“Before my daughter decided she was only having gymnastic-themed birthday parties, we did lots of different theme parties to celebrate her big day. Her birthday is in January, so where we live, we weren’t able to do a lot of things outside, so we had to get creative. We did it all – movie parties, pizza parties, bowling, a ‘minute to win it’ party, and plenty of sleepovers. After about the third slumber party and endless amounts of girl drama, I finally realized why my mom cut me off from having slumber parties the minute I entered my teens.
But, one of my favorites was when she was turning 8, and wanted to have a dance party. Easy enough, right? We got a strobe light, some bubbles and threw on the music. The hot commodity at the time was Justin Bieber, and luckily for my sweet girl, her bother looked just enough like him (or JB looked just enough like my son) where the Biebs could make a surprise appearance just in time for her to blow out the candles. And, what a surprise he was. He got dressed up, went out his bedroom window, jogged to the front door, knocked three times and when the door opened, so did the collective jaws of 20 little girls. One cried. I am not kidding, she cried like a teenager in the 60’s who was seeing the Beatles for the first time. I am surprised by the amount of shrieking going on in my living room somebody didn’t call the police, but maybe they were just used to the sound of life coming from my house. He lip-synched a song, posed for pictures and stood by while she cut the cake. He left amid screams and protests from the gaggle of girls vying for his attention and to this day, I am pretty sure most of them think it was the real deal.
The next year, my husband wanted a turn to plan the next great party. I stayed out of it the best I could. I let him run with it knowing that no matter what he did, it would be great. I didn’t interfere. He went to the store five times. He checked his list, then checked it again and promised me he had ‘everything in place.’ By the looks of all the running around he was doing, I was sure there was a party planner somewhere in the distance and pony rides being set up in the backyard. He was excited and that air of excitement followed him everywhere he went and with each crooked smile, I just knew he had something great in store. Including a slumber party.
I came home on party day, carrying in the snacks, which was my contribution to the big shing-ding. He met me at the door.
‘Close your eyes.’ I could tell by the eagerness in his voice he had something delightful to show me. ‘Watch your step.’ He led me into the living room. I imagined what it must look like. Glitter abound, circus performers hanging from the chandelier, ballerinas leaping – or wait, maybe he hired the real Justin Bieber to perform. Whatever it was, I found myself dripping in anticipation. He took my hand and shuffled me to the center of the room and had me stand still. ‘Okay, open!,’, he exclaimed. And, I did.
No performers. No multi-million dollar recording artists. No animals. Nothing.
Except one small table, decorated with a few balloons, Sponge-Bob cups and confetti.
The over-achiever mom in me panicked a little bit. But, I dare not let him see it. His smile was contagious, and he was so proud of himself. I clapped my hands, smiled and hugged him while my inner dialogue was screaming, ‘What in the hell am I supposed to do with 10 little girls who are expecting to be entertained overnight?’ and ‘Where are the games?’ ‘What about a magician?’ ‘Bouncy house anyone?’ ‘The kids will go rogue without games and structure and goodie bags.’ I had visions of little girls in ponytails running amuck, climbing on the furniture, jumping over the floor that was now ‘hot lava,’ blowing the horns from their one party favor, and pouring fruit juice on the carpet, as a riot breaks out because there was nothing to do.
I poured myself a glass of wine at 2 p.m. because day drinking seemed to be the perfect solution, but before I could take a sip, I pulled myself together, put my hair in a messy bun and gave myself a pep talk. ‘No, don’t panic. It will be ok. We will order pizza and I am sure he has a plan. Oh Lord, please let him have a plan.’
My daughter, who had been out shopping with a friend and her mom, arrived several hours later. My husband met her in the driveway. He took her through the same steps as he took me, still animated. He led her in, eyes closed, and I said a little prayer that she wouldn’t be too disappointed.
‘Open!’ He exclaimed.
She shot her eyes open, stood still, looked at the decorated table and said nothing. Not one word. Instead, she drew in a deep breath, opened her eyes wide, and looked up at her dad, who was looking down at her anxiously awaiting her response.
I gulped my wine.
She turned towards him and wrapped her arms around his waist.
‘Do you like it, K?’ He pet her hair.
‘I don’t like it, Daddy.’ His smile softened. ‘I love it.’ She squeezed him tighter. ‘It’s the best birthday party I have ever had.’
‘Really?’ He asked her.
‘Yes. Because you did it.’
I didn’t know I was crying until I reached up to wipe my face. I pushed away my tears and opened the door each time there was a knock. Very quickly, my house was full of the sweet sounds of giggling, squealing, ‘tag,’ board games and karaoke. Pizza was ordered, cake was cut, and as the girls laid down in the bonus room for a nighttime movie, that man of mine crept up the stairs not once, not twice but at least 20 times pretending he was a monster, and they pretended to be scared each time. It was perfect symmetry to end a perfect night.
She was turning 10 that night. That beautiful, flawless, charming night. The night she had the ‘best birthday party ever’ because the man she adored planned it.
And then just six months after her 13th birthday, he would be gone.
Cancer would steal him from her on a warm summer evening. His soul would slip away as she held his hand tight in hers. She would kiss his cheek and comfort him as he took his last breath, just as he did for her when she took her first.
He wouldn’t plan anymore birthday parties. He wouldn’t curl ribbon to decorate a table. He wouldn’t buy anymore balloons or scare her friends with monster sounds.
And while she can look back on all the pictures and videos of all the parties she had with all the things, and all the entertainment, and all the surprises – the one party she will never forget is the one her dad gave her.
She’s turning 17 today. She’s still such a sweet girl and she has grown into a stunning version of herself. Sometimes I wonder if he would recognize her. Sometimes I wonder if he would be appalled at how beautiful she is now, and how different she looks from the last time he saw her in person. I wonder a lot of things, but the one thing I know for sure is even at 17, she would have loved a Sponge-Bob party if he were giving it to her. Because it wasn’t about the decorations or the games or the food or the cake. No, it’s not about any of that. It was about the love. It was truly about the love. And that, my friends, can never be taken away. Not ever. Because, it’s always about the love.
My sweet Kaitlyn, happy birthday. I love you so much and the woman you are becoming. I am in awe of your strength and how you have managed to keep going, even when it’s really, really hard. You’re an inspiration to me – and so many others. Your dad would be so, so proud of you. Please, don’t ever forget that.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Diana Register of Meridian, Idaho. Her book “Grief Life” is available in print and kindle. You can find more of her books here, and her podcast here. Connect with Diana on her author Facebook page, and Instagram.
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