Saturday, December 6, 2008

The Astronaut Birthday Cake

At eight years old, my favorite sound was the school bell ringing at 3 P.M., which signaled the end of the school day!. Once outside the school, I would run to the corner and meet with my friends, my older Sister and her friends. We would begin our walk home in a large group, taking turns in exchanging the classroom happenings.

With each passing street the group shrunk in size as our friends went into their homes. The last two blocks was just my Sister and me. We always took a brief pause in our walk to check out the corner bakery and would marvel at the front window displaying the most sumptuous desserts,.

It was fifty years ago, yet the sight of this one particular cake is forever engraved in my mind. It was one week from my 8th birthday, “Look at that birthday cake!” I exclaimed to my Sister. The cake was a half dome, smothered with white icing and three astronauts planted on the top. “Oh man, my birthday is coming up and I hope I get that cake!” I said excitedly to my Sister. My Sister, had inherited the disciplinary side of my Mom replied, “Forget about it, it’s probably too expensive, Mommy can’t afford it and if you eat it, you’ll get fat!” I was pulled away from the window with my wishes falling to the concrete. My parents had recently divorced and even my small immature mind sensed the dire circumstances.

The week passed quickly and my birthday came. It was on a Sunday and my Mother took me and my two Sisters to a local amusement park where we spent the afternoon going on rides, eating cotton candy and laughing at the clowns that passed by. A neighbor had joined us for our Sunday dinner, my favorite, roast beef and mashed potatoes. The table was cleared, and as my Mom came out from kitchen, she dimmed the lights and started a chorus of “Happy Birthday to you”. She lowered her homemade birthday cake with nine burning candles. My eyes focused on the candles and the wish I was about make.

The ringing of the telephone interrupted our song. . “Oh honey, please hold on to that wish…I’ll be right back.” I stared at the brightly burning candles reminding myself they had to blown out with one breath. A few seconds had passed when our neighbor suggested that we check up on Mom, as those candles were making their decent into the cake. We walked into her room and could not believe what we were seeing.. My Mother slumped over in her chair, her face in her hands and sobbing. The phone dangled by its cord. Our neighbor picked up the phone, listened, then said “O.K., I’ll tell the children, I am very sorry, she’ll call you back.” The neighbor turned to us and said, “I’m sorry, but your Grandfather has just passed away.” My Sisters shrieked and began crying, I was too confused. I ran back to the cake with the candles burning, drew a deep breath and wished this wasn’t happening, that my Grandfather was still alive and my mother wasn’t crying.
I blew out the candles and ran back into the room to the haunting sobs. It was my turn to cry.

The neighbor escorted us out of the room and cleaned up the table while my sisters and I wept ourselves to sleep.

I woke the next morning and had hoped the night before was a bad dream, but one look at my Mom and I knew this was real. I was always proud that my Mom was a pretty lady, but on this morning, she was a stranger to me. Her face was drawn; the life had been pulled from it. She wore large sunglasses to cover her puffed eyes and her hair completely disheveled. I could not believe that grief and sadness could change the way a person looked. “I will be going to California for the funeral; Lottie will come and stay with you for the week that I am away. Please behave yourself, and listen to everything Lottie says.”

The week passed my young heart was heavy with sadness and despair for what my Mother was going through. I prayed that when she returned she would look like “mom” again.

Our neighbor took us to the airport to meet her. As soon as we spotted her exit, we charged at her, her face seemed to brighten, her eyes still covered by the sunglasses.
We piled into the backseat of the car and she in the front and told us about her trip, how Grandma and our Aunts and Uncles were doing. She asked how we managed during the week and we filled her in. She turned around to me and said, “I know how hard this must be for you, as the news came at the worst possible moment. When we get home give me the names of your friends, I’ll make out invitations, and next week we will have a make-up birthday party for you.” I didn’t understand how someone could have a birthday party on a day that wasn’t their birthday, but I accepted my Moms suggestion feeling that I would never be able to celebrate my birthday on that same day ever again.

The following Sunday arrived and my friends showed up. We played board games, spin the tail on the donkey, ate candy and made noise. My Mom served up some hot dogs and just as we finished eating, the lights went out and she began a chorus of “Happy Birthday to You”, I shut my eyes and prayed that phone would not ring. When I opened them the brightly light cake was positioned in front of me. It was the astronaut cake! “WOW” I exclaimed, “I can’t believe it!” My lungs felt lighter and took a huge gulp of air, made my wish and blew the candles out with a hurricane force wind!

I leaned forward and removed the three astronaut figures from the cake. I licked the icing off their boots and placed them next to my plate. My Mom cut the cake and gave me the largest piece saying that the birthday boy gets the bigger piece. I dug my fork in and scooped up a piece that was larger than my mouth and as I began to stuff it into my mouth I glanced over at my sister who was laughing at the sight. My eyes caught a glimpse of my mom, who was once again smiling and looking like her beautiful self. For the first time in what seemed a dark eternity, my world seemed right again.

A parent knows all too well how confusing this world can be to a child. Grief, disappointment and deceit enter without an introduction or warm up. We are too unprepared to deal with the event but are always left carrying the scars of it.
The sky had fallen on my head, and her sky had fallen on her, yet she had the inner strength to come lift mine first. On that day, with allowing a few friends to celebrate and an astronaut cake she was able to take hold of my hand and walk me through a terrifying pathway of life.

So I have learned, with the love of a parent, a child will be able to defy the gravity of life’s harsh realities.

Peace…Marc J