A dad's life

January 10, 2018
Birthdays aren’t always a cakewalk.
By Mike Ward, '01

“I’m going to miss being 4.”

On the eve of his 5th birthday, my son gently rocked on the same hand-me-down leather recliner he regularly treated like a gymnastics apparatus for years. And as he contemplated what it meant to get older while sprawled out on his sweat- and yogurt-stained throne, his face soured and his eyes welled up.

Nolan’s forecast for the future was cloudy with a chance of meltdown: tying his own shoelaces, a scary new school, the whispers of chores, and the specter of more sanitary bathroom habits. Meanwhile, his 2-year-old sister still shot through life willy-nilly, bouncing around like a blinding silver sphere in a roadhouse pinball machine.

Life wasn’t fair. Until Nolan’s gifts and cake arrived the next day, of course.

Nolan was learning that while they didn’t need to be, and surely shouldn’t be, birthdays could be stressful. (Just wait until he starts planning birthday parties instead of attending them.)

But birthdays constitute some of my most vivid, oft-recalled memories. And I suspect the same will be true for him. Perhaps it’s because of the serious self-reflection they demand. Or who knows, maybe it’s the funnel shape of novelty party hats that compels just the right neurons to fire off in sync every few weeks or months, re-creating forgotten moments as lucid flashbacks?

That might explain why I still remember a classmate’s 9th birthday party celebrated at Chuck E. Cheese’s in Rochester, New York. We mowed through pizza, took turns dropping quarters in the now ancient “Dragon’s Lair” arcade game, and watched one of our friends punch out a kid from a rival birthday party in the Cheese Hole, a wooden underbelly of peepholes and hiding spots where bad things happened. It was a legendary act of pre-pubescent machismo still talked about in the halls of Victor Elementary School to this day.

Another theory: Maybe we remember birthdays because we’re so often surrounded by our friends and family. In August 2012, I rode around with my dad buying everything from mulch to Mylar balloons in preparation for my son’s 1st birthday party. After the hard labor, we sucked chicken wings off the bone, traded our best stories over beers, and that weekend, ate cake for both my kid’s birthday and my own.

illustration by Katie McBrideIt would be the last such celebration. My dad died unexpectedly four months later.

It’s times like these when birthdates don’t seem arbitrary, but like carefully calculated born-on dates handed down with purpose by Father Time. But they have to be random, right? Just ask the cynical bunch born on Feb. 29 or Dec. 25.

As kids, we lose sleep over anticipated birthday booty and red-eyed sleepovers. As adults, we lose hair over losing hair — and getting the deposit for the kids’ party into the trampoline warehouse on time. Our own annual celebrations of shameless self-promotion take a back seat to our kids’, not just their own, but the friends kind enough to drop an invite into their preschool cubby.

Nolan, my wife, and I have been everywhere these past two months, running through the fun but grueling pre-K summer birthday party gauntlet. Once there were three in 36 hours: at a bouncy-house hideaway, a semi-private pool, and an indoor soccer arena. At one, Nolan donned a chef hat and cooked up some green pizza at Young Chefs Academy, a refreshing change of pace.

Time will tell which soirées will make the slideshow in Nolan’s brain.

As for Nolan’s birthday, we went to Chuck E. Cheese’s to celebrate as a family (his call). No fights, but we spent $20 to “win” a plastic bookmark, a fun-size bag of Skittles, and a pocket-size plastic foam rocket launcher that broke in 30 minutes.

When we got home that night, Nolan and I sparred with his new superhero Rock’em Sock’em Robots.

Then we heard a faint knock at the door. We opened it and quickly stepped back, spying a fist-sized winged bug of some sort. Its brilliant green wings were the size of a hummingbird, and its body resembled a caterpillar after a trip to the buffet. I had never seen anything like it. After a brief Google image search, we identified our new friend as the rarely seen luna moth. They live for a week, mate, and die.

Luna moths are seen by some as spiritual creatures, symbolizing intuition, rebirth, and even the soul. Others say they come to help us see the big picture in life. It’s pretty deep stuff, maybe even silly. Still, I couldn’t help but think that the visitor was a perfectly timed birthday gift in many ways — for both Nolan and me — and a birthday memory we would share forever.

Mike Ward majored in journalism and rhetoric and communication at UR and is the founder and chief brand driver for Milepost 0 Creative. He writes the column “A Dad’s Life” for Richmond Times-Dispatch, where this originally appeared. Follow him on Twitter @Mile0Creative.