Let’s say you’re eight years old and you get that birthday party you’ve been longing for, the one with all your friends from school, and you can hardly believe it’s happening. Your teacher, the pretty, young Mrs. Maggert, says that the whole class will walk to your house on the afternoon of your birthday. Your mom agrees to make your favorite cake: cherry chip. She says she will clean the house and provide a craft—making tissue paper flowers. It seems like a dream.
But you allow yourself to think this is really going to happen. The sun burns brighter, the sky is more blue, you notice the fall-blooming crocus along the driveway, its lavender head peeking above the dark soil. Its name is Indian Maiden. You know all the plant names. You picture everyone coming to your house, seeing the large yard and interesting artwork your mother makes. You long for them all to see how pretty she is, how talented. But there is a niggling fear in all this. What about your father? You don’t want anyone to see him. He has been on a six-month drinking binge, and when that happens, he is not in his body. No, he is somewhere else then, even if his body is right there in front of you. And you do not know what to do when he is like this. So, you ask your mom, “What about Daddy?”
“Oh, don’t worry,” she says. “He won’t be here.”
You are relieved. You picture showing them the flower garden where the sunflowers you planted are still blooming. You fall asleep dreaming about the day to come, your ninth birthday.
The day arrives and you can hardly wait for the morning to pass. Your classmates are excited too, as it is not often that the whole class goes to someone’s house for a birthday party. They ask how this happened. You don’t really know. You wonder if Mrs. Maggert felt sorry for you when she asked if you were having a big party with your friends, and you said no, you had never had a big birthday party.
So, after lunch you and the whole class put on coats, line up, march out through the large double-doors of St. Raphael’s, and down the tree-lined streets.
It’s a bright day, early September; the leaves are falling and the air feels a little crisp, not too cold. The sun warms your back. You step lightly. This day is about you. Maybe you are somebody, after all. Your classmates and teacher all chitchat about the weather. You swing your arms wide in sheer exhilaration. The ten blocks you walk together seem like ten blocks of grace. Soon, you approach the gravel driveway of your house, and one of your classmates says, “Is this your house? It’s huge!” You smile. It is very old, this house, three full stories and a basement too. You say, “We need a big house, we have ten people in our family.” You are proud to say this.
As you file in, your heart swells with pride when your mother appears dressed smartly in a white sweater, and turquoise-blue stretch pants tucked into tall black, high-heeled boots. Her shiny, dark hair is curled and her lips are red as cherries. She welcomes your teacher and invites everyone in. You are relieved to see that your mother really has cleaned—the table is clear of debris, the counters are empty, the laundry has been put away instead of piled in the armchair. She has even waxed the fine, blue, fern-patterned linoleum, though it is very old and there are chunks missing. You hope no one will notice.
Your mother points to the craft stations set up on tables and the floor in various parts of the dining and living room, which she’s supplied with paper, scissors, and string. She shows your classmates how to make delicate flowers from the huge box of tissue paper she reclaimed from a water-damage sale. They watch, entranced by her beauty and creativity. She helps everyone make flowers until the room blooms with them, their soft petals rustling as classmates proudly hold them aloft. They gush about how fun that was and how lucky you are to have such an artistic, helpful mother. This feels like a balm. Basking in the glow of praise, you pinch yourself to see if this is real. But the best is yet to come: the cake.
Your mother disappears into the tiny, coral-painted kitchen and comes out bearing a lovely, pink dream-of-a-cake, alight with candles floating in frosting the color of cotton candy, with a deep well of cherries on top, real cherries to give some tart with the sweet. Your classmates ooh and aaahhh as she steps carefully, high heels clicking, into the center of the ring of students and begins “Happy Birthday to you…” in her lyrical voice, inviting all to join, to sing, to praise. And they do. Their voices rise in unison as you smile and turn three shades of red, unused to being at the center. But you love being at the center.
Then the door opens.
You see the long, trousered leg step inside. No. You look at your mother. She does not see the alarm in your face. She is still singing happy birthday with her beautiful voice. They have come to the end of the song, sung your name, and finished with…happy birthday to you!”
“Now make a wish!” your mother says, her face alight, like the candles. You freeze, wishing you could be anywhere but here. Your father stands by the door, reeking of booze, looking confused about what is going on, unable to understand why there are so many people in his house.
You do make a wish. You wish that he would disappear.
But he doesn’t. So, you take a deep breath and blow on the candles, wishing you could disappear.
As the smoke from the extinguished candles rises you feel trapped in a nightmare, the one where your drunk father crashes your birthday party. But “crashes” is not exactly the right word. It’s more like he floats through your party like a ghost. Your classmates look up from the tissue-paper flowers, the glowing birthday cake, the happiness that was your party. They stare, eyes fixed on this specter, this thing they do not understand.
Your father’s eyes are bloodshot, so red he looks like something out of a Dracula movie. His face is dark, shadowed with the stubble of a week’s beard. He sways as he walks into the room, as if his feet aren’t really on the floor. His eyes, once blue but now veined in red, look beyond you. He doesn’t speak–just moves slowly past, fixated on the staircase that will take him away from gaping eyes.
Your mother sees him then, gets up and says, “I’ll bring you some soup in a minute, Jack.” She is careful not to look at you. She doesn’t want to see the tears forming.
“Let’s have some birthday cake!” she says. He begins to climb the stairs, gripping the banister, weaving precariously, one uncertain step after another as your classmates stare. Finally, on the landing, he turns the corner and disappears.
Your mother cuts careful squares of cake, serves them up on blue melamine plates, sets the napkins in a neat stack, and pours cups of ruby-red punch,
Your friend Sandy leans over, says to you, “Was that your dad?”
You hear the horror in her voice, and don’t know what to say. You’d like to say no–that could never be your dad. Your dad is tall and handsome with laughing blue eyes, and drives motorcycles and fast cars, and swings you up in the air so you feel like you’re flying. But you can’t see any way out of this one.
You tell Sandy, yes, that is your dad.
“What’s wrong with him?” she asks.
And there it is. It’s happened. Like all those dreams where you somehow go to school and find that you are naked. Now they know.
Then you remember what your mother once said: your Daddy is sick.
“He’s sick,” you whisper.
“What’s he sick with?” she asks.
“I don’t know,” you answer, looking down, shame swirling around you. You feel like Alice, shrinking, falling. You hope Sandy will accept the idea that he is sick, but wonder if you believe it yourself.
For you, the party is over. Though you’ve blown out the candles, and there’s still cake and presents, it is over. Feelings flood you: anger toward your mom for letting this happen: shame, scarlet shame: fury at your father for being who he is: bitter disappointment—it’s your birthday: fear that you will be laughed at, talked about, made fun of, when they go home. So, what do you do?
Well, here’s how it works. You pretend, for the moment, that your father didn’t walk through your party drunk. You eat the cake, you try to smile, but to do this you must push down the sorrow that is welling up. You avoid looking at your teacher for she is kind, and if she shows kindness you will begin to cry. You open presents, but you don’t really see these small gifts. You thank everyone for coming, you walk them to the door. You stand in the driveway, watch them walk away trailing their tissue paper flowers, talking among themselves. You wave goodbye.
It will be many years before you have another birthday party. A friend throws a fortieth for you. The meal rivals Babette’s Feast. She goes all out, making incredible hors d’oeuvres that are tiny, perfect works of art. Pink, white and robin’s-egg blue streamers span the air, lavish bouquets of yellow tulips in china vases float down the center of the long table. A row of ivory tapers radiates elegance. A group of close friends has gathered to celebrate. You study their incandescent faces: your husband who does not drink too much, your good friends who have all suffered in their own ways and understand that no one has a right to judge. They read aloud tributes they have written, beautiful words, affirmations of who you are, how they have been touched by your one, precious, life. You are once again stunned at all the attention. But you have done enough work on yourself to enjoy this, to accept being honored. You allow yourself a glass of wine, something you didn’t do for decades. You’ve even learned to stop judging others when they drink too much. The evening is haloed in hope. You think of your children at home, of the unbounded joy they’ve brought, of their bird nests, and butterfly paintings, and paper flowers on the refrigerator. You understand the word blessing.
Then your children grow up, and some of them struggle to control their drinking. You wonder what you did wrong. You look into their eyes, these quick boys who have grown into men. You see their sparkling joy at catching frogs, their glowing pride at making the best ninja moves on the block. You shake your head and look again. You see the bloodshot eyes, the unsteady gait, the ghost of your father.
And finally you understand the answer to the question. What did you do wrong? Nothing.
© Jennifer L. Vosen
[This piece was selected by Sara Crowley. Read Jennifer’s interview]