The Great Big Birthday Hug

This weekend we were invited to a lovely birthday party for one of the boys' friends.  As soon as Nico saw that the invitation promised a train ride, he was adamant that we just had to go.  "It's a real train ride, mom! Can we go? Can we go?  Please?"

And so, come Saturday afternoon, we were off to the big train party.  It was a gorgeous May afternoon in the park, and there were streamers to wave and trees to climb.  


I must admit that getting an invitation to a kid's birthday party is a bit of a stressful experience for me.  I over-think it, read over the invitation several times, and look at the calendar, praying there is something else already scheduled in that time slot.  When I see a big yawning hole in the calendar at the time of the party, I start with the questions.  Are siblings invited?  The invitation doesn't say anything about siblings.  Does that mean I should skip it if I don't have anyone to watch the uninvited brother?  Or should I ask if I can do a drop off?  Are these kids even old enough for drop off parties?  

Most of these parties are on Saturdays, and since Sam works on Saturdays, the divide and conquer option isn't available for us.  We are kind of an all-or-nothing birthday package, which is fine for our close friends and family, but what about invites from school friends?

And then there is the whole issue of what to get for a gift.  I hate walking down the toy aisle searching for a toy to jump out at me and look a) affordable, b) exciting, and c) just off-beat enough to not already be gathering dust at the bottom of the birthday boy or girl's toy box.  Incidentally, this toy buying stress is the primary reason we ask people not to bring gifts to our kids' birthday parties.  Of course, we are also trying to teach our kids to equate celebrations with loved ones, not stuff.  But in all honesty, the real reason we typically put the "no gifts please" statement on the invitation is to spare poor parents that deranged walk through the toy aisle where you find yourself asking your children, "What about this? Does Billy like this kind of thing?  Or this, what about this one?  Which one do you think he would like?"

I can make myself crazy with these things, which is why when I am handed a birthday invitation, I often just freeze for several long seconds, like it has sent an electric shock right up my arm and temporarily incapacitated my brain.  And then I drop the thing and walk away, telling myself I am probably busy that day anyway.  

The whole thing would be hard enough for a worry monster like myself if I had two typical children, but I find myself getting stuck on the Down syndrome thing when it comes to parties.  I worry that Linc will misbehave, or Nico's friends will ask him why his brother is different.  Many times Linc is not quite able to understand the games or participate in the crafts.  Usually, I just let him try and do his best, but if he starts to make a mess or be disruptive, I am stuck holding him off in a corner somewhere, trying to keep him from screaming bloody murder that I have taken him away from the fun.

Linc can do so much now, he can join in and play along so well these days, that I can almost foresee a day when we can attend birthday parties without incident.  In fact, this weekend, Linc was thrilled to be included in the party.  He waved his streamer with the best of them and followed the gaggle of party goers as they bounced back and forth between the craft table and the oh-so-tempting the cake table.  When it was time to board the train, Nico chose a seat up front with the birthday boy, and Linc and I slid in a few rows back.  As we rode, I thought about how much like the other kids Linc looked at that moment, waving his streamer and laughing and chattering.

As we climbed off the train and headed over for cake, I started to relax a little.  Things were going well, I told myself.  Perhaps I've just been underestimating what my boys are capable of, I thought.  After cake, the big kids went back to tree climbing, and the birthday boy's dad pulled out a beach ball to throw around with the kids on the ground.  No matter how hard he tried to throw his little leg up and pull himself onto the tree, Linc finally had to admit he was too short to join in with the climbing, so he happily threw himself into the beach ball toss.

And that's when it happened.  You see, I was busy trying to get this dang child to give me a normal smile, not one of those six year old plastic-face jobs he usually throws out.


Ah, but I relaxed a little too early and my attention was divided at a crucial moment. I was checking out my photographic gold when a very young little boy out in the park with his family tried to join in the beach ball game.  This poor little guy, who was not part of the birthday party, was just learning to walk, and I made the silly assumption that his parents would jump in and pull the little guy away from the game.  Instead, they smiled when he toddled over and tried to take the beach ball out of Lincoln's hands.

Well, by the time I saw what was about to unfold I was running, but wouldn't you know it, I was too late.  The boy pulled on the ball, and Linc pulled back hard enough to knock them both to the ground.  Again, it all would have been okay, it would have been just a little fall, but at that moment Linc noticed that he had the little guy pinned down on the ground in prime position to receive one of Linc's patented Hugs O' Death.  The parents were still smiling (the fools!) as I ran over and tried to dislodge Linc's fingers from their baby's neck.  See, what Linc does is hug and hug and hug.  He grabs people around the neck and hugs till it hurts.  Quite literally, till it hurts.

Now, our friends and his teachers know to expect the move, know how to help steer him away from smaller Hug O' Death targets who, understandably, are terrified by the move as it often knocks them over and turns into a wrestling style squeeze slash pin down.  But these poor parents had no idea it was coming and were, again understandably, shaken and angry about the attack on their little one.  

Those who know and love Linc always say that he just has too much love, that he's just hugging as hard as he can because he's so full of love.  And let me just say, I love you dear friends for seeing that because, generally speaking, that is the case.  Linc does not seem to be trying to hurt kids when he does the Hug O' Death; he genuinely seems to be trying to give them a hug.  He wraps his arms around their little necks with such joy, but he just does not know his own strength; and when the force of his hug knocks them both over, he just seems to panic and squeeze on for dear life.

I know eventually he will grow out of the Hug O' Death.  We've been working with him on this for years now, and for a long while he seemed to have gotten better.  The last few months, though, we've seen a resurgence of the Hug O' Death, and it is the one thing I would fix if I had a magical mamma wand that I could wave over him.  It worries me that people will see this as a violent act done by an untrainable child, an indication that the slurs and stereotyping about people with Down syndrome are true.  How can we show people that raising a child with Down syndrome isn't all that scary when our child is bowling their children over with terrifying hug attacks?

In the car, as we left the party, I was upset.  I was brooding on these questions that have no real answer and wondering if it would just be easier if we never left the house. I was still brooding when we got home and I sat down to look at the pictures I had taken, but Linc would have none of my pity party.  He curled up in my lap and looked at the pictures with me, oohing and aahing over his favorites.  He laughed out loud at the action shots, pointed and said "ball" when we got to the beach ball pictures.  When we'd seen them all, he rubbed my cheek gently and said "ma ma" and gave me kisses over and over again.  In that moment, I saw anew that he is, truly, so full of love, so full of sweet, undiluted love for people that comes out in a million little ways.  Sometimes that comes out as a great big birthday Hug O' Death, but far more often it comes out as following his brother around to play, as curling up in laps, as showering us with kisses, as rushing to comfort someone when they cry, or as an exuberant yelp of joy when someone he loves enters his line of sight.  It's not all great big birthday hugs, I reminded myself.  There are train rides and streamers and cake, too. 


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