The First Half: Being Nine, or The Best Part of All

When Noah got off the school bus on the last Friday in April, I asked him, “How was your last day of school as an eight year old?” He looked surprised. Because his party was over a week away, his actual birthday kind of snuck up on him. He hadn’t realized it was only three days away. (This despite June’s complaints that everyone was “always” talking about Noah’s birthday and it was “very ‘nnoying”).

The next few nights he had trouble getting to sleep at night. He’d call me back into his room to ask birthday-related questions, and one night he was up past ten. (His bedtime is eight-thirty.) He’s also been experiencing pain in his ankles at night, growing pains, I assume and that coupled with his excitement made it hard for him to fall asleep.

Over the weekend, he came up with the idea of opening his presents early so it wouldn’t have to be fit into the bustle of a school day. I tried to put the kibosh on this plan. His class party was the day after his birthday and his home party was the following weekend. If he opened his presents before his birthday there would be nothing special about the day, I argued. “But I’ll be nine,” he protested. “Isn’t that the best part of all?”

In the end, he agreed to wait, but when he woke up on Monday morning, there was a new complication. He felt sick, he said. Noah’s sensory issues can make it difficult for him to distinguish between different kinds of bodily sensations. It’s easy for him to mix up feeling sick, needing to go to the bathroom and being hungry. I asked him to go back to bed and try to really listen to what his body was telling him but he was having trouble getting a handle on it. He thought he was too sick to go to school– no, he wasn’t– yes, he was–well, maybe not.

We tabled the issue and by 6:55 we were all assembled in the living room for “the opening ceremony” as he dubbed the present opening. There were many car-related presents. June got him a little yellow metal VW Bug with a friction motor, my mom got him a subscription to Car and Driver, my sister got him a copy of the movie Cars (I asked her to do it so we can return the Netflix copy he’s been watching over and over since March). He also got books and t-shirts and pajamas, a Bananagram word game (http://bananagrams-intl.com/checkcountry.asp?page=index.asp), an Extreme Bubble Making Kit, and a new scooter to replace his old one (the brake fell off and we’ve been unable to get it repaired). It was a pretty good haul. He decided to wear the green t-shirt with a classic car on it to school, if he was going, which was still up in the air. He wanted to know if he could go for a ride on the new scooter and I said, “If you’re well enough to ride the scooter, you’re well enough to go to school.” It was one of those moments when I heard Mom-speak just coming out of my mouth without any warning. I wonder if that ever happened to our moms when we were kids.

As June and I left the house to walk to nursery school around 8:00, I heard Noah and Beth seeming to come to the conclusion that he would go to school, but I wasn’t completely sure whether I’d find him there or not when I got back. I came home to an empty house with a note on the front door. “Noah went to school,” it said.

At 11:05 the phone rang and I got off the exercise bike to answer it. It was someone from Noah’s school. He was throwing up, she said, and I needed to come get him. It was about five minutes before I needed to leave for June’s school, and to complicate matters, I had agreed to walk the Yellow Tulip home that day, to spare her very pregnant babysitter the walk. I told the woman I’d be there at 11:45. This turned out to be an optimistic estimate.

I left for June’s school right away, hoping to get there early enough to arrange for someone else to take the Yellow Tulip home. I was too flustered to realize I should call her parents or the school before I left to facilitate this, and once I got there it took a while to straighten everything out. The Blue Maple’s mom graciously agreed to take the Yellow Tulip and we left June’s school around 11:35. By myself I could have made it to Noah’s school in ten minutes, but I had June with me, and she was tired and distraught. When I explained the situation to her she realized almost immediately that this meant that we’d get home late and she’d miss Dragon Tales. She began to cry and kept it up pretty much non-stop for the next hour. Initially, I felt sorry for her. She’s tired that time of day and her after-school routine is very important to her. It’s why I never accept invitations to go to the playground after school, even for a half hour. Eventually, I stopped trying to comfort her, as nothing I said—appeals to compassion for her sick brother, promises of different television later in the day– seemed to have any effect. I just held her hand as we walked along the trail by the creek. We arrived at Noah’s school at 11:55. I went to the office to sign Noah out and then to the Health Office where the nurse said he didn’t have a fever and we left. June was still sobbing.

The birthday boy, however, didn’t seem too upset. They had an interesting book about horses to read at the Health Office, he reported.

“I guess we shouldn’t have sent you to school,” I said.

“But if I hadn’t gone to school, I wouldn’t know how to find the area of a triangle,” he said. Then he told me how to find the area of a right triangle (they haven’t covered other kinds yet) with great enthusiasm. He’d asked Señor S how to find the area of a circle, but he said they weren’t covering that this year. This happens to Noah more often than I’d like, that teachers don’t satisfy his curiosity and tell him he has to wait. He’s been waiting to study negative numbers since kindergarten. I wished then that he’d gotten into the gifted school, but he’s waitlisted. He could get in over the summer or during his fourth grade year or the summer before fifth grade, or never, so we could be in limbo for a while. But to avoid fretting, we’re assuming he won’t be going and we’re trying to figure out how to advocate for him more effectively at school so his fourth and fifth grade years are more satisfying academically than this year has been.

We got home around 12:25. Noah changed into clean clothes and June insisted she needed a change of clothes, too, because she’d gotten paint on her shirt at school. (I don’t remember her ever caring about this before.) So they both got changed and June had lunch (she stopped crying as soon as I put the food in front of her) and she napped. We’d planned to go out to dinner and get cupcakes at Cake Love afterward, but Noah was still complaining of stomach pain on and off all afternoon, so we didn’t go. By 6:00, though, he was feeling well enough to try out his new scooter and he ate a small bowl of plain udon noodles with tofu and broccoli for dinner. Around 6:40 he glanced at the clock and said, “Hey, I’ve been nine for over a half hour.”

“I’m glad you were born,” I told him. “You’re my best boy.”

And he is.

The next day he woke up feeling well and chipper, so we sent him to school. June and I delivered two trays of mini-cupcakes to his afternoon class. I had to wake her up from her nap to get there at the appointed time, and it was more like a forced march than a walk to his school. For the second day in a row, I walked into the main office, with my weeping daughter trailing me. She cheered up though, once we were in his classroom and cupcakes were imminent. On the way home we stopped to wade in the creek. More presents had arrived in the mail that day, and he opened them. One of them was a book of science experiments he’s eager to try. And that night he had his belated birthday dinner at Asian Bistro (http://www.asianbistrocafe.com/) and his cupcake. The festive ceramic panda cups in which the children’s drinks arrived were a high point of the evening. While we waited for the food to arrive, Noah decoded the secret message in the birthday card my mom sent and Beth looked up the formula for determining the area of a circle on her phone. At Cake Love (http://www.cakelove.com/locations_silverspring.php), Noah selected a banana split cupcake, an appropriately complicated confection. The cake was banana-flavored and the frosting had vanilla and strawberry layers. It wasn’t a bad day, as make-up birthdays go.


At dinner on Wednesday night, Noah said something was bothering him. I asked him what it was. He said he leaves papers he’s supposed to turn in on the desktop and Señor S has threatened to start throwing them out if he does it again. Noah wasn’t sure if he’d have to do the work over or if he’d get no credit, but either option was upsetting and he didn’t think he could always remember to turn in the work. So Beth and I decided to have a meeting with Señor S next week to discuss more positive ways of helping Noah stay organized. It’s no easy task. I supervise his homework most weekday afternoons so I know. But neither of us thought punishment was the way to go. In addition, Noah’s last report card hinted that some of the aggressive-seeming behavior he had in kindergarten might be re-surfacing. I asked Noah what he thought Señor S meant and he said he’s been bumping into people in line a lot, by accident, he insisted. So we want to talk about that, too. Oddly, Noah’s at-school behavior often seems to deteriorate in the spring. I don’t know if he get worn out and the end of the school year or if it’s something else. He even has a set of facial tics that surface each spring and then disappear in the summer. Beth calls it his “seasonal Tourette’s.”

Noah is such a puzzle to many people. He seems simultaneously older and younger than his years. He reads at least two years above grade level, but he still sucks his thumb and he calls me Mommy, while many of his peers have switched over to calling their mothers Mom. He charms many adults with his cheerful demeanor and intelligent conversation, but in the past couple of years he’s had trouble making and keeping friends. He often plays alone at recess (or does yoga). And a lot of adults are just baffled by him. He’s so smart, that his absent-mindedness, his social awkwardness and even his physical clumsiness seem like things he should be able to overcome if he just put his mind to it. But Beth and I suspect there might be more to it than that, possibly even more than his sensory issues can explain. We’ve been considering having him tested for Asperger’s syndrome (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asperger_syndrome). When I read the descriptions I go back and forth between thinking, that sounds like Noah all right and, wait, he’s not nearly that impaired. So it might be good to find out, so we can have more guidance on how to be better parents to him for the next nine years.

The Second Half: The Party

Friday night, the night before Noah’s party, both kids were wound up and having trouble getting to sleep again. Around 9:30, after June had finally dropped off, Noah came out of their room and told Beth he was worried about something and couldn’t sleep. It turned out he’d told Sasha that his Solve-the-Mystery party would culminate in a chase scene and Sasha started to brag about his karate skills so Noah was worried Sasha thought there would be real fighting at the party and that someone might get hurt. Beth assured him we’d set out clear guidelines before the party started and he went back to bed. Soon he was up again, but Beth talked him until he was calm and we didn’t hear from him again.

After an already busy day of soccer practice for June and swimming practice for Noah, June and I took our positions on the front porch at 2:55 Saturday afternoon. Noah’s guests were due to arrive at 3:00. I was to explain the party rules to them and escort them one by one to the garage where they would receive their instructions and their initial clues from Noah, who was already in character as the detective agency representative who would hire the three agents to find the stolen diamond and apprehend the thief.

As he did last year, Noah put his party theme up to a vote. The choices were Castles, Human Body, Mystery or a secret theme guest would find out at the party. Human Body was a leftover theme from last year and no one voted for it, but after the first round of voting, it was a three-way tie for the other options. As Noah was trying to figure out how to break the tie, he told us that the secret theme was mold. This was a surprise. I wondered what kind of decorations, activities and cake he would want for a mold party, but it wasn’t to be because one of his guests changed his vote and soon we were planning a mystery party. Not that much actual planning was involved. This year Noah didn’t want any decorations or goody bags for the guests and he designed the invitations and devised all the clues for the game himself. I took care of calling his friends’ parents in advance of sending out the invitations to determine a date and time all three of his guests could attend (he had such a small guest list I didn’t want anyone to miss the party) and Beth made the cake—a fancy cake, Noah said; it was a vanilla layer cake with coconut frosting and crossed forks and knives in black piping. (The cake was supposed to be disguised as something you might find on a table.) It was half a relief and half a letdown to have so little to do.

One thing I could have done was to double-check his preparations because there were a number of snafus during the mystery-solving portion of the party. The guests, working as a team, were looking for clues in envelopes hidden throughout the yard and the house. Each clue was written in symbols that had to be decoded using a key Noah provided and which would tell the players where to look for the next clue. In theory it was all very well thought out, but two of the clue envelopes were empty and one had the wrong directions in it, which caused some chaos. (June also contributed some of her own clues she made by cutting up Noah’s rough drafts—but these were marked as “June’s Clues” and they boys knew to disregard them.) It took almost an hour for the detectives to find the construction paper diamond hidden in the laundry basket and they only did after I advised them that the treasure hunt was “good, clean fun,” which sent them running to the laundry room, and advised them that “small people often have great wisdom” shortly after June started rummaging through the laundry basket on her own. Elias was the only one listening to that gem, so he found the diamond.

Once the diamond was located the boys had to chase the thief (Beth) through the back yard until they tackled her– relatively gently–and brought her to justice. Noah declared that her punishment would be to pay a fine of buying pizza for the detectives. She made the call and while they waited for the pizza to come, the boys played outside. The first thing that occurred to them was a sword fight–it might have been Elias’s idea; he voted for castles–so they grabbed the foam building tubes from June’s fort-building kit. Unfortunately, the tubes have metal tips where they snap together and almost immediately Sasha got hit in the mouth and ended up with a swollen lip. I confiscated the swords and they argued for a while over whether to play tag, hide and seek, cops and robbers or vampires and vampire slayers. I’m not sure why it mattered what they called it because all the games they played basically consisted of leaping off the porch walls and chasing each other through the yard and driveway. They were nice enough to include June in the game of tag. Whenever she was it I let her tag me and then I’d take off after one of the boys.

Then it was inside for pizza, cake and a brief game of online Monopoly. Sasha stayed over for a post-party play date and they continued the game and then watched about half of Cars. After Sasha left, around six, Beth asked Noah how he’d like his party. “Thumbs up?” she asked.

“Yeah, you didn’t get killed,” he observed.

“Success!” Beth said. I think it was, mixed up clues and all.

Today is Mother’s Day. We celebrated with cards and gifts and breakfast at IHOP. Then Noah and I watched a PG-rated movie (Shortshttp://www.imdb.com/title/tt1100119/) while Beth and June went grocery shopping. He was very excited about seeing a movie with me and without June and may have lorded it over her a bit too much. “We should do this every week,” he said. After June’s nap, we took an afternoon stroll in the National Arboretum (http://www.usna.usda.gov/) and had dinner at Plato’s Diner (http://www.platosdiner.com/). It was a very nice day.

In the bathroom this morning I was telling Beth how June told me recently she couldn’t decide whether to be a construction worker or a Mommy and I told her she could be both, either at the same time, or she could be a construction worker before and after she was a Mommy. “There’s no after,” Beth corrected. “Once you’re a Mommy, you’re always a Mommy.” I suppose she’s right. Noah made me a mother nine years ago, and although he’s halfway to being a man, I am not nearly half done being his Mom. That’s forever.