Let me just start by saying: Other moms terrify me. Even the cool ones. Even the ones I kinda want to be friends with. Maybe those ones even more, because I actually sort of care what they think. It’s as though, upon delivering their first child, all the other mothers in the world were provided a set of cute one-liners and social rules to get happily through a conversation with a stranger. And I was not. I don’t know, maybe the doctors were so freaked out by my delivery that they forgot to shove the information chip up there. Whatever the reason, I don’t know how to talk to other moms. When a mom talks to me, I basically curl into myself and begin spitting vapid responses through my grimacing parody of a smile. It must be a disturbing sight.
Despite all this, I have learned my lesson when it comes to wishing I don’t have to deal with other moms. When I was a twenty-year-old, newly single mama, just out of an extremely abusive relationship, and my son was just a babbling chubbins, I remember thinking to myself, ‘Fuck I hope he has no friends.’ I didn’t mean it. It was just a thought, a selfish, half-formed wish in jest. And of course I know that it really is paranoid magical thinking to believe that this small thought in any way contributed to my son’s profound autism which leaves him essentially with no friends. Nonetheless, I have learned my lesson. I am not going to make a similar wish, however lighthearted, about my daughters. I will, for now, only be grateful that they are both still young enough to get away with having birthday parties that only include family.
This year, on my daughter’s third birthday, family included my in-laws.
My parents never married. My father was married, to another woman. A very kind woman who always treated me with grace and respect even though I was the physical manifestation of her husband’s affair (I can’t say the same about my father’s other children, but that’s a story for another time). She died, however, of cancer when I was eight years old. My mother never married, or even dated again, at least not in a way that ever reached my perceptions. So I really had very little intimate conception of what marriage entailed, and certainly no idea about the dynamics surrounding “in-law” relationships. Like any kid being raised in the 90’s by single parents, I had a really loving relationship with my television though. I watched a lot of sitcoms. In which they made a lot of in-law jokes, especially mother-in-law jokes. I never laughed at those jokes. I never got them.
I get the fucking jokes now.
I used to live with my in-laws, when Anabelle (the birthday girl) was first born. I am not going to get into all the hellish details of those days right now because this is a blog post about a birthday party and that is a damn novel, but let’s just say it’s no coincidence that my husband and I moved across the country from Florida to Seattle, while I was six months pregnant with Penelope, with no housing and only one basic job interview lined up. Let’s just say the words “stinky coochie” were used, and not by me.
Not only did my father-in-law, my mother-in-law, AND my grandmother-in-law fly across the country for Anabelle’s birthday, they also paid for the party. Upwards of $300! Which Rick said was “pretty good” for a birthday party. I don’t even know where he came up with that notion because, although his father is the drug-free GM of a successful restaurant now, he was a coke-addled waiter when Rick was a kid, and I have heard so many stories about his impoverished childhood. Whatever…all I know is that when I was a kid, my mom, a Cuban-immigrant single mother, used to throw my birthday parties in her one-bedroom apartment and the only entertainment were weird theatre games we made up together. The party expenses were crepe paper banners and cake. But my daughter’s third birthday party, in which no guests outside of the family were invited, cost more than $300 and was paid by my in-laws, with whom my relationship is reserved, at best.
I was a bit stressed.
While my in-laws were gallivanting across the country to fund an overpriced toddler birthday, I was scraping together twenty bucks and old gift cards to buy her a present. A while ago I had found a collection of four My Little Pony dolls for a really great price at Goodwill and, knowing Anabelle loves My Little Pony, had bought it on impulse and given it to her for no better reason than that I love her smile. Because toddlers are little shits, her response was to look at the ponies, look at me, and say “Where’s Spike?”
My husband later found Spike, at a comic store called Golden Age Collectibles located in the Pike Place Market. We decided to get it for her birthday.
So while my husband brought Anabelle with him to fetch his family from SeaTac airport, Penelope and I trotted over to Pike Place to pick up Spike. I was chipper on my way there. I had avoided joining my husband to meet his in-laws, and I had plans to also go to the Food Not Bombs Sunday Market, which is this awesome gathering of vegan anarchists who give away free produce and other food in Cascade Park at 1:30 every Sunday. Last weekend I had scored a free lunch in the form of a homemade vegan chickpea and spinach wrap. It’s pretty awesome. I had every reason to be happy. Jet over to get my daughter a cool present, then go on to get free delicious food!
But Penelope was in a stroller, and I had not been to the Pike Place Market in a while.
The next hour was spent navigating a strange labyrinth of tourist boutiques, eerie, silent constructions sites, untraversible stairs which appeared out of seemingly nowhere, and an oblong metal elevator that never stopped on the same floor, even when you pressed the same button.
It was a surreal experience. I found my friend in a chocolate shop, I was given directions by an employee to a generic T-shirt shop when I had asked for a specific collectibles store by name, my clothes became one with my skin via the medium of sweat, I was offered coffee by a Muslim on the side of the road because no American experience is now complete without a reminder that our country is avalanching into a hellpit of Islamophobia and the Muslims must therefore make themselves appear as benign and useful as possible…and then there was The Elevator…
I’m sorry, I didn’t take a picture of the elevator. There was something wrong, slightly evil even, about that elevator. I think that if I had photographed it, I would now be receiving calls where I would hear nothing but elevator music and then a robot voice counting down the hours left to my life.
Even Penelope, who was surprisingly calm during this frantic trip through the Pike Place Labyrinth, began to fret at the prospect of riding this elevator. It never seemed to matter what button I pressed. I would be taken to whichever floor the elevator wished me to walk. I would leave the elevator, leaving behind the large Russian family which had ridden with me, wander the hallways that at first seemed new but grew increasingly familiar-weren’t we just here?-I muttered to Penelope, pretending not to notice the questioning stares of passing tourists…then I’d re-enter the elevator and yet another Russian family would part for my stroller, their words swimming over me with the grace of incomprehension. I swear, I am not even joking, I had a nightmare two years ago about riding this elevator and wandering these halls for all of eternity.
One time, after circling a floor marked by pungent wooden paneling and niche clothing shops, I entered the elevator and saw, clutched in the hands of another elevator-goer a plastic bag reading “Golden Age Collectibles.”
“Oh my god!” I exclaimed. “I have been looking for that place for an hour! Please, please tell me where it is!”
And then I realized the person holding the bag was a child. I had been shouting like a maniac to a now-stunned twelve year old. I smiled and laughed, my face flushed from exertion and glistening with sweat, my makeup, I’m certain, taking on a tragic liquid luster, and located her father. Simmering my tone, I repeated myself, “I have seriously been looking for this place for so long. Can you tell me where it is?”
They were actually really nice. They sent me to floor five (hadn’t I just been on floor five?) and even assured me that I wasn’t weird when I apologized for shouting spasmodically at them. The people entering the elevator also assured me that it was better to be weird, anyway. They had green and purple hair. I always feel best around people with green and purple hair.
Floor five was, not surprisingly, completely different than the last time I had visited floor five. And yes, lo and behold, after just a little bit of wandering windingly, I found Golden Age Collectibles.
They were out of Spike dolls. Yep, that is how the story ends.
I really wanted to punch the clerk who told me that, or at least to yell at him really good, but I contained myself. I dragged Penelope back to the damned elevator. I was so exhausted that I didn’t realize it was headed down instead of up. It took us all the way down, to the wrong side of the market, releasing us to the open air of the waterfront district. At that point, my choices were to haul the stroller up a steep, empty incline, or to ride the elevator again.
I didn’t get Spike for Anabelle. I didn’t make it to Food Not Bombs. The hour of my in-laws’ arrival to my realm of perception was growing ever closer. I was no longer chipper. I took Miss Nellie Rose to the park to look at the bay. She needed to stretch her legs, and I, well I needed some soothing.
Since I can remember, the ocean has been a balm to me. I don’t know what happiness is exactly, or inner-peace, but when I sit by the ocean I feel that it has something to do with waves that calm even while having the ability for absolute destruction. Water is a solace to me. I have made love to the ocean on more than one occasion, and I cannot explain that except to describe for you the vision of my small frame resting atop the waves of an incomprehensible expanse, beneath an even bigger expanse, feeling the water lap and sip at my body, feeling the waves flow in through the seams of my bikini, flow into me, and feeling the quiet ecstasy of this intimacy with an untameable force of nature. You may poison the oceans, you may ruin their use for our flesh, but you will never rule them. I love getting lost in the awesomeness of this.
After quelling my anger and anxiety at the bay’s edge, I took Penelope to Barnes & Noble, where I combined gift card with cash to buy Anabelle a bunch of brightly colored, foreign-manufactured, corporate toys that she was sure to love. For some insane reason, I even bought her markers for drawing on mirrors and windows. I’m sure they will make an appearance on this blog in the future.
Because Penelope had been so patient, and because Mama had been too, I treated us both to pizza at Sizzle Pie, where a person can purchase both vegan and non-vegan slices of pizza. I love Sizzle Pie, because it is the only place that always has a variety of vegan slice options, and because I can fill my belly for $4.
I had about an hour to re-charge at home, and then it was time to go to the party.
I am just going to take a moment to tell Anabelle’s birthing story. I know, I know, every mom has a birthing story that she loves to tell and nobody else cares to hear, but just bear with me. This one is worth the read.
Nine months pregnant and a few days away from my due date, I was still sleeping at 9:30 A.M. on January 29, 2014. My husband, Rick, was at a doctor’s appointment. His grandmother Isabel, in whose Lake Worth condominium we were living at the time, was out having breakfast or something with my in-laws. I was alone. Solitude is a rarity when you live with family, so I was enjoying it. Just lazing in bed, drifting back and forth between sleep and drowsy consciousness. Until a half-remembered ache seared through my lower back. And then subsided. And then, a couple minutes later, returned. Was this labor? She was my second child, but it had been six years since I had felt labor pains, and hadn’t I been in the hospital for a while already when they had been this close together? Another minute passed. Another pain rose and quelled. I picked up my phone. I am terrified of calls, call it an irrational fear, but I hate talking on the phone. On this day though, I dialed my husband as soon as the next pain subsided. “Come home,” I groaned. “Come home now.”
He got home quickly. Quicker, I think, than the legal speed limit allowed. I was still calm when he arrived, but that would not last.
“What’s going on?” he asked. This was my second child but his first. The fear of impending fatherhood was fresh and gleaming in his eyes.
“I think I need to poop.” Well, that’s not what he was expecting. I ran to the bathroom and ripped off my panties. Nothing came out. I ran back to the bed.
“Nothing.” Pain rose in the pit of my abdomen and crested across my stomach and through my back. I felt an intense urge to shit.
“I need to poop.”
Back to the bathroom. Back to the bedroom. I crawled onto the bed. The next pain was unbearable. I remember crouching on hands and knees on the bed, and circling the mattress like that. Circling and circling on hands and knees like a panicked animal. Panting, even. Then I vomited over the edge of the bed. Into my husband’s shoes.
“Okay, we need to go to the car,” he insisted.
A calm overtook me. I had been here before.
“No,” I said. “Call an ambulance.”
Then I lay on my back, and waited for the next pain to engulf me.
I heard my husband talking to the emergency operator. “Tell her to hold it?”
“No,” I said. “I need to push.”
My husband, an award-winning Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu fighter, my husband who had gone through military school and U.S. Army boot camp, was shaking. “She says she needs to push,” he told the operator, his voice tinny.
“Okay,” he nodded to me. “She said you can push if you need to.”
And I did need to.
“The ambulance is on it’s way,” he said, his voice pleading, his pupils dilated.
The pain came, and with it, the urge-the need-to push. I pushed. My husband turned white. This is an Argentinian-Colombian man, a man who took ESL classes when he was a kid, a man much more prone to tanning than pallor. He turned, quite literally, white. I will never forget the grimace on his face as he watched his first child’s fuzzy head begin to crown from his wife’s vagina, with no one else in the house but him to perform the delivery.
When the EMTs knocked on the door, he ran. He ran so fast he slid and crashed into the side of the kitchen, knocking over a bunch of cutlery with a huge, dramatic crash. I was alone in the bedroom, our baby partially delivered from my body. My husband was only gone for a minute, maybe less, but it felt like an eternity. Then, the room filled with young men I had never seen before. Until, like an angel, like Joan of Arc herself, the lieutenant EMT, a woman, approached me. She asked if I could stand and walk to the ambulance. I shook my head, vehemently, no. She nodded, and delivered my daughter into this world, right then and there on that bed.
One of those young men in the room was an intern. As the lieutenant brought me and my new daughter down to the ambulance in the small elevator, leaving my husband behind by necessity, the intern told my husband, his pupils and breathy voice still registering awe, “That made my life.”
Alright, alright put away the tissues and fast forward three years.
Anabelle’s third birthday. The party was actually surprisingly okay. Good even. There were, of course, awkward moments. I don’t think that PTSD allows a day to go by without at least one or two awkward moments. For example, when I walked into the party room and saw my MIL for the first time on this trip and neither of us said a word to each other. Or when I ran into my FIL in the playroom, where he had already taken Anabelle, and I reacted to his hug as though it was a form of assault. Or when the first words from my grandmother-in-law, ‘Nona’s,’ mouth were “this place is for older kids, it’s too dangerous.” The entire playscape, by the way, is enclosed and padded with foam. There is a even a designated “three and under” area. But Nona is old, and constantly in pain, and embittered by a litany of disappointments, and thus, prone to complaining. Hell, I have watched this woman strongarm her way through opiate withdrawals when her doctor negligently prescribed her oxycodone “for sleep,” and then her next doctor, the doctor she was forced to switch to because her insurance changed, recognized this as ridiculous and abruptly discontinued her prescription. This woman has earned the right to complain. Still, it can be trying.
To add to things, while I was supervising the kids playing, my husband was ordering and then sending back a vegan panini that arrived with cheese. As everyone else ate, the waiter continuously came in to stage-whisper updates on my sandwich.
-“Oh we found out the bread had milk, so we are making another one with different bread.”
-“So sorry, just a few more minutes.”
-“Oh, we found out the avocados were genetically modified using dinosaur DNA so we are importing another one, it should just be a couple hours.”
Okay, that last one was made up. But the panini seriously took forever to arrive. Still, I was grateful for the uncommon care they put into ensuring it was vegan and, perhaps aided by my extreme hunger, it was actually very delicious.
I was also grateful for cider, and an extremely low alcohol tolerance that allowed me to get buzzed off just two. And also for corners. Corners are my habitat. My son Robin inherited that.
But you know what? Robin, yes, did spend some time hiding in the corner, but he actually had a really great time. Penelope ran and screamed. Anabelle, the birthday girl, reported that she “had pizza, blew out candles, yeah,” it was good. But, if I am being really honest, what I was most elated about was Robin’s huge smile. Robin has profound autism. He cannot speak. He still uses diapers. He is old enough to feel shame about these things. He spends a lot of time in public being anxious and covering his ears with his hands. He spends a lot of time being supervised because he has an inappropriate sense of danger; he will run into a street, or a pond, or out a window, if he is allowed. But Playdate SEA is designed in such a way that the kids can just be let loose in the play area. Robin spent hours lost in the safe, padded maze of crawlspaces and climbing walls located above the main space, relatively unsupervised, feeling free for perhaps the first time in his life. My son doesn’t pose for pictures, so I didn’t get to snap one of his smile with my camera, but I saw it. In real life, with my own eyes, I got to see my son out in the world happy.
Things were weird and awkward and hectic and annoying, but it was a good party. It is these little things which make life, even a life tarnished by PTSD, worth living.
Happy birthday Anabelle Lily. Mama loves you.