My birthday is this week. I will be forty-two years old.
Anyone who knows me knows I love my birthday. I was born on September 21st—the first day of autumn—a time in New England when the weather is breathtakingly glorious and one by one the leaves on the trees turn a brilliant gold-red-orange. The sky is so blue it makes your heart ache.
This year, though, I am having what’s called an un-birthday because my 12-year old son, Jack, will not be home.
See, Jack has autism.
He is rigid. He loves routine. Like a small tugboat bobbing in the tide, he is moored by the regular, predictable intervals of holidays and celebrations—especially birthdays.
With five kids and a puppy, our family basically has a birthday every other month. Jack begins planning each one about two weeks ahead of time.
Chocolate. For Charlie wants chocolate for the cake.
But this year Jack will be away white water rafting with his new school for two nights and three days.
Jack never goes anywhere. He’s only been to two birthday parties, and one of them he had to leave early because he got too anxious to talk. He’s never been on a sleepover.
Aside from school, he spends the majority of his life by my side, connected to me by some kind of invisible, tenuous umbilical cord.
And yet this week, he will raft down a river with thirty-five kids he’s just recently met. At first, he refused to go.
I can’t miss. For your birthday. I have to make the cake.
But then we promised him—pinky promise, cross-my-heart kind of promise—that we would not celebrate until he gets back. No special dinner. No party. No cake.
I’m going to be forty-two.
I love my age, I really do. There are so many fantastic things that come with the forties.
I know exactly who I am. I hate crowds and I love comedy shows.
I like to have a little coffee before anyone talks to me in the morning and I don’t mind cooking as long as someone else does the dishes.
I love cupcakes with pink frosting, but I can’t even look at scrambled eggs with ketchup on them.
I am finally figuring out what it means to be married.
This age is good. It is very, very good.
But I have to say, something weird happens to us women in our forties. I’m not talking about the eyesight thing—the way we have to hold our phone out from our faces and squint at it and then hold it further away and then bring it closer while our kids snicker into their fists.
Okay, okay, now I see it!
I mean the other stuff, like the way I don’t recognize anyone in People Magazine anymore because the celebrities are so young.
And the way women my age in commercials and advertisements only seem to wear tunics.
Or how I haven’t really gained any weight, yet there is an all-over softening of my body; in my hips, my knees, my jawline.
You’re beautiful, he tells me over and over again. I love the way you look.
I know he means it. I know he is delighted by the shared history in my face and my body; the way my once angular edges are subtly softening, the way my feet grew a half a size with our last baby, even the small scar on my left thumb from when I cut myself slicing garlic bread on Christmas day.
But when I move throughout the world, the translation is mislaid—lost. In the glaring overhead lights at Wal-Mart, my scar is jagged, and pale. My feet look too big. Standing at the cash register paying for paper towels and laundry detergent, I am exposed and unmasked, save for my tunic.
I know, I know. I could tuck and pin and lift. I could do something scary called microderm abrasion. I could buy low-slung jeans and sparkly tops and have a stylist glue on extra-long eyelashes. But that’s not the point. It’s not my point, anyway.
I am a 40-something housewife. At one time or another, I became just the littlest bit invisible to the outside world.
Look at me! I want to shout to the salesgirl who looks through me, over my shoulder. She glances at the lit-up screen on her phone, bored.
Do you see me? I am right here.
I used to be you.
I used to be young and a little cute and sometimes men would notice me.
Now, I am someone else.
I am a wife mother sister friend daughter neighbor volunteer.
I am a sometime writer, and an everyday reader.
I am the hand trying trying trying with all of my might to stretch autism’s umbilical cord longer and wider without breaking it.
I have a story to tell. Every woman does, but when we hit our forties it feels like there is a perpetual need to defend who we are and how we got here.
They call us soccer moms.
They say we wear mom jeans.
We drive loser-cruisers.
And if I wandered onto a construction site now, the hard-hatted foreman would probably ask me if I was lost.
I hate it. I hate the way we are relegated to a Stepford Mom-like legion, and in the fastest blink of an eye, the job of caring for our family and shuttling our children around has become unlovely, and unsexy.
We all have a story. This is mine.
I have five kids.
I have four boys and one girl and they are in this order: boy-boy-boy-girl-boy.
My second boy has autism. He always has. He always will.
I write about it all. Not so that people will listen, but so that I may hear. Writing helps me hear the everyday sounds which may otherwise go unnoticed; the heart song of my ordinary life.
I don’t even know what I’m going to do without my Jack-a-boo this week. I will think of him every minute of every hour while he’s gone, and I will wonder if he’s happy or scared or nervous or homesick or if he’s lost his glasses or his socks are wet.
He hates when his socks are wet.
This Wednesday is my un-birthday. It will be, as pinky-promised, a day without fanfare or festivities. And yet, there is more to celebrate this year than any other year I have been on the planet.
It is the start of a new season for me and for him and for us and for autism—a beautiful blue-sky autumn of falling leaves, brilliant color, and progress and change.