At times it felt like we were planning a wedding rather than a little girl's birthday. But luckily, I had a party planner who took the lead for much of the hoopla: my mother-in-law. Having raised two boys, she'd never thrown a party for a little girl, so she enthusiastically took the lead on things like food, decor, and overall making sure this party had an overly abundant WOW factor. I was in charge of invitations and activities, and my mom sewed Velcro onto towels and turned them into mermaid tails for each girl. We had all the bases covered.
We decided to keep the guest list small, so Evie invited a couple girls from our neighborhood, and a few more from her school. The girls who live in our neighborhood are regular faces around our house. They ring the doorbell and wait anxiously as Evie answers and immediately asks us in an urgent, breathless voice, "Can she play?" We love the sound of Evie and her friends playing. It's a reminder for us that she's happy.
Unlike the neighborhood friends who are in and out of our house all the time, Evie's friends from school had never been to our house before. And that means there's another thing they'd never encountered before either: Evie's dad.
I'll admit, the thought crossed my mind more than once during the party-planning stage. How will we make sure the girls are comfortable when they see Jeff? I thought, but I didn't say anything to either Jeff or Evie. I still have this fear that someone is going to one day look at Jeff and blurt out something hurtful - to him, to Evie, to us all.
But lucky for me, my fear did not materialize, because our ever-resourceful Evie came up with a solution all on her own.
A couple weeks before the party, on a random weeknight after dinner, she announced this: "I'm gonna tell my friends from school ... the ones who are coming to my party ... 'Don't freak out - my dad's in a wheelchair. And he has a tube going into his neck. But he's totally fine.'" And as she emphasized the word fine, she flicked her wrist and rolled her eyes as if having a dad on a vent is simply no biggie.
After I picked my jaw up off the floor, I told her it was a great idea. She also wanted to take a picture of Jeff to show her friends - to ease them into the situation, per se. She wanted to take one of him solo, but I told her that would be a little weird. So I asked her to stand next to him. Here's the picture she took to school to show her friends:
When she came home from school on the day she took the picture, I was filled with so many questions running through my mind. What did your friends think when they saw the picture of you and Daddy? Did they ask any questions? What did they say? What did YOU say? How did that make you feel? Gah! I was having a virtual psychotherapy session in my mind.
As Evie was emptying out her backpack that afternoon, I approached her and in a typical mom-trying-to-be-cool-and-nonchalant-but-not-at-all-succeeding manner, I blurted out, "Did you show your friends the picture of you and Daddy?"
She answered without looking at me and without stopping what she was doing, "Yyyep."
That's all I get?
Though later that night, Evie did clarify that upon seeing the photo, one of her friends said her dad's friend is also in a wheelchair, so she's used to being around people in wheelchairs.
Case closed. End of story.
Like she told me earlier, No Big Deal.
And so the day of the party arrived. We had put up the decorations the night before, and my mother-in-law came over early to get all the food prepared and put out. My mom made some dip, and both Papas were running all over town picking up things like balloons, sandwiches, and cupcakes.
I got Jeff dressed and up in his chair early that day, and he was feeling good.
And just before noon, the little mermaids started arriving. One by one the party grew until the house was filled with oohs and aahs and high-pitched giggles. The girls ate pizza, decorated mermaid tails and crowns, swam in the pool for a good couple hours, and overloaded on cupcakes.
Evie was on Cloud 9. The party was a huge success. And none of the girls seemed the least bit concerned with, bothered by, or frankly even interested in Evie's dad.
As Jeff and I watched Evie having the time of her life with her friends, a feeling of accomplishment came over me. Not because we'd pulled off a birthday party. But because we were able to give Evie something we weren't sure we would ever be able to give her after Jeff's injury.
We gave her something normal.
Something where we could put the demands of a spinal cord injury to the side for a few hours and focus solely on meeting her wants and her needs.
Together, with a lot of help from our family, we gave her a no-big-deal, regular old birthday party that she'll talk about and remember for a long time.
And that, my friends, is a pretty big deal.