*This piece is my second publication, originally in Penning the Pandemic: An Anthology of Creative Writing from the Beginning of the COVID Era. Many thanks to the Monadnock Writers’ Group for including me with such wonderful pieces.
I have a unique relationship with my fourth child. She is too much like me. Some would call her strong willed. Some would call her hard-headed. Most would call her prickly. But she hides a tender filling. She was the first of my children to cry for roadkill. She is the quickest to defend a friend on the playground. Either way, she is unfathomable. What Feralchild expected for her eighth birthday was another mystery.
I began my strategy well in advance, asking her what kinds of gifts she would like. Asking her if that snack she liked would be a good birthday treat. Dropping hints and sometimes begging. Feralchild is blunt. If she knew what she wanted she told me. But what she wanted was what she always had, most of which would not be possible in a lockdown situation.
No class party with cat cupcake toppers on strawberry cupcakes. No family party with the cousins. No going to the movies, or the bowling alley, or to get ice cream. How do you manage the expectations of a soon-to-be-8-year-old enigma? I did everything I could to control an unpredictable situation. And I also had one birthday surprise up my sleeve.
How do you manage mom’s anxiety during a pandemic? I bought the gifts far in advance, in case of supply or shipping delays. I bought fixings for cake and pantry-friendly treats the month before. I timed the monthly shopping trip so we had her strawberries and watermelon in time for her birthday.
Then, the day after our shopping trip, she was talking to her older sibling. We were sitting in the kitchen, Feralchild’s feet swinging while she sat on a stool directly in front of Vic, demanding their full attention. She told them all about what she wanted, “strawberry everything, and cat everything. And ice cream cake.” Vic saw my look of horror over Feralchild’s head. We would have to go back out. My poor quarantine birthday girl could not go without ice cream cake.
We also faced the dilemma of delivering cat cupcake toppers. Every year Feralchild gives her classmates little cat figurines. This year she still wanted to give her friends their cats. I decided we would have to hand deliver them. How do you do that safely, while in quarantine? Ninja cat delivery. We drove around to each friend’s house. Feralchild leapt out of the car, dashed to the mailbox, and hung the package off the mailbox at each house. Doing this safely was stressful for mom, but fun for Feralchild.
The night before her birthday, Feralchild was wired. She could not sleep. It didn’t matter that she didn’t get a party or get to see her friends or cousins. She was still dying for her birthday.
Finally, her birthday arrived. Feralchild demanded that we have cake and ice cream for lunch so she could open her gifts early. She got strawberry everything. There were strawberry marshmallows, strawberry jello with strawberry slices, and strawberry shortcake. Strawberry ice cream cake, kiwi strawberry juice, and strawberry lemonade. And giant strawberries tucked between each finger to make strawberry monster claws. Sticky sweet strawberry juice all over her face. And macaroni and cheese.
After we ate and tried to clean her face up, she opened her presents. It was a catstravaganza – she got a caticorn, some wild cat figurines, a cat sewing kit, and a cat wall decal. And a big bin of legos.
Her birthday surprise was still to come. It was the one thing I couldn’t control and had to trust someone else to deliver. At the appointed time, I took the kids outside. We put lawn chairs out on the front lawn, six feet away from the street. You could smell that fresh, furiously growing air, like spring stretching her fingers out through the dirt. We waited, somewhat patiently. Feralchild less than others. Finally we heard a siren and saw a line of cars coming down the street. Our honorary grandma had arranged a birthday parade. They decorated the cars with signs, balloons, and ribbons. Friends and neighbors waved as they drove by. Some tossed small bags and cards for Feralchild. She happily waved, clutching her cat figurines in her sticky fingers as they passed. When I watched the video later it only took a minute for them to pass, but it was one of the longest, happiest minutes of my life.
When I asked her later, Feralchild said her favorite part of her birthday was the parade. All my fretting over the food and the presents and the missing classmates didn’t matter. She was just happy to see some of her friends. We connected without touching, six feet apart and waving.