There’s something about birthdays that have always made them extra special for me. In my first few years of life, my family members and family friends gathered around me showering me with gifts – after all, every daughter deserves a nice bike, some new books, and the latest toys. As I got a little older, my parents helped me to plan birthday parties inviting the girls in my class and neighbourhood kids over for games and other activities. Then when I got into university I took the fancy approach of inviting some of my best friends out for dinner as well as having an open party in our suite where everyone from the dorm floor was invited to share in pie and water gun fights (for those who don’t know, my birthday is March 14th which is pi-day so pie was to be expected at such a gathering…the water guns…not so much, they were later confiscated by my Resident Advisor’s as contraband due to a silly rule stating we were not allowed to play with water in the halls…they were later given back to me but only after I promised not to squirt the RAs and after I was successfully doused myself). And then, of course, there was the time when much to my introverted roomate’s chagrin I invited the entire school up to our apartment for a potluck. Lest you think I was taking advantage of her, she agreed to the party about a month in advance, however, I think she may have been expecting closer to 13 rather than 30 people to show up.
Regardless of how small or large my gatherings have been, whether they have been potlucks after church or a dinner with three of my best friends, birthdays to me represent celebration and celebration to me represents community and a spirit of being together.
This year, I also had a birthday party, but it looked much different than any others I have ever been to. This year I did not plan a fancy outing or indulge in my guilty pleasure of hamburgers. This year, my party took place at L’Arche (an intentional community for adults with developmental disabilities) and around the circle were my new friends who I’ve only known for 8 months. My friends have spirit, charisma, and passion. They are devoted to me and love me for who I am accepting my deepest dreams. They cheer me on, inspire me, and gently chastise me when they think I’ve gone too far with my corny jokes. My friends also happen to have autism, down syndrome, cerebral palsy, and bipolar disorder.
At L’Arche we do celebrations very well and birthdays are no exception. Although the party itself was held on March 23rd (due to me being at a retreat on my actual birthday), the festive mood actually happened long before that. Way before the actual day (back in February) one of our core members, excitedly began telling everyone, “we just finished Jordan’s birthday. Deborah’s is next.” (Jordan is one of the other assistants at my house). Over and over she repeated the question, “when’s your birthday? How will you celebrate? Who will you invite over?” As February came to a close and March approached, the questions began to become more and more intense. “What do you want for your birthday? What should we make?”
Finally, the week before my birthday it was decided that we would have chicken for the meal and a panda cake. The person we are celebrating always gets to decide what type of cake they will want and this year I was adamant that I was going to have a panda cake.
The core members (residents), of course, had their own ideas. You see, chicken and a birthday gift related to a panda theme were not entirely what they were thinking of. They wanted to have hot dogs and hamburgers for my birthday. Forget about the fact that it’s still Canadian winter and there’s snow on the ground, they were ready to pull out their shorts and have a barbeque on the patio outside. When we convinced them that they might have to wait until the summer for the BBQ their next suggestion was to order pizza or Chinese take-out. They were thinking of all the foods which they enjoyed the best and figured because they liked it I must also want that. Finally, when we convinced them that we would be having something homemade, Darryl (one of the core members) proudly blurted out, “Deborah, I’m gonna cook for you. I’m making you spaghetti!” To which Mary-Anne (another core member) who is best friends with Darryl was not going to be seen as the runner up or the one to not participate so she boldly proclaimed “And I’m making the cake!” When it came to who would do dishes after the party…well, that one was a bit harder to convince the core members about!
At dinner on Sunday night we all gathered around the table as the chicken was served by the community chef (not really, but he’s the best cook amongst everyone at L’Arche). After we were done eating, the chef said, “I’m going to go downstairs to do something and I’ll be right back up.” This was supposed to signal a surprise, but core members can never keep anything a secret, so Jenna blurted out, “He’s going to get the cake!!!” Well, that was the end of that.
When he came upstairs with the cake, all of the core members began singing happy birthday. To me it didn’t matter that half the words were missing, that they were completely off tune, and that there was an awkward pause when they came to my name. To me the song was a beautiful melody and I knew that it was not just a cliché thing but coming from the heart.
After we shared the cake together, we began our tradition of going around the circle and sharing the individual’s “gifts” with each other. This is a beautiful practice at L’Arche and honestly is one of those moments when you just feel so good inside. I’ve sat around the table many times when core members have shared about an assistant’s gifts or vice versa, but now it was my turn. I wasn’t expecting to be so emotional about it and in fact I didn’t even realize I was being emotional until Darryl proposed a toast to which Mary-Anne looked at me with a worried expression on her face and said, “Deborah, what’s wrong? Why are you crying?” I hadn’t even realized that a tear had slid down my cheek.
If you ask my friends what my gifts are they would say something like that I’m loyal, passionate, and that my faith means a lot to me. I have never felt comfortable claiming my gifts, though, because I grew up with this mindset that to say you have achieved something or are good at something was haughty and perhaps would make others who don’t share those same abilities and talents feel badly about themselves. So up until this year if you asked me what my gifts were I would try to avert the conversation. However, L’Arche has taught me that there is great strength in naming your gifts and that we have the right to be proud of accomplishments we have met.
When the core members shared about my gifts, I realized how much the little daily interactions I have with them really mean. It may not seem like a lot when I help them wash their feet, but to them this is an act of dignity and respect. To me reading a bed time story with a core member might feel like a pleasant way to end the day, to them it means that I value them enough to give them one-on-one attention. Having core members tell me that I’m their best friend is perhaps one of the greatest feelings I can ever have. One of the core members offered to take me to McDonald’s after church for my birthday lunch and another (perhaps trying to one-up him) said she was going to take me to Tim Horton’s (a Canadian doughnut chain), followed by seeing a movie on the big screen with me, and then we were going to finish the whole day off with Big Macs! In that moment I was reminded of just have fortunate I am to have friends like this.
Yes, birthdays are always special times regardless of how you celebrate. But, if I really feel like being bold, may I make a recommendation? At your next party invite a friend or two who has a developmental disability. What you’ll find there is just a whole lot of warmth and love. It will truly be a birthday to remember!