Now we are six. Tess had a birthday last week and we have ourselves a six-year-old.
She headed to school on her birthday. These days we get at least one update by email every day from her one-on-one ed tech or her special ed teacher. That day the email had a video. It was Tess in her classroom, ringed by the other kindergarteners. They were singing "Happy Birthday" to her, smiling like crazy, clearly wishing her the best.
And in the video, there's Tess. She's seated in a big floppy chair on the floor, wearing a cardboard birthday crown. Despite the song and the warm smiles of her classmates, she is not smiling. Not even a little bit. The look on her face is a rare one. A look of patience. As if she's just sort of tolerating this little song.
I have to say, I was okay with this. She doesn't have to smile. If photo sessions with Tess have taught us anything, the girl refuses to smile on command. She has to feel like it. And in those sessions, we've taken a million pictures of her back, or the back of her head. Because she simply won't sit still. At the moment you're gonna push the button, she's already on the move.
And that's why it was a victory to see that video. Because during that song, she's as still as can be. No one's holding her hand or keeping her in that chair, and yet she's not going anywhere. We can't know what's happening in her head at that moment, but we have to believe that she recognizes that this is a special occasion. That her class doesn't sing to her every day. That something is going on and that she's at the center of it.
That night, we had a small celebration here at the house. Her grandparents are local, about five minutes away, and they came, too. We had dinner. I made her favorite: meat and sweet potatoes. She opened some gifts. The gifts part was somewhat hilarious, because upon unwrapping a tiny stuffed animal, a little piglet, she cast it aside instantly, in favor of something far more entertaining: the shiny blue wrapping paper that it came in. The best part of the night was when she got her birthday cupcake. She's on a strict diet: no gluten or grains, no dairy or soy, and verrrry limited sugar. This cupcake followed the diet almost entirely. But the sugar part was unavoidable. She tasted it and went bananas. She ripped the frosting off and squished in her fingers and then licked it off. And then she proceeded to spread a lot of it on me, actually. It was unbridled joy, a bit like we'd seen in Dana on Halloween a few days earlier, when she hadn't been allowed to have any of that candy.
But I want to tell you about what came before that cupcake, before the family party.
It was about her gifts. My wife had bought her a bunch of stuff online, and had gone to a few stores as well. Tess would have treats to open. I felt like I should get her something from me, though.
I don't know why, but I drag my feet in starting this shopping trip. And before I know it, it's her birthday already.
So I head to the toy store. As soon as I walk in, I recognize why I didn't want to do this. It's hard to pick stuff out for T. Almost every toy could kill her, because they have little choking-hazard parts. I find a tiny white boom box, with buttons that play music and light up. The handle's plastic, and clearly meant to be chewed on. It's perfect for Tess. I pull it off the rack, and then I notice that it's from Baby Mozart. It's marked for ages 18 months plus. It's a toddler's toy. And this is upsetting. Tess is behind developmentally, sure. She isn't your standard kindergartener. But are we really still at a year and a half, toy-wise? Are we seriously unable to bump it up a bit, to pick toys that can capitalize on all her incredible gains in walking and communicating, in getting it together socially, so she smiles and hugs people now?
I say no to the Baby Mozart toy. I put it back. I can do better.
Here is where the toy store becomes oppressive. Because as I browse, I find whole sections that are inappropriate. Almost tauntingly so. My head goes into a bad place. Like, over here are the games. There are several hundred of them, for all ages. But in order to play games, you have to understand basic concepts. Like taking turns. And thinking ahead. We're still working on those. So even the baby games are no good.
How about this section over here? It couldn't be more girly. Crafty sets. Tiny tins and plastic dishes for doing your nails, or applying your own sparkly tattoos. Nope, no good. Ages 6 and up? Not in our house.
Time is passing. My toy errand is stretching into the afternoon. The minutes have lost meaning. I have no idea how long I've been in there. The longer I stay, the more I struggle to find something suitable for her.
Even the harmless items turn out to be not great. There's a ton of dress-up stuff: frilly and fuzzy capes and hoods, plastic tiaras and flared gloves. I envision a Tess who likes to pretend. Who understands the concept of dressing like something other than she is, like a witch or a princess.
It is always pretty terrible to go there in my mind, to picture a Tess other than the Tess we have. To imagine a six-year-old who demands to have her birthday at a party center, the kind with flashing lights and skeeball, a Tess who likes Frozen and hide-and-seek and Doc McStuffins.
I honestly don't do it very often. It's been months, probably, since the last time I did. I hear a voice of reason, one that tells me not to go there, and that the reason not to go there is that it isn't productive. But I kind of want to smack that voice. Because who the hell feels things because they want to be productive? No one. Our emotions aren't designed to produce things. We're grateful to have our Tess, and we love her the way she is. But sometimes, let's face it, it's just hard.
I think I just became frustrated in that store. Because for so long I couldn't find anything. Any toy that wasn't for babies.
And then, there it was: a puzzle with huge, wooden pieces. They were all animals, each piece a whole animal, like an alligator or bear, and you were supposed to fit them onto a big wooden board, with cutouts for each piece. This was perfect. It's actually a skill she's working on at school, fitting puzzle pieces into their spots.
So finding something in the toy store is like all other tasks involving Tess. It takes time. You have to work at it and give it some serious thought. Other winners I eventually found that day: a light-up Slinky, with orange and red LEDs. Check. A plastic top that plays the song "Axel F" and lights up while it's spinning. Check. And a tiny turquoise heart, painted with tiny bumblebees and a purple and yellow daisy. When you shake it, there's a little chime. It is so Tess.
I'd like to tell you the answer that I figured out about all this. How to have a kid like Tess and not feel bad sometimes when you look at other kids the same age and what they can do. I don't have an answer for you, though. I did find some good treats for her, but if you're looking for a resolution, I'm sorry to say you won't get it. We're gonna keep on doing what we're doing, and be with our Tess and love her the way she is. Happy birthday, T-Bird. Glad you dug the frosting.