone effect: birthdays remind everyone involved how much time has passed and how little likely lies ahead. Don’t get me wrong, I love the month of festivities surrounding my birthday, and my refusal to turn 30 (I’m officially 20-10 now) in no way indicates disquiet over my impending death; but I’ve known too many crestfallen birthday boys not to perceive the lurking emotional danger.
First birthdays are immune to many of these maladies. Since the guest of honor has no clue what’s going on, the pressure to maximize fun and manifest devotion never mounts and everyone usually enjoys the festivities. Noting the passage of time hardly seems negative since the toddler’s future brims with opportunity and promise, and since the rare parent experiences nostalgia for the sleepless nights, safety risks, and communication frustrations of infancy. For families possessing C.A.P. badges (given to caregivers who visit hospital grounds so frequently that checking them in each time becomes an economic inefficiency), the reflective aspect of birthdays can in fact be hugely positive. We bled, perspired, and cried our way through enough of those 365 days to make Viv’s 366th a true celebration.
(To the tune of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin”) we made it through the wilderness; somehow we made it through-ooo-ooo; didn’t know how bad off we were, until we found year two. After another incompetence driven blip (Viv’s nutritionist switched V to a new version of her elemental formula after telling us that the milk would taste exactly the same as the old stuff, failing to consider minute changes in texture, thickness, and flavor, and neglecting to consult the rest of Viv’s medical team who apparently could have anticipated Vivi’s adverse reaction and the month-long setback it spawned), Viv now settles into my lap and drinks five ounces of milk from the bottle in under ten minutes with no discomfort and only sporadic singing or storytelling as incentive. She eats two to three jars of puree at a sitting, favoring carrots and bananas. Recently, Vivi started munching on dairy-free, soy-free Cheerios; she doesn’t swallow the mushy results yet, but she’s getting more comfortable inviting something less than entirely uniform and smooth into her mouth. A lot of therapy encouraging her to tolerate new textures looms ahead, but Viv’s eating becomes less stressful and more age-appropriate with each passing day. She’s still light for her height, but V’s making progress, eating enough to put on weight and approaching the twenty-pound mark. She’s a little behind in gross motor development, but there too she’s gaining ground – or leaving it as the case may be – pulling to stand and starting to cruise along furniture.
All of these accomplishments recently culminated in a big victory: REMOVAL OF VIV’S G-TUBE! The surreal moment threatens to defy description, but that’s never stopped me from trying. Viv and I waited in a too-brightly lit clinic room, just like we would for any run-of-the-mill appointment, and played with magazines and latex gloves until the surgical nurse arrived. With no warning about what to expect, the nurse used a little stick to partially deflate the mushroom holding Viv’s g-tube in place from inside her stomach and then, on the count of three, held Viv down and yanked. Viv screamed bloody murder as bits of blood and pus splattered my shirt and face, and yet, elation swept over me. I can recall only one similar moment: when Ian handed a very messy and distressed Vivienne to me for the first time. Four kisses, three hugs, two minutes, and one gauze dressing later, the whimpering stopped. I told Viv, as I often do, “You did a great job, sweetheart; Mommy’s very proud of you.” My baby girl, who for the first time in nine months contained no plastic parts, gave me my favorite of her looks: a tooth-bearing smile so wide that her eyes squeezed shut to make room on her face.
Happy birthday indeed.