Thursday, October 2, 2008

Five. a fiction

For most people, birthdays are a Christmas you aren’t forced to share with anyone. On your birthday, you are celebrated for your own nativity – rewarded for a day you don’t remember. Friends carol you over cake as wise men and grandparents bring presents from afar. “Blow out the candles!” party guests yell, celebrating your good fortune, knowing the cake won’t be cut until you make a wish.

Gracie looked especially forward to the day that marked the end of her fourth year and the beginning of her fifth. Honestly, though, it wasn’t the new age that thrilled her most. It wasn’t the upcoming presents, the candles or the cake that kept her awake at night. She looked forward to the day of frenzied children running through her house, but that wasn’t what inspired her countdown. Gracie was excited because she had already done the birthday math and added all the elements into one very special event.

Her party.

Gracie invited everyone to her birthday party, including (but not limited to) the boys and girls in her class at school, the lady who cut Mommy’s hair, the children she played with at church, two people at the grocery store, the postman, and a confused cashier at McDonalds.

Her Mommy and Daddy would be there, of course. They even promised to let her help hang balloons before everyone arrived. Her brother would spend the day entertaining guests with magic tricks. Her cousin would cry. Mimi would take pictures and BobBob would play his guitar while her friends sang “Happy birthday to you – happy birthday to you – happy birthday dear Gracie . . .”

Everyone would be there – except Uncle Bryan.

Nobody loved Gracie like Uncle Bryan did. He told her so every time they played together. Uncle Bryan read stories to her and played dolls with her and pushed swings for her and caught her when she jumped into the swimming pool like a big girl.

Gracie knew that Uncle Bryan wasn’t coming to her party. She remembered the goodbye sleepover at his house. She remembered drawing pictures on the boxes so Uncle Bryan would remember her when he got to his new city. Gracie knew that Uncle Bryan moved to New York. What Gracie didn’t understand was that New York was more than a birthday party away.

And so, when her mommy interrupted the party to say that someone on the phone wanted to talk to her, Gracie squealed with delight.

“Uncle Bryan!” she screamed across the country, “When are you coming to my party?”

Before he could answer Uncle Bryan heard his sister intervene.

“Sweetheart, Uncle Bryan called to tell you happy birthday because he can’t come to your party.”

“But he promised!” Gracie protested, excited differently than before.

Of course, Uncle Bryan was smart enough not to make promises to little girls that he couldn’t keep. “Gracie,” her mommy said, “Uncle Bryan promised he would come home for Christmas, not your birthday.”

Unfortunately, Gracie had already wrapped her birthday with paper, piled it with presents and filled it with pictures and playing.

“It’s the same thing!” she demanded.

Before the adults could correct her, Gracie turned away, pressing the phone tight against her face. Uncle Bryan was asking her if she could keep a secret, even though he knew she couldn’t. The whispered conversation filled Gracie with more excitement than she could hold. Forgetting a promise made to her uncle only seconds before, Gracie ran through the house shouting the news:

“Uncle Bryan said he’s coming to my party!”

Some secrets are simply too big to fit inside a little girl at a birthday party.

Mommy tilted her head and smiled. Gracie noticed that it was the same smile Mommy used every time her brother said he was going to be a magician when he grew up. The mommy knew, of course, that little girls who play with dolls are sometimes prone to invent conversations. The voices in their heads, while entertaining, are seldom accurate.

Fuzzy Bear asked for sugar in his tea.
Puppy said he isn’t feeling well.
Mr. Whiskers told me he likes it when I cut his hair.
Uncle Bryan said he’s coming to my party.

While all such sentences may sound equally unlikely, parents who hang stockings over fireplaces, fill baskets with chocolate and eggs, and encourage their children to hide discarded teeth under their pillows should be careful when debunking the fantasies of small children.

Mommy reached down to take the phone from Gracie, but Gracie had already folded it in half, ending the call.

“Gracie, sweetheart,” Mommy said, “you must have misunderstood.”

Gracie, however, wasn’t listening to her. She was busy inspecting the cake and asking Mimi to cut her another piece.

“Gracie, did your mother say you could have another piece of cake?”

“No. It’s for Uncle Bryan,” Gracie said. “We need to save him some.”

Mommy and Mimi exchanged a look that wasn’t quite as far over Gracie’s head as they must have thought.

“Gracie,” Mimi said, “I know you miss Uncle Bryan.”

She paused, the short silence undermining her confidence. She missed Uncle Bryan, too. When it was manageable, Mimi continued, “but do you remember what Mommy told you this morning? Uncle Bryan lives too far away to come to your party.”

“But he said to save him a piece of cake!”

Despite her best efforts to include them in her joy, the grown-ups continued trying to keep Gracie’s hopes from getting too high. Didn’t they understand that hopes are supposed to be high at a birthday party? They even tried to distract Gracie with presents, a tactic proven successful by generations of parents, but Gracie said she would wait to open them until Uncle Bryan arrived.

“Honey, this one’s from me and your mother,” her father said. “Don’t you want to open it?”

“No! Uncle Bryan is coming to my party!”

Gracie almost never got to say “I told you so.” Little girls seldom do. It’s not that they’re always wrong, as some girls grow to believe.  But when you’re five years old it’s seldom that you are ever more right than anyone else – a fact that everyone else seems acutely aware of.

Uncle Bryan’s present, the best Gracie would receive that day, happened during those five minutes before the doorbell rang.