Once upon a time, a million years ago, in a San Fernando Valley far, far away, my mother had a birthday party and nobody showed. Not a single kid.
That is why one of her last wishes when she died two months ago was not to have a funeral.
Here she was, in the “comfort care” wing of UCSF, licking her final See’s chocolate lollipop as I held it to her mouth, and she was fundamentally still that little girl, sitting at her dining room table, chubby hands resting on an old lace table cloth, wearing her wilting paper party hat, staring at a door that never opened.
Parents, its very simple: When it comes to kid parties, always go.
Sunrise, sunset, ashes to ashes, funk to funky, they didn’t show up at my birthday party and now I won’t give them the chance to blow off my funeral. I held up the sucker to give my mom another lick before depositing it facedown in a Styrofoam cup of tepid water on her bedside tray. I hoped for a good song on the “soft rock” cable music channel playing on the TV in her hospital room.
A child’s birthday party is sacred ground
It wasn’t so much that she wanted to give those kids who rejected her the middle finger from the after life, it’s that my mom’s surprise shunning a thousand years ago was as emotionally relevant on the day she died as it was to that once socially awkward kid, whose immigrant parents had no idea how to throw an American birthday party and clearly botched the entire affair.
My mom’s final act was to protect herself.
We all figure out one day that our mothers are people, that they were people before us. But when your mother’s deepest and final wish is from the heart of herself as a child, it makes you rethink her, yourself and every child blowing out candles at every bounce house and neighborhood park and dining room table in the whole wide world.
This may seem like heavy stuff when you’re faced with an e-vite from a kid your kid barely knows. As you roll your eyes at the thought of another hour spent at some canned-air bouncy-house joint or trampoline park and an afternoon of juice boxes and cardboard pizza. But know this: A child’s birthday party is sacred ground, even if that ground bounces, even if it’s covered with garish carpet.
“Peer rejection can be traumatic for children,” said Gina Marianetti, a Phoenix-based therapist and faculty associate at Arizona State University, who specializes in childhood trauma, depression and social-skills development.
“In therapy we often discuss Big T’s and Little T’s. Big T’s are the traumas that most people understand, car accidents, death or hospitalization. However, over the last decade we have come to realize that the Little Traumas or Little T’s have as much of an impact on the brain and self-concept as do the Big T’s. The Little T’s may include changing schools, moving to a new house, being hurt by a best friend, or feeling left out by a group of peers.”
According to Marianetti, while most adults can bounce back from life’s little traumas, kids who don’t have ample support, not so much.
Being shunned is a primal fear
“Anywhere special you’d like your ashes scattered?” I asked my mom, the day before she died.
“Don’t care,” she said, rolling her eyes, one of them swelling, inexplicably.
“BUT … NO … FUNERAL,” she added, emphasizing each word as she futzed with the tubes running from her wrist to various liquid bags overhead.
“NO FUNERAL,” she repeated.
“Okay, mom,” I said, plucking the chocolate lollipop from the water to give her another lick as Celine Dion sang “All By Myself” from the mounted TV (which I still think was a very on-the-nose choice by the universe).
The C-Diff infection she had contracted during one of her many hospital visits had taken hold and was killing her, and she knew it.
Death she accepted.
But not being accepted? That, she rejected.
Only then did I fully realize that the categorical devastation of that crap party of yesteryear must have followed her like a sad birthday balloon, a long-lasting, free-floating Little T, finally landing at the foot of her bed on the 14th floor of UCSF.
Being shunned is a primal fear, triggering in us the sense that we aren’t safe, that without belonging to our pack, we will be vulnerable to the forces of nature, to predators, chasing us down or swarming from above.
My mom never talked about the no-show party much. What I’ve put together over the years is that because my grandparents were much older than other parents, and because they barely spoke English, they were supremely clueless about American kid customs. And frankly, they weren’t interested.
Still, I wonder, did my grandparents not grasp the concept of the RSVP? Were they so exquisitely insensitive to my mom’s situation that they didn’t figure, hey, under the circumstances, maybe we take the kid to Knott’s Berry Farm and call it a day? I want to get in a time machine and learn Yiddish so I can yell at them for letting that scene go down. As a parent, you need to know the shot.
She was not all by herself
You could probably guess that my mother was careful with my parties, which, despite the carob cakes, were generally well attended.
And it bears mentioning that when she died, my mom had more friends than most 72-year-old women. There were pals from UCLA, from her single-parent days in San Francisco, from her bridge group. A dog-park buddy even agreed to take her dog, Velvet, a creature so needy and unappealing Sarah McLachlan would’ve euthanized it.
My mother and her friend Kathy hunted down folk art and mid-century pottery at flea markets and garage sales together for forty years.
She was not all by herself.
Personally, I love kid parties, for my own kids, for any kids. When I hear parents complain about them, I’m always confused.
“Birthday parties are significant rituals for children,” Marianetti says. “For you, this birthday might be the fourth one this month, but for the other child, it is the only one they’ll have all year. This is a great opportunity to model empathy. How might your child feel if their buddies were all unable to attend his/her birthday party?”
We all take note of who shows. If you don’t believe me, think of my mom, who never had that last party and never will.