by Karen Sosnoski
“Where have YOU been?” my husband Fred muttered, trashing Superman-themed tablecloths. “Will’s dad helped, but couldn’t stay. It wasn’t Will’s party.”
Icing smeared the seats; cap-less magic markers littered the floor; tables needed sponging, folding, stacking. But we were the only ones left in the rented community center. Even Anton, our newly minted ten-year old, had walked home with his sister.
“Weren’t you supposed to return the key to this place, like, an hour ago?”
Blinking, I tried to square my reality with Fred’s. Um, yeah. I thought I’d saved the party?
Fred and I met when we were seventeen, thirty-ish years ago. Opposites—me creative, sensitive, and disorganized; him quick-witted, detail-oriented, and impatient—we’ve stuck together through sickness and health, even collaborating years ago on a successful documentary, Wedding Advice, about wedding and marriage ambivalence. An amazing couple our friends tell us on Facebook.
“Parents were outside picking up their kids,” I told Fred. “I had to say goodbye.”
“For two hours?”
My kids play this computer game, Dumb Ways to Die; one dumb way is to get nipped in the privates by piranhas, so small they’re almost cute. Circling beneath Fred’s and my marital surface are nipping stressors you won’t see on Facebook. Even making Wedding Advice, while I wrote brilliant (I thought) grant proposals, he caught and corrected deal-breaking formatting. (“It says no paper clips!”)
Some things never change. I watched Fred clean the community center, his efficient system beyond me. Meanwhile he “mused” over my absence from the party—the cake presenting, the candle blowing and….
“How much you pay for those theater people?”
No dramatic affairs in our relationship, only numerous, mundane misunderstandings. Dumb ways to die. Still, death is death.
“Whatever,” I told my husband. “We owed Anton this party.”
For the last five birthdays, we’d invited Anton’s same four guy friends to our house for whole-sale cake and “free play.” It worked. This year, however, Anton specifically asked months in advance for a “big, superhero” celebration with “lots of girls.”
Anton has mosaic Down syndrome; some of his cells are typical, others have Trisome 21. At diagnosis, experts told me kids with Down syndrome need structure and organization to thrive. I worried. No labeler of bins or master of time charts, how would I ever be the mom that Anton needed? Fortunately, Anton inherited my flexibility and his father’s life skills. He thrives. Still, with our son’s tenth birthday approaching, it was time to show my mettle. With cutthroat timeliness, I sent save-the-dates, made reservations. This party was my gift.
Not privy to my planning, Fred had questions. “Did you have to invite so many three-year-olds?” To ensure a “big party,” yes I did, I’d welcomed siblings. What parent could resist free babysitting? None. A few sibs came wearing pull-ups.
What I forgot, planning alone, was that large, inclusive parties require differentiated activities. Midway through, a group of gum-snapping ten-year-old girls and little sisters circled to eyeball my dawning recognition. Including my son, only five of the twenty-plus guests were over-indulging their incredible hulk personas on the makeshift theater stage. The rest were yawning.
This part-ay stunk.
Fred asked, “That our unused ice-cream in the freezer?”
As the party wore on, Anton and core super-allies ripped off shirts to flaunt their pecs. The sisters rolled their eyes. “Let’s ditch this, hit the playground,” I’d rallied, when the girls declared themselves, “soooo bored.”
Not wanting to disrupt the main event, I didn’t tell Fred my plan. But soon the hulks followed us out. By cake time, even the theater guides were on the playground. Meanwhile, I threw “good mom” energy after party-gone-bad—whooping maniacally as I slid down the slide. By pickup time, I was shouting at no one in particular, “Ready or not!”
I didn’t think about logistics, cleanup, Fred. As he jammed gifts into our car, I began to feel bad, began apologizing in earnest. “It was TOTALLY out of control,” Fred interrupted. “But Anton liked it.”
That night Fred fell asleep in minutes at one end of the couch. Meanwhile, I stewed for hours on the other end. Had I no executive functioning skills, no courtesy?
“Will’s dad had to help me clean up,” I remembered Fred saying. And if only Fred weren’t so critical. My friend’s husband leaves affirmations on her mirrors. “Looking good, babe; strong woman!” Must be nice. Eventually Fred woke up and suggested we both move to bed. Beside him, I kept my shamed/shaming self at a distance.
“Good night, Mary,” Fred said. He was so fed up, he called me another woman’s name?! Fuming, I barely heard the theme song on our iPad.
Who can turn the world on with her smile? When the Mary Tyler Moore show finally registered, Lou was declaring, “Mary, your parties stink.” Trying too hard to please, host Mary ended up with too many guests, too little food, too few seats. Another stinky party! (But everyone forgave/loved her anyway.)
Fred and I had our differences making Wedding Advice. What we remember most though is how excited we felt, walking down the theater aisle together as co-producers at our debut film festival—our chaotic process yielding mutual fun.
In bed that night, Fred inched close, holding his nose against the remaining eau-de-stinky-party. “Anton loved his day,” I reminded Fred. “You said it.”
“You knew exactly what he wanted,” he said.
In his own dumb way Fred got me. In my dumb way I got this. Our shared laughter suddenly made it all seem worthwhile—the crazy party, our poorly orchestrated efforts, the overstimulation of our (albeit happy) birthday boy.
Perhaps it’s this way with all relationships that make it? That night we slept, piranhas at bay—our marriage the growing total of many such nights.