In our family, a birthday materialized and then evaporated into the annals of time.
The important day came this week, but with caveats.
Were there cinnamon rolls?
Were there presents?
Did we honor the special person with extended family?
In stages. On different days. In this COVID life we’re living, truth be told.
How about a birthday cake? Did we partake in this sweet delight as with celebrations’ past for our turning-one-year-older kid?
Did we greet or even sing, “Happy Birthday to you”?
For the first time in his life, Jake informed us that he was reticent about and even opposed to turning another year older. In fact, Jake was so upset about the advent of his birthday that even weeks before his celebration of life date, his grief overcame him. Tears welled in his eyes and splashed to the floor as he shared that he did not want his birthday to come – day after day after day.
What was going on?
Never had our son expressed such angst about turning another year older. If anything, birthday planning had always begun months ahead for Jake. Living in South Africa, we developed the habit of planning well ahead of time for birthday fun – especially if something from family would be sent from the United States.
Not this year.
Jake would have none of it.
As John and I plumbed our son’s grieving heart, we learned that Jake didn’t want to become a year older because this means his grandparents are going to be one year older, too – and to be frank, one year closer to their passing.
Most of Jake’s life has been lived far, far away from his grandparents. Our missionary home assignments have traditionally been short, focused visits in which time with family has centered on fun, memory-making moments. Because we cannot return to South Africa due to COVID travel restrictions, our three-and-a-half-month stay has expanded to a full year and counting. Yet, one of the gifts of the pandemic is how much time Jake has shared with his grandparents. Jake has loved every minute he’s experienced with them and counts this time as precious and dear. I think that our extended stay in the States allowed Jake more time to observe the aging process and its ramifications in the lives of my parents and John’s mom. Jake has become cognizant of mortality.
Alas, for some reason, whether it is his autism, his understanding of aging and mortality, his concerns and fears related to adulthood responsibilities, or something difficult for Jake to articulate, Jake asked that we refrain from celebrating his birthday in a public way. It pained him.
So, we didn’t.
No Facebook announcement.
No appeal for birthday cards as we did for Caleb – who needed them.
No posting of birthday festivities.
And no birthday song, birthday cake, or birthday greetings.
We honored Jake’s birthday wishes.
Jake’s birthday was this week, and then it wasn’t.
After Jake’s day passed, gratefully the poignant cloud of sadness about his aging affecting the aging of his grandparents lifted. The worries and fears that besieged Jake for weeks and weeks stopped materializing in Jake’s conversations.
I cannot tell you why.
Autism is a complex interactional process.
Anne E. McGuire & Rod Michalko state in their autism research, “Autism derives its meaning in and through the relationships that connect us, in and through the lines of relation that bind you and I together as ‘we.’ Autism can teach us something about some of the ways we find ourselves bound and tied up with one another in a spoken and unspoken language. We (you and I) are tied to each other by way of our communication, a mode of relation that is, also and always, coming undone, incomplete, partial, due to a fundamental excess inherent in every moment of contact. Moreover, we imagine some of the ways that we are charged with the task of moving between being made up of these ties and being undone by them.”
So true in our case with Jake.
Deep within his soul, Jake attributed his birthday and being counted one year older as affecting the health and well-being of his grandparents. There is no discounting the fact that as Jake ages, so do his grandparents and do us all. Yet, in Jake’s mind, to celebrate himself, would be a harmful thing to those he loves. He was deeply conflicted. Maybe it’s not a completely rational notion – after all, Jake’s birthday certainly doesn’t hurt us. However, I believe that Jake’s thoughts centered upon taking care of his grandparents. His love and concern for them meant that he had to become less in some way.
Jesus honors this kind of heart-rendering love. He says:
“I’ve told you these things for a purpose: that my joy might be your joy, and your joy wholly mature. This is my command: Love one another the way I loved you. This is the very best way to love. Put your life on the line for your friends. You are my friends when you do the things I command you”
The Message, John 15: 11-13
Jake loves his grandparents. Full Stop.
And that’s the love I will remember most from this birthday that was and wasn’t.
McGuire, Anne E. & Michalko, Rod. “Minds Between Us: Autism, Mindblindness and the Uncertainty of Communication.” Educational Philosophy and Theory. Vol. 43. Nov. 2, 2011.