By Jennifer Smyth
The minivans and SUVs all arrived at once. I held the screen door open as the girls bounced into the house. My daughter Holly had wanted a “Holly-ween” themed party for her 8th birthday and had invited the 12 other girls in her class. Since it was October, and school had just started a month before, there were a few new faces at our door.
One of those faces was framed by long brown hair that had wayward strands tucked behind one ear. Her name was Emily. The large smiling skull on her purple shirt stood in contrast to her petite frame as she almost tip-toed through the doorway and into the foyer. The last one to arrive, she was instantly enveloped by a throng of excited, screeching girls. Nick, my son, and Holly’s twin brother, was also jumping up and down with excitement, his arms straight and stiff all the way down to his wrists; his hands flapping wildly.
Although Nick went to a different school, most of Holly’s friends knew him from past parties and events. Their interest, curiosity or fear depended on their own personalities, prior experience with “a Nick,” or just the mood du jour. But he was a new experience for Emily. She took a step backwards and stared at Nick, who was a head taller than her and built like a linebacker.
“Emily, this is Holly’s twin brother Nick.” I said, kneeling down, keeping Emily to my left and shifting Nick to my right. And then knowing he was listening to me, despite the fact that his hands were still flapping and he didn’t make eye contact, I spoke to Nick.
“Nick, this is Emily. She’s in Holly’s class this year. Can you say Hi?”
Nick, completely wrapped up in the excitement of the moment, ignored my request and continued to jump and screech with glee.
I herded everyone into the living room, which was adorned with cobwebs and Jack-o-lanterns. Holly and Nick were having separate birthday parties and Holly had been involved in every aspect of the party planning, paying special attention to the décor. “Mom, it can’t be too scary,” she had said. Some of my friends won’t like that.”
Sure enough, we had to remove a dangling skeleton for one friend and a furry spider for another before getting down to the business of tossing bones into cauldrons. Emily was in the corner crying. Tiny little Emily, in a house she had never been to, with grown-ups she had never met and a boy who had very confusing behavior. I crouched down next to her, and saw Holly watching me from across the room.
“What is it sweetie?”
“I want to go home,” she sniffled. She was looking over my shoulder, nervously scanning the room. When she saw Nick, she visibly tensed and cried.
“Is it because of Nick?” I asked. She nodded.
It would be disastrous if she left the party before it even started. My heart ached for my misunderstood son and for my super sensitive daughter who would internalize her shame and anger. And perhaps worst of all, Emily would leave not knowing “a Nick.”
“Emily, please stay. We have lots of fun things planned.”
“I want to go home.”
“Emily, will you do me a favor? Will you be my special helper? You can stay right by my side. Will you try? If you still really want to go, I promise we can call your mom.” She nodded. I needed to show her Nick, not tell her about Nick. The scary skeletons and spiders could be removed, but Nick was permanent.
Although my husband Brendan and I were both home, we had enlisted the help of our niece, Amanda for the party. She had been our go-to babysitter for the last four years. The girls would be vying for her attention. In addition to being “young,” Amanda had beauty and charisma that rivaled the Disney stars the girls worshiped, and more importantly, she was a Nick expert.
Amanda was kneeling down helping one of the girls tie her shoelace when Nick came running up from behind, crashing into her with a big laugh. I pretended not to notice as I asked Emily to help me get the toilet paper ready for The Mummy Wrap. Just keep her close. Let her take it in.
Nick was playfully flicking Amanda’s hair and anticipating her response. She finished with the shoelaces and then reached around and grabbed Nick into a half hug, half tackle while her fingers disappeared under his chin and he laughed his infectious hearty laugh.
In groups of three, the girls raced to be the first team to use all their toilet paper to completely mummify one member. While Emily was safe inside the winding spirals of two friends’ rolls, I waved Brendan over. “Emily is afraid. Can you keep Nick happy, but on the outskirts as much as possible?” I whispered. “I don’t want her to leave, it will be so upsetting to Holly.”
The only problem I could foresee was if Nick wanted me and only me, which happened sometimes. In that case, he would zero in on me like a drone set on its strike zone. He would relentlessly pull at my arm and make loud vocal demands, until I either gave in, or Brendan removed him kicking and screaming. But for the moment Nick was happily ensconced in the chaos of the party.
Once all the mummy wraps had been cleaned up, Emily and I led the giddy girls into the kitchen where those who dared stuck their hands into dark holes to feel zombie brains, witches’ hair and frogs’ eyes. The girls squealed with disgusted delight. Nick came bounding in, grinning ear-to-ear and shrieking before running back out. Emily barely flinched. She had her hand inside a hole, no doubt wondering about the authenticity of what was dripping through her fingers as she squished it.
The girls gobbled up the bread stick “fingers” dipped in pizza sauce before the graveyard cupcakes. As they ate, Amanda summoned them to the living room for Halloween Bingo. I was back and forth from the dining room to the kitchen, clearing plates and getting drinks, until all the appetites were satisfied and all the chairs were empty, including Emily’s. Yay Emily! I exhaled. She had scooted off with the other girls, no longer needing me at her side.
Nick ping-ponged in and out of the rooms, with various levels of excitement; exhibiting the same behaviors that were novel before and which were now “just Nick.” When the front door creaked open for the first parent collecting her chocolate faced, party weary girl, Nick came running. Danielle, who was a regular at our house said goodbye to all the girls, and then turned to Nick with her hand up, “High five?” He high fived her as she left. When Emily’s dad came to the door, Nick came running once again. Nick and Emily were standing in the same spot where it had all begun a few hours earlier, but Emily wasn’t retreating. She was cautiously waiting. For what?
“Do you want to give Nick a high five?” I asked. She nodded. Nick smiled as she high fived him, and I whispered in her ear. “Thank you for staying. I’m proud of you”
That night after I tucked Nick in, I went into Holly’s room. She was sitting on her bed with a look that told me there was something on her mind. Her perfectly shaped lips didn’t turn up at the ends to smile and she had that lost-in-thought gaze, as if trying to solve a puzzle in her mind.
And then the invitation, “Mom?”
“There’s something bothering me. “
I had an idea where this was headed, but I waited.
“Emily was afraid of Nick at the party today.”
“I know sweetie.”
“It hurt my feelings.”
It had hurt mine too, but I didn’t tell her this.
“I understand, but remember, lots of people have never met “a Nick” before,” I said. “And Emily stayed even though she was afraid and by the time she left, she gave Nick a high five. That’s how things change, one person at a time.”
Holly pushed her long brown hair away from her face, and snuggled into her bed. I began to tuck her into her pink teacup-patterned sheets. She had outgrown both the color and theme of the sheets, but she hadn’t outgrown the ritual of being tucked in. First the sheet, then the blanket, and finally her down comforter. She would kick it all off before even falling asleep, but this was our ritual, and I would do it for as long as she would let me.
Jennifer Smyth is a work in progress. She lives in Fairfield, Connecticut with her wonderful husband and two amazing kids.
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