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Unexpected Birthday Gifts

August 26, 2020


Our son, Patrick, who has autism, just turned 18 in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. We had planned to celebrate Patrick’s special day with family but that plan did not materialize due to the state of emergency and “Stay Home, Stay Safe” Executive Order that was about to be signed by the Michigan Governor, Gretchen Whitmer, the very next day.

Unexpected Birthday Gifts

I woke up on Patrick’s birthday with conflicting emotions—the joy and gratitude for the last 18 years of my son’s presence in my life, worries about the pandemic and what the future holds, and uncertainty of what my child’s important day would turn out to be like.

My heart was heavy with sadness that we could not celebrate Patrick’s big day with the people we love.

Patrick woke up that morning with a big smile and requested bacon, his favorite breakfast food. I wished him Happy Birthday, showered him with hugs and kisses and started making breakfast.

In the background I could hear him play a video from one of his birthday celebrations from three years ago with family gathered together singing the Happy Birthday song in two languages, English and Polish.

I will never know if it was simply a coincidence or deliberate choice on Patrick’s part to pick a video from the last birthday celebration with his beloved grandmother and my mom. She died of cancer two years ago. I choked up a bit when I realized the timing of that moment he brought back to life. Mom is no longer here and for the first time we faced the reality of celebrating our son’s birthday without the usual presence of family.

Patrick’s birthday brought some unexpected gifts and surprises during these unprecedented times and unusual circumstances. He received many virtual messages and calls that day. One of them was a touching video made by his school speech therapist that included Happy Birthday song and virtual candle that Patrick could “blow out” time and time again.


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My colleague and a dear friend dropped off a handmade birthday card from her daughter and left it in our mailbox. The wishes pouring in that day provided a sense of connectedness and the loving presence of our family and friends in our lives, in spite of the physical distance separating us.

Later in the day we took a long walk in our family’s favorite park, Maybury State Park. We hiked the trails, studied maps and did some hands-on activities like feeling different textures – the roughness of a tree bark, cold and smooth surface of a giant boulder and the softness of moss.

On the way back to the parking lot, Patrick managed to walk the entire way backwards with a big smile on his face. He looked at me, our eyes interlocking, with a sense of love and trust. I could almost hear his thoughts wrapped up in the gentle breeze: “Mom, we’ve got this. It will be okay.”

By the time we made it back to the parking lot I was in tears. I was grateful for that day with my son feeling more alive and present in the moment than I had in a very long time. Despite the unprecedented times and unusual circumstances our precious son’s birthday turned out to be a very special celebration after all.

This article was featured in Issue 103 – Supporting Emotional Needs

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