“I just wish I could sing the birthday song to him.”
I could hear the slight crack in my mother’s voice as the words traveled through the phone, and I understood completely.
Today is a wonderful day- it’s the day my nephew was born. It’s the day that my little sister became a mommy. It’s the day that I began my inevitable journey to “favorite, unbelievably cool aunt” status.
Eight years ago today, I held a tiny little bean of a person for the first time, he squinted up at me with all 4lbs of his strength, and we connected on that “I will love you forever” level.
Eight years ago today, a person that practically fit in my hand changed all of our lives forever.
So as you can see, today’s a pretty big deal.
Unfortunately, my nephew does not agree.
This morning when my mother exclaimed, “Guess what today is, Donnie???” He replied, “It’s Picture Day!!!”
Donnie is not a fan of birthdays.
My nephew loves balloons. He loves gifts. He loves dancing. He loves cake. He loves games. He loves all those birthday-ish things that come with a birthday.
Donnie is also on the Autism spectrum, and does not like loud noises or being stuck in the middle of a group of people singing at him and trying to suffocate him with birthday hugs.
So, birthdays are largely “just another day” for Donnie, a truth that is sometimes difficult to swallow for all of us who ache to celebrate him (especially my family, who basically exist to sing, dance, shout and make total fools of ourselves).
But this tradition of the quiet, unsung birthday is undoubtedly the hardest on my sister, who, despite her unbelievable strength, cracks just the tiniest bit, every year, on this day.
There is one year in particular, Donnie’s 6th Birthday, that stands out in my memory. While we attempted to whisper the Happy Birthday song, he very purposefully left the dining room and wandered upstairs to his bedroom. Vince, who was only 3, was completely confused by this. Before any of us could think of what to do to get Donnie back downstairs, my son quietly took 2 plates of cake and 2 plastic forks and walked up the stairs. From our seats at the dining room table we heard him gently explain, “Here, Donnie, this is yours. It’s your birthday today. Let’s eat cake.”
I waited a moment, then crept up the stairs and found the two boys sitting in the hallway outside Donnie’s bedroom door, happily eating birthday cake in companionable silence.
So do you know what I think?
I think Donnie has the right idea.
Would we love to decorate the house, fill a table with presents and the living room with family and friends, light up a cake with a million colorful candles, sing our poorly-tuned hearts out while he beams at us, and take turns giving him big hugs and kisses all afternoon? Of course.
But Donnie doesn’t want one day full of commotion, hot wax melting on his cake, and a bunch of people squishing him and making his ears hurt with their over-zealous rendition of “how old are you NOOOOOW?????” Donnie doesn’t need that, because he knows how to celebrate his life every second of every day.
Have you ever gotten that “oh my GOD life is good” feeling when your cocoa is just right, or when your blanket is placed just perfectly? Do you take the time to really appreciate those things?
Have you ever gotten so excited about a brand new pair of shoes or a fresh haircut that you have to dance around?
Do you giggle when someone walks through the door with a box of your absolute favorite cookies in the world?
Donnie does (but only for Oreos).
Do you appreciate the way the water sloshes along the side of an inflatable pool on a hot, sunny day in August? Do you marvel at how the chill in the air makes the leaves rustle on an October afternoon? Do you become filled with the joy that comes along with putting on a soft new pair of Christmas Eve pajamas?
So often we become entangled in this idea of the way things “should” be. We need a bigger house. We need a fancier car. The kids need flashier clothes and more shoes and bigger toys. We have to rent a wedding hall for a 6 year-old’s birthday party (ok, I don’t actually know anyone who’s done that, but if you have, I’m not judging. Just making a point here).
But Donnie…he’s not burdened by any of that insignificant stuff. He knows that the way to live is to experience life, and all of its incredible highs and lows, without holding back. He knows what truly matters. He couldn’t care less about a $100 pair of sneakers, but give him some cheddar crackers and his favorite stuffed animal, Puppy, and his day is made.
Honestly, my nephew has a far deeper understanding of the world than anyone I have ever met. Every single time I see him, he teaches me about what is important. He teaches me to enjoy every sip of lemonade; he teaches me to laugh as loudly as I want to, whenever I want to; he teaches me to really pay attention to the bird’s song in the morning and the cricket’s serenade at night.
Who wouldn’t want to live with such honesty, such purity, such strength of spirit and unabashed display of character?
I wish we could all be as brave, as kind, as sweet, and as REAL as Donnie.
Donnie is a lot of things- he’s brilliant, he’s funny, he’s adorable (he gets that from his mother), he’s curious, he’s determined, he’s stubborn (he also gets that from his mother), he’s loyal….but mostly, he’s himself. Unapologetically and whole-heartedly himself. I can’t think of any better way to be.
So we will not be singing the Happy Birthday song tonight, or this coming weekend, or bombarding him with a roomful of noisy people and pizza/cupcake/present mayhem. But I will be celebrating. Maybe I’ll celebrate by dancing around my living room with the windows open, or wearing my most comfy pajamas, or enjoying the perfect cup of hot cocoa with Vince as we put the finishing touches on our haunted gingerbread house. But no matter how, you bet I’ll be celebrating the day my nephew Donnie was born. Because the day he came into our lives is the day we began to learn how to really live.
Happy 8th Birthday, my wonderful, sweet nephew.