We often joke about your first birthday, Charlotte. How we got a babysitter, posed you with a cupcake, and then went out for dinner. We needed to celebrate surviving your first year.
In that photo, you sit in your Stokke chair, looking somewhat skeptically at the cupcake and candle in front of you, surrounded by the two people who love you best in the world. We are grinning like the silly people we were. A lovely tableau of our little family, celebrating you.
If you look closely the picture tells a different story. It’s our baby’s first birthday and there is no party. We decided there would be nothing like the parties our friends and family had planned for first birthdays. It wasn’t that we didn’t love Charlotte. We were just so very tired. And, I knew I’d be devastated when the other babies dove into their cupcakes face-first while she ignored hers. Or when we had to stop the festivities to clean up an epic vomit or give her medication. Or when an aunt glanced over with the look of pity and helplessness that she couldn’t hide, or a teenage cousin tried to get her to eat. No way I was inviting an audience to one of our daily heartbreak sessions.
Look again at the photo: Charlotte’s dinner, on the table next to her, looks partially eaten. There are two glasses, one Pediasure and one water as Charlotte had recently begun sipping from an open cup. Plastic keys and a teething ring to jingle in order to tease and coax her.
Our isolation and my loneliness just about leak out of my eyes as Philippe and I hold hands around her, forming the protective circle we’d kept her in for a year. We thought we were so strong. We were, in fact, like the most glorious winter tree after an ice storm, sparkling yet fragile, with no telling whether the branches would break off in the wind or emerge stronger and more beautiful come spring.
It was years before I actually saw the story this photo tells. I could never understand why friends and acquaintances asked after Charlotte’s health in the quiet tones one uses near the very ill. The picture forced me to see that I’d failed my daughter, that well-meaning friends and family saw what I couldn’t—her spindly Sharpei legs, like toothpicks covered in loose skin. Healthy babies don’t have skinny legs. Or heads that look too big on their bodies. Or eyes that look tired and sunken. Holding this picture, I knew I’d gotten it all wrong—my parenting, Charlotte’s birthday, all of it. It was CHARLOTTE, not us who had survived an incredibly long, exhausting, and difficult year. Charlotte who would, I later learned, suffer post-traumatic stress disorder from this year. Not me. This photo still makes me cry.
On your second birthday, I dared to believe you might try a cupcake. We went to a bakery with Sheri, your favorite grownup friend, and ordered three, all different flavors. You watched while Sheri and I each ate half a cupcake. Sheri made happy small talk to distract me as you ignored your treat. I tossed the evidence in the trash. In the photo from that birthday, you’re leaning against Sheri, laughing as she holds your hands out to embrace the world. If your legs were still skinny, I can’t tell—your pink and yellow plaid dress comes down just past your knees and the photo crops at mid-calf. Other pictures show your glee at opening the pile of presents that arrived from around the country to celebrate you.
There are no pictures, however, of the cupcakes.
That same day, you picked up the Gerber sippy cup, pointed at the brand name and said, “B.” You had begun to teach yourself the alphabet. Your feeding therapist gifted you with a Leapfrog Word Whammer and you were off and reading three-letter words. So what if you didn’t care about cake? You were going to be a reader, like me.
For your third birthday, you asked for a chocolate and “pink” birthday cake. After the “birthday cake miracle” two months earlier, when you’d asked for a second piece of cake at Sarah’s party, I’d determined to make it from scratch. One of the layers broke as I lifted it from the pan, so I “glued” it with some icing. My decorations were less than expert. To be frank, the cake was kind of ugly. You watched me salvage the wreck. After I muttered for five straight minutes about how ugly it was, you said, “Mommy, forgive yourself.” You brought me to tears with your kindness and empathy.
We gathered a gaggle of neighborhood toddlers to celebrate. Someone snapped a picture of us as I held you toward the cake and you proudly scrunched your face to blow out the candle. Then you dug in.
I look at the photos from these days and see the person you would become: open, cheerful, kind, bright and empathetic. You thrived despite our early foibles and failures. You soldiered on to fight every medical calamity that came your way. If you had been fighting actually battles, you’d be a decorated veteran.
Today, on your fifteenth birthday, the cake was, quite frankly, ugly again. But you, you were magnificent. In the middle of a quarantine, you pivoted gracefully from months of planning your special day to create special moments with your friends—both virtual gaming and a socially distanced mocktail party. You were gleeful and grateful.
I am relieved that when I look at the photos from today, there is only one story, that of a young woman who came into the world with the chips stacked against her and said, “That’s not my story. My story is one of triumph.” You make my heart sing every day, helping the memories of what felt like failure 15 years ago fade into just another story that we tell.
Happy birthday, my sweet girl. May you grow from strength to strength.