Soon it will be Sam’s birthday. He has been in a state of high excitement for some time about it; we have been waiting for it for at least two weeks. His teachers have seen a marked down turn in his behaviour, something that we have seen many times before at this time of year (one year he spent most of the day in the corridor), so it’s nothing new. He has made lists of guests to invite to his party, and replied to the question of what he wants for his birthday with a charming lack of avarice (just a toy lorry will do nicely, thanks). Soon, Sam will be a teenager.
Over the years, Sam has hosted, and attended, a large number of parties. He has birthday-boy-ed the whole class party, the party at home, the video party, the football party (make sure you warn any girl attendees that it’s not really suitable for party dresses), and, most recently, the activity party. He has been to soft plays, magic shows, a hair and nail party (this was not a great success), discos (not very keen, bit like his father), almost, in fact, any kind of party you care to imagine. The invites slowed in recent years, for which my bank balance was eternally grateful.
His favourite sort, though, it has to be said, is the kind of old fashioned gathering of friends where there is musical statues (he likes operating the sound system and declaring winners), or any other sort of traditional parlour game where mummy is in charge (actually, I don’t think he is alone in this – the one time I attempted a Party-Without-Particular-Activities I was informed in no uncertain terms by one of my favourite guests that it wasn’t a proper party without any games).
We haven’t always made a big deal over Sam’s birthday, however. When he was very small his birthday was a funny old day, and not one we particularly felt like celebrating. It’s partly the time of year, it has to be said. A January birthday meant a January annual check-up at the local hospital. It took me a couple of years to make the link between that and the annual January visit of winter vomiting that hurtled first through Sam, then me and finally Daddy. His first birthday left me feeling especially wrecked.
Not that I was particularly in the mood to celebrate, even if I had been able to, to be perfectly honest. There is that quality to anniversaries that has the effect of making me pause to reflect, to remember, that left me feeling melancholy, disturbed. Being surrounded by long faces instead of balloons and congratulations upon the birth of your baby doesn’t really make you feel much like celebrating.
Not that Sam’s first birthday went ignored, mind you. On it I was interviewed by the legendary John Peel for his Radio 4 programme ‘Home Truths’. Now that was a surreal experience. I sat it a very brown-ly decorated studio at our local radio station (must have been set up in the Eighties) with an enormous pair of headphones on, ignored the churning of my stomach and the lightheadedness-from-lack-of-sleep (I’d been up with my head in the toilet for most of the night) and chatted away as if I was talking to an old friend. It’s a shame that I have misplaced the recording we made of the broadcast because I can’t remember much of what I said over the space of that hour; I mostly recall the sense that I was answering questions that offered no judgement, just the sort that allowed me to tell my stories.
I can’t really remember Sam’s second birthday at all. We probably went to a party for one of his friends, seeing as they were all born at the same time it seems likely, but we certainly didn’t have one at our house. Judging by my younger children, had Sam been the baby of the family I doubt we would have been able to get away with it for as long as we did. L spends months discussing what kind of party she would like to have (it tends to be highly dependent on the last one she attended), and after the omission of a Birthday Badge, followed by One She Didn’t Like, she has become quite assertive about her wishes. And if you have a birthday on the day you visit our house, please don’t expect not to receive a fiery creation, regardless of the ruination of your waistline.
By the time Sam was three I was starting to feel a bit guilty about the lack of cake and candles. It wasn’t as if Sam was aware that it was his birthday, but we knew. We couldn’t ignore it any longer. It was time to beat those bad memories into submission; time to make his birthday into something about him, not us. We’ve never regretted his appearance in our lives, after all.
Maybe that’s why Sam’s parties have always been rather splendid affairs. Maybe I was trying to make up for that early un-celebration. And once you get started on these things, and you have three children, they kind of take on a life of their own. I also, it has to be said, wanted to do something to reciprocate the invitations Sam had had over the years, to say thank you for other people’s generosity. Not for Sam the label of Never Being Invited To Parties.
And that’s why, even now, even when he is turning thirteen and we really ought to be saying, ‘you know what, son, you’re getting a bit big for parties, how about we go out for a nice meal with the family instead?’ and lowering some of his expectations, we are still getting ready with the cake and candles, party bags and balloons. Because now that Sam is in Special Education, now that he is just one of the lads and not the Odd One Out, I am aware (not that I’ve ever asked, sometimes it is better not to ask) that quite a few of these kids, even if they turn them down, don’t get those precious party envelopes. And, if I don’t invite them, who else will?