Different – On the Eve of My Daughter’s 19th Birthday

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On the eve of my daughter’s nineteenth birthday, I’m not thinking this year about all the things she isn’t doing that most nineteen-year-olds are. Things like driving and going to college or gripped in the midst of some massive attack of love or already planning a spring break trip to Florida with her friends. That kind of musing is so last year, when she had her milestone eighteenth birthday.

This year, I’m thinking about expectations and the continual process of learning to let them go and accepting what is Sierra’s experience and what she wants and what she gets from the world around her. I have lived my whole life in my one way. I see things from this narrow and fairly traditional path that I have walked. But Sierra continues to teach me that there are other ways of being that are different than mine and just because they are different doesn’t make them any less wonderful or important or meaningful.

Last night, we hosted a party to celebrate Sierra’s nineteenth birthday. I love birthdays. I love my daughter. I love parties. But I admit, I hadn’t expected to still be planning and hosting this type of party for my grown daughter. I’d assumed by this age, she’d rather spend her birthday off with her friends somewhere, maybe allowing her family to spoil her on the anniversary of her birth with special attention, gifts, a nice dinner out somewhere. An expectation I’ve held: organizing a big, noisy, cupcake infested, kids’ party would end somewhere around the early teen years. Instead, I have an adult daughter who still wants us to plan a full-on party like most other people do for their younger children.

Okay. Great! I’m all in. Why not? Fantastic. Sure. And Sierra enthusiastically begins planning her big day the day after her father’s birthday ends, as her birthday is the next one on the Family Fete Calendar. So, the morning of June 8th, Sierra woke up and said, “My birthday’s next, right? Let’s plan it. I want a cake and Tony playing banjo on the porch!” Okay, Little Bird. I’m on it. Whatever you want, my warrior princess. So we planned the party for three months. Sierra cautioning no pizza because someone on her guest list, Josie, can’t eat pizza. Sierra’s very attuned to the needs of the people around her and very thoughtful. Alright, no pizza, so we settled on tacos. We invited our good friend Tony to play banjo, and he graciously agreed and invited other musicians to play with him. Sierra wanted a few of her friends to spend the night. Not a problem. Well, maybe a little bit of a problem. Many of Sierra’s friends have special needs, like her, and sometimes things like spending the night in an unfamiliar place can present a challenge. Solution? Invite their mommies to have a sleepover, too, to hopefully make their daughters feel more comfortable. We planned and planned and discussed the party for months. Sierra picked out the cake and frosting flavors, helped shop for the party favors for her friends, assisted with cleaning up the house and setting everything up for the party. She was so excited and happy.

Now, my hope and expectation after all this talking and planning and re-planning would be for my daughter to have a really great time with all of her guests, be surrounded by their love, hug them, talk to them, spend time with them, watch the band she invited to play on the porch, maybe do some singing and dancing, later, snuggle on the couch with her friends and giggle as they all watched a movie together to wind down before all heading off to crash in her room.

And that is what happened – well, sort of, even if it didn’t really look like that to eyes unused to landscapes in a special world.

Sierra stood out on the front stoop, waiting for guest to arrive and screamed with joy when they did. She excitedly ushered the band back to the porch, hugged everyone as they came into the house, bustled around thrilled and completely overjoyed – and then she started to say mean things to me and her dad, lashed out at us and told us to shut up, pushed us away if we came near, refused to come out and sit with everyone on the porch, wandered off by herself in the house, didn’t watch the musicians from anywhere they could see her watching, told her sleepover guests she wasn’t going to watch the movie with them, complained she didn’t feel well, sat in the family room playing with the Wii as the party swirled around her, and went to bed early leaving all her guests downstairs. As to her peer guests – one never arrived at all as she was having a really tough time and melting down, another asked to leave and not spend the night as she’d rather sleep in her own bed, and another did spend the night, but went to bed even earlier than Sierra after spending the evening walking around mostly by herself and avoiding interactions with most of the other people. The other, more typically-abled kids at the event hung together, segregated by gender – boys video gaming in my son’s room, girls poking at their mobile phone screens in the family room. Meanwhile, the adults in attendance, one might even think obliviously and selfishly, sat on the porch enjoying the music, chatting, eating, laughing, drinking.

I could look at this and say the party was a total failure. What a disaster! But I know that isn’t truth. Maybe, back in the before, I would have entertained a thought or two like that — back in the before, when I didn’t really understand that what is important to my daughter, as well as to some of her other friends, is to be part of these events, even if they connect to them differently.

Sierra really did enjoy the music – but from a distance. She loved having everyone sing her happy birthday, even though she did get this panic-stricken look on her face as the singing was happening. She was glad everyone was here and enjoyed her party, even if she didn’t talk all that much to people and lashed out at me and her dad at points. It’s how she deals with excitement and tension. It actually doesn’t mean she’s unhappy or upset. It just means that she is really stimulated and looking for a safe outlet for those excited feelings.

The party was a success. Sierra feels loved and cherished and valued. She understands all of these people came together to celebrate her being. She was deep in the mix of loud and messy life and she did thoroughly love the unsettling experience of it – and, therefore, so did I.

I’ve learned to accept that our lives will always look different than most people’s lives. We’re a special family. So, go ahead and let the band play and the music flow. Let it spill through the screen and the walls and rush out into the night and touch everyone. Whether we stand and face it or close a door between it and us, we move through an air rich with it just the same.

Happy day that brought Sierra to us. We are lucky to have her here, loving us. Us, loving her.

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