Friday, April 8, 2011

Birthday boy reminds me of the best gifts in life

For weeks, I’ve been asking my soon-to-be 5-year-old what he wants for his birthday. He’s never wavered from his initial response: “Balloons, and party hats, and peanut butter sandwiches.” In fact, he rather convincingly maintains that “it isn’t a party without balloons and party hats.” And you have never seen a boy so enthusiastic about eating peanut butter.

I assure him that his dad and I can meet those requests, but I try to reframe the question by asking, “What would you like inside your presents?” He flashes me his signature grin and says, “Jelly beans and a package of balloons.” After asking the same question several times in different ways, it eventually dawned on me that I was making a simple situation far more complicated than necessary.

Amazingly, my son was focused on the experience of celebrating his birthday, and on the way he wanted his special day to “feel.” I, however, kept trying to boil down the celebration to something to unwrap. This boy has always relished simple pleasures, including things like jelly beans and curvy straws. His birthday requests reminded me, once again, that even as children what we most want and cherish in life are heartfelt experiences, not “stuff.”

So, the party itself will be our gift to him. This party will consist of a cake, made by grandma, in the shape of a hot air balloon. He’ll be sharing his cake and a platter of PB&J sandwiches cut into balloon shapes with our extended family. Bottles of soda, bunches of grapes and a few bags of chips will round out his birthday meal.

In keeping with the balloon theme, we’ll hang our birthday wreath on the door (a straw form with 72 balloons pinned to it) and fill our dining room with dozens of free-floating helium balloons. I’ll also hang the pennant bunting we used for the last round of birthdays at our house. And we’ll pass out party hats, of course.

He will have one small gift from us to open, though technically I consider it part of the overall experience. That present will be a t-shirt bearing a drawing he made a few months ago. He’d drawn it after I’d asked him to make a picture of something that made him feel happy. Not surprisingly, he drew a picture of himself, wearing a party hat and holding a bunch of balloons. (As funny aside, his drawing bears his sister’s name, because he can’t quite write his own.)

When I look at the details of his drawing, I see a moment captured in time, a moment when my little boy finds pleasure in the smallest of things. I want to do the same. I am so grateful for this balloon-loving boy who shows me that many joys in life are found in simple things. Planning a party that celebrates him and what he loves reminds me that, in any season of life, our lives can be rich in pleasures that cost very little.

Simple pleasures are even better when shared with family and friends. Planning my son’s party also reminds me that, despite my repeated attempts to find out what to buy him, this celebration isn’t about presents. Having people to celebrate with is perhaps the best gift of all. What I most want, and what I most want to give my son, are experiences that can be enjoyed with the people we love. And if those people happen to be wearing party hats and holding balloons, it will be a perfect birthday indeed.

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