“Gee this is really fancy,” a parent said to me.
“Yeah,” I said, surveying the hangar sized childrens’ museum where we were holding my daughter’s fourth birthday party. “When I was a kid my mom made a cake from the box and we played pin the tail on the donkey.”
“She didn’t even hide the box?” the dad, said, laughing.
“I think I helped make the cake.”
“That’s how my birthday parties went,” the dad, said. “Things are more complicated now.”
My daughter first birthday was cake at the diner while she gurgled, oblivious to the occasion. Her second birthday went much the same way but, a few months afterwards, Natalie started saying, “When’s my birthday? I want a birthday party.” When we told her that it had passed she wailed inconsolably. For almost a year she’d start crying whenever she heard the “Happy Birthday” song. Hey. it’s not my fault her neurons linked up just a tad late.
This year Natalie was extremely hip to her birthday. “It’s on January 16th” she’d say, proudly pointing to the Peppa Pig calendar hanging on her bedroom wall. “I’m going to have a party. Where are we going to have my party?”
“We’d better do something nice,” I told my wife. “Or Natalie may dump me in a crappy nursing home.”
“Or pull the plug if I’m not around to do it,” my wife replied.
“Is it just me,” I said. “Or do I detect an eagerness in your voice?”
After some back and forth over end of life wishes, my wife picked the kiddie museum as the venue and mailed out the invitations to Natalie’s friends and classmates. Twenty kids accepted. “This is going to cost us a mint,” I groaned.
“It’s January,” my wife said. “We can’t do anything in our backyard. Just chill.”
The museum was an excellent call. My daughter and her friends climbed on a fire truck, played grocery store, dug for dinosaur bones in a sandbox, played pirate, cavorted on the huge jungle gym, dressed up like princesses and knights, banged on drums, ate pizza and spiked their glucose levels with ice cream cake. The kids had a great time. Me? I was wiped out.
“You did good Dad,” one of my wife’s friends, said.
“I cannot believe what a production this was.”
“Enjoy it now. Trust me, when she’s fourteen she’ll want to celebrate her birthday without you.”
When the party finally ended, my wife said. “Can you pull up the van and load the presents into the car?”
“Where are her presents?”
“They’re in a cart with her name on it.” The “cart” in question was a big rubber tub on wheels overflowing with gifts. My kid made out big time. After offloading the birthday booty, I collected my wife and daughter.
“Did you have a nice time, Natalie?” I said.
I smiled. “Do you like Mommy and Daddy?”
“Do you like Peppa Pig?”
Not liking Peppa is anathema to Natalie so I knew my kid was fried. When we got her home, she cried for about twenty minutes and then passed out on my bed, lying on her stomach with her butt high in the air. We left her birthday gifts in the car, deciding to parcel them out during the week.
On Monday morning, my wife was sick and Natalie was running a small fever. After hanging out with twenty germy children, I wasn’t surprised. When she was finished gobbling up her breakfast and sucking down fluids over her protestations, I asked Natalie if she’d like to open some of her presents. “Oh yes, please!” she cried. So, I dragged three presents from their hiding place and, in a blink, the floor was littered with wrapping paper, puzzles, new shoes and a fairy castle.
“Oh boy!” Natalie said. “A fairy castle! I want to play.”
“Be patient,” I said. “Daddy has to put it together.” My wife staggered downstairs, grabbed some coffee and watched as I presented Natalie with her newly assembled castle.
“You are the best daddy in the world,” my daughter said. My wife gasped with surprise.
“Thank you, Natalie,” I said, feeling myself tear up. “And you’re the best little girl in the world.”
“What about me?” my wife, said. To be fair, she did all the heavy lifting for the party. I just showed up.
“And who is the best mommy in the world?” I said.
“She is,” Natalie said, pointing to my wife – who looked a bit put out.
When she’s older, Natalie will see her father was an amalgamation of contradictions, neuroses and fears that occasionally sparked with flashes of wisdom. But today, for a moment, I held the world title belt. And it was sweet.
Happy Birthday Natalie. You are the best thing about me.