So I paid $240 yesterday for a balloon animal. And it wasn’t even a monkey. Brooke thought it was, though its creator was the first to admit that it had an EXTREMELY strong resemblance to a dog. Perhaps I should back up a bit.
As we approached Brooke’s fifth birthday (and by approached, I mean we were about four months from. Let’s just say Mama’s a little anal about planning parties) I asked her, as I always have, what she’d like to do for her party. Now in the history of Brooke’s birthdays, she’s never really seemed to understand the concept, and has never shown the slightest interest in helping to plan a party. So, that being said, I was floored when I brought it up on a drive into town and she made it clear that she had a plan in mind.
I had thrown out a couple of suggestions (the fun stop? the little gym nearby? the craft place?) which were each shot down with an unceremonious ‘No’. Since no’s usually lead to dead ends, I wasn’t sure what to do next. I gave a shot at an opened ended question (not usually a wise idea) and said, almost to myself, ‘Well if you don’t want to do any of that, what are we going to do for your party?’ Imagine my surprise and delight when she firmly answered, ‘My party would be at home.’
I was so thrilled that she had an interest and seemed to have put some thought into this! Oh my gosh, I thought … we’ll have to have some kind of entertainment. Yes, I know how pathetic that sounds. What ever happened to the good old days of pin the tail on the donkey and a good old scavenger hunt? Yes, I know. I’d love a return to those days too, but life is a little different in our world. Here’s why.
Brooke is still in preschool. These are the days where we invite every class member, lest we leave anyone out. Besides that, I have to admit that I am so incredibly thrilled that she has connected with some of the children in her integrated class, I want to do everything in my power to help foster those friendships. Sooooo, everyone it is. I just never thought of any other option.
Brooke’s ‘class’ is actually made up of two different parts. She spends three hours a day in an integrated room where a little more than half the kids have some sort of special needs and the other (almost) half are typically developing. She then spends the next two hours in an ABA based social pragmatics group with other children on the autism spectrum.
So, add those kids together, plus two others that are ‘friends’ because Mama and Daddy went through a ‘basics of ABA’ class (that became a defacto support group) with their mommies and daddies for twelve long, emotionally draining weeks, and what do you have? Twenty-four kids, at least two thirds of whom have some sort of special needs. Therefore, what you also have is a mom who has no idea how to get that group to line up for a rousing game of pin the tail on the donkey. So, that leaves me suggesting some local entertainers.
I suggested her new favorite children’s singer. No. Hmm. How about a clown? No. A magician? No. Uh oh. Then, almost rhetorically, ‘What are we going to do with all these kids at home for your party?’ And again, as though she’d been waiting to say it, each word slowly and precisely articulated, “I would have Big Joe at my party.”
Big Joe is a fabulous kid’s entertainer that she saw when the PTO had brought him in to do his thing for the kids at school. He’s this delightful story teller who comes with a trunk full of puppets, a repertoire of silly voices, and a wonderful connection to the kids. Well, I was over the moon that she had something in mind (an interest! an opinion! the words to tell me!) so off I went to secure Big Joe.
Big Joe on retainer, handmade invitations on their way to all (gulp) twenty-four kids (and one favorite teacher!), the theme secured (Dora Halloween. Yes, Halloween. In April .. problem? I didn’t think so), cake designed, pizza ordered, house decorated to look like an ad for Nick Jr, three long tables and twenty-four little chairs rented, and we were ready to go.
We had set up the basement for the show and then planned to bring everyone upstairs for pizza and cake. Big Joe had the fantastic idea of making balloon animals for the kids as they filed in to keep them entertained before the show began. So, our proud birthday girl was first in line to get her balloon. Big Joe said, ‘OK, my dear, I have loads of animals I can make for you. I can make cats, dogs, bunnies, swans, snakes (hmm, I can make a snake I thought, just hand her the balloon), hats, horses and giraffes. So, of course, when he said, ‘So what would you like?’ she said, ‘A monkey.’ So he ran through his list again. And when he said, so which of THOSE would you like, Brooke?’ she got to say it again. ‘A monkey.’
Now here’s the thing. Brooke has some very consistent favorites, and, as is typical of a child with autism, she can be pretty particular about them. Color = red, Shape = star, Number = 2, Letter = Y, Animal = yeah, you got it - monkey. So, she wanted a monkey. Anyone else thinking of that kid in The Wedding Crashers saying, ”Make me a bicycle, clown.”? Anyway, I digress.
Now Big Joe knows his audience and he confidently assured us all that although what he was about to make would have a striking resemblance to a dog, our little princess would absolutely love her ‘monkey.’ And he pulled it off beautifully. Ah, the power of suggestion. So she walked away happily clutching her monkey dog. Then the room began to fill. (Cue the doom doom ~ drama about to ensue~ music from Law and Order).
As the low ceilinged room filled, it became a sensory overload nightmare. The noise level skyrocketed. The kids ran from one end of the room to the other, children screamed for their parents, parents excitedly greeted each other. Brooke did what Brooke does. She shrieked and ran upstairs crying. We thought it wise to let her stay upstairs in the relative quiet and wait for all the kids to gather and get their balloons and then, when things calmed down and everyone was seated for story time, we’d head back down and join the party. We sat in her favorite chair and I sang in her ear to calm her.
So, for the first twenty minutes or so, Brooke’s party carried on downstairs without her. We broached the doorway to the stairs a couple of times but she balked immediately at the noise. But hey, it sounded like our guests were having a great time.
OK, time for the stories .. The big moment. The realization of my baby’s vision of her party. Big Joe. Telling stories. At home. With all her friends (and Joanie the teacher). Deep breath, here we go, Honey. You’re OK. Down the stairs. Mama will hold you. It’ll be OK. The kids are sitting nicely. But they’re laughing. Hard. And they’re wiggling around. And they’re gesturing along with Big Joe. And they’re shouting out excitedly. And the parents are laughing along with them in delight. And it’s her worst nightmare. And she panics. And runs. And we are upstairs. Again. And the party is going on without us. Completely. And she is shaking. And crying. And my heart is breaking for her. And for me. We sit in the chair. Again. I sing in her ear to calm her. Again. There are tears streaming down my face meeting hers. She curls up on me in the chair and rests her face on my chest. A mom walks into the room and tells me later she mistook us for a mother nursing a baby. I tell her that’s essentially what we were.
We can hear Big Joe from where we are. I encourage her to listen. At least maybe we can be a part of her party from here. I try to bring us to the door at the top of the stairs to listen better. It’s too close to the noise. She freaks, perseverating on the number seventeen. Seventeen! Seventeen! Seventeen! We retreat. Again. Back to the chair. Again. I sing in her ear. Again. I comfort her. And me. Again.
Another little girl is now upstairs too. She can’t handle it either. I pass her mom in the hall as I hold Brooke, bouncing slightly as I sing. I’m holding a five year old, but I know that I look like I’m soothing a colicky baby. I pass another mom whose husband is walking her son around the neighborhood because he too had to escape the room. She sees my red eyes and quietly says, “This is what we do.” I feel better. And worse.
The show is coming to an end. Earlier, I had heard Big Joe telling the kids he was going to dress up as a princess in the last story. I’ve got it – a hook! I know she’ll want to see that. I sell her on it. She wants to give it a shot. We make it to the landing. We’re past the door. She hasn’t screamed. We’re making it down the stairs! This might work! I catch Joe’s attention and signal him to try to take the volume level down if he can. It’s too late. The kids are having a ball. They are laughing. They are yelling. They are having the great time we hoped they would. And all I want is for them to shut up so my sweet baby won’t lose it.
She’s in the circle! She’s sitting! Wait, someone jostles her. She’s looking around. She’s not comfortable. She’s getting anxious. I can see her body starting to tense. Damn it. She’s in an all out panic. It’s been forty-five seconds and she’s yelling. And kicking. And looking up at me through tears, panicked, screaming at me, “I don’t want to stay!’ and it takes me a minute to piece together the words and understand her. And then I do. And then we’re upstairs. Again. in the chair. Again. And my heart is breaking for her. Again.
The show is over. Big Joe is packing up. And the kids are thrilled. And I’ve essentially just paid the nice man $240 for a balloon animal for my baby girl. So for heaven’s sake, please don’t tell her it’s not a monkey.