Thursday, October 19, 2006

happy birthdays

My middle child is seven years old today.


The littlest one will be five on Monday. The teenager is thirteen.
My children are aged in prime numbers this year.

I remember seven. When I was seven I had the same teacher my son has now. I also broke my leg. My baby brother was born. I wrote in a diary every day, a brown diary with a lock. I'm pretty sure I had a terrible crush on one of my big brother's friends.

I loved the song "Monster Mash". (Confession: I still sort of love it. Yes, I really do. Because my brother used to play it on his stereo and we'd sing it, loud. Good times.)

I heard "Monster Mash" on the radio as I drove into town for helium balloons this morning. (The kids love Mylar balloons. They just do.) I turned up the volume and sang along, just as loudly as I did when I was seven. I know it's a corny, goofy song. But it's so fun! It is.

The woman behind the counter acted confused when I asked for four helium Happy Birthday balloons.

"You mean...right now?"

As I drum my fingers a little on the counter, waiting.

She clears her throat.


As if I would drive into town and ask to buy some helium balloons for, say, Christmas.

"Yes. " She seems uncomprehending, so I add, more specifically, "Today."

"This minute..?" she says, like she still doesn't understand, or I have failed to make something clear. At this moment I want to lift my palms to the sky and cry, "God, why do you make it so easy for me to exercise my sarcasm? Don't You know I'm trying to cut back on that?"

"Well...." She looks around, then radioes her manager over the PA system. "Assistance needed at the front desk, please."

Now there are two people manning the fort. For this ridiculously uncomplicated request.

"I'd like #6, and #9."

They consult a list and shake their heads at me.
"We're all out of those."

"How about #11?"

"Backordered. But we should get them," the manager says brightly.

I give up. "Do you have anything at all that says HAPPY BIRTHDAY?" I'm desperate. "It doesn't even have to be in English. Just something festive and cheerful, okay?"

"What color string you want?"
"I truly don't care," I say, and I mean it.
They tie white ribbons to the balloons and hand them over.

I walk out with a red star, a blue star, and two (not matching) HAPPY BIRTHDAY balloons. People look at me oddly as I cross the parking lot, like I'm doing something unusual.

I put the balloons in the booster seats of my car and they jostle each other in an impatient, unruly way, as if to say: I didn't get dressed up and ready to go just to ride around in a Buick, babe. There's a whole sky out there I need to be scoping.

Yeah, well. Deal with it, I say over my shoulder (swatting away the red star which has bobbled between the front seats, nosy and restless).

The man with big forearms driving the red truck behind me is looking at me quizzically, I notice as I peer into the rearview mirror.

"It's my birthday," my youngest son announces as I pick him up from preschool.
"No, your birthday is Monday." We've been over this. And over this. And over this again.

"Hey, Happy Birthday," the teachers chime fondly to the youngest as we walk out the door. Clearly he's been coaching them all day.
"It's not his---" I give up. "Thanks."

I bake a giant chocolate chip cookie while the youngest takes off his tennishoes and scampers about with the helium balloons. At 3:20 I pluck the closest one (a silver and red circle balloon, with a cake and candles and the script Happy Birthday floating over the cake) and wait for my seven-year-old to get off the bus and come to me.

It takes him a second to find me, but when he does he squeals joyfully and scrambles forward, and I can see he's wearing a yellow star sticker that reads, IT'S MY BIRTHDAY.

I am thinking of how, in the maternity ward, I could recognize his cry before he ever got to me as the nurses wheeled him down the hallway in his clear plastic bassinet; how I cradled him knowingly, as if we'd already been meeting each other for years, and he opened his sleepy eyes to study me, carefully. How accustomed I'd thought I already was to motherhood, with an older child already at home; yet here is this startling, if pleasant, realization-- each time, in some way, it's still new.

My son claims his balloon from me and wraps his fingers around mine.

"I won't let it go," he says. "I promise."

I know he means: the balloon. But what I hear is: your hand.