There are many things on my list of things that scare me: puppets, clowns, carnies, and creepy Victorian dolls.
And now I can add one more thing to my list: teenage boy birthday party.
Weeks before my son turned 14, I started asking him how he wanted to celebrate this year. As it is with many things nowadays, my questions were met with a range of undead emotions, from stony silence to non-committal shrugs. Still, there was a glimmer of life in a random grunt or two that clued me into the idea that he wanted something to happen. So I grabbed onto that ray of hope and wracked my grey matter (brain, not hair) to figure out what would work.
The last year or so has brought enormous shifts in a million different directions — the days of play dates are long gone; now everyone just hangs out. And by everyone, I mean my teen and his friends. I can tell that the young’uns would prefer I really was the Invisible Woman; and in many ways I am. I just prepare snacks and sometimes meals, plop them down somewhere in their line of vision, and slowly back away.
Just to underscore how much things have changed, the Universe threw me a doozy: earlier this summer, my daughter discovered a slew of old DVDs of early birthday parties, and she tends to play them when I can’t help but watch (making dinner, folding laundry, paying bills — the staples of the domestic dungeon).
One in particular got me like a stake driven hard through my heart: my son’s third birthday party. It was a “swim” party, where soggy diaper-laden toddlers ran in and out of a couple of small plastic pools. I darted around in the background, handing out party hats, passing out Pirate Booty, and lifting the kids in and out of the pool. And when it was time for cake, the babies sang a sweet song that vaguely sounded like “Happy Birthday To You,” as my son blew out the candles in big, spitty puffs.
The days of the backyard kiddie pool party are long gone, and unfortunately, we don’t have a real pool to throw a proper teen bender of a fiesta. Googling “14-year-old boy birthday party” only yielded a lot of clueless moms like me looking for ideas, not doling them out. At least I wasn’t alone on my quest through the dystopian world of teenage guy birthday parties.
Finally, a lone result on my third or fourth attempt at Googling ideas popped out: a Walking Dead-themed laser tag party. My son is a huge fan of the hit Zombie show, and he’s turned all of his friends and me onto it. And while the idea of having everyone come in costume was met with a lip curl of disgust, I was given the silent nod to go ahead and book the event.
Little did I know the apocalyptic theme would be cemented by the horrible news that was announced the night before the party: George Zimmerman was declared not guilty for killing unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin.
As usual, I saw the news first on Facebook. Also as usual, there was an outpouring of emotion, none stronger than from a mom of one of the boys who would be at the party. She’d been following the story closely, and of all of her posts, this is the one that got me:
“My sweet [son] is black, wears a hoodie, eats Skittles and drinks Arizona tea… so today I prayed for everyone involved in this tragedy.”
I’d read this post from her before; it was her poignant re-posting on morning after the verdict that got me. Our boys are not babies, or toddlers, or even little kids anymore; they are teenagers who are now beginning to roam the world. And it can be a very dangerous place to be out there on your own — as evidenced by the Zimmerman verdict, particularly if you are black — but also if you are just trying out your punk teen look and the privacy and anonymity afforded by a hoodie, a slouch, or a stay-back scowl.
On days like this, in times like these, prayers are about all we have left in our arsenal to keep fear at bay and hope alive.
The rest of the day after the verdict was surreal, as I read the outcries from both sides. A few hours before the party, I shut down my computer, and got my game face on. After all, I was hosting a party that celebrated being a teen boy, which in a way felt like an antidote to the toxic bite the verdict took out of our society.
I thought I could hold it together, but the first sign of trouble was when the party coordinator asked me if I’d ever had a party there before.
Was it normal to have a catch in my throat while I stammered out yes, maybe a half dozen years earlier?
I didn’t add the fact that most of the same boys had been there, and now it looked like giant, lurking Zombie men had eaten those tiny little dudes whole.
As the boys hung out in the arcade, and then later went in to play laser tag, I couldn’t help but brush away a tear or two. Next year these old school chums are lumbering off in different directions, to new schools, with new friends, and on their way to the last chapter of their childhood.
The scary scrawl was on the wall: This is the end (of an era).
The birthday song this time was low and deep, and as my son blew out his candles in the same big, spitty puffs as always, I made a fervent wish: that all of these boys who I have watched grown from squeaky little kids into newly minted men will have the sense and the luck to be drawn to where the love is, safe from the apocalyptic vision of those who lead their life guided by fear and prejudice.
The George Zimmermans of the world.
So if you see me waving a samurai sword like my favorite Walking Dead character Michonne, just know that’s your reminder to keep moving for justice and to keep faith and hope alive by taking action, protesting failures of our laws and our lawmakers, and continue to help move our world forward to a brighter future — not for ourselves, but for the walkers of this planet that we have created: our children.