the $240 balloon animal (that wasn't a monkey) redux

The following was one of the first posts that I ever wrote.  It was originally published almost exactly a year ago, a couple of days after Brooke’s fifth birthday party. The party was arguably an unmitigated disaster.

I warn you now, the story’s not pretty. It’s not even particularly well written. Truthfully, the whole situation pretty well sucked. But if you’re willing to stick it out, I can promise you a happier ending than the original. Or maybe a happy new beginning.

One year later, you’ll find a story of redemption. A tale in which the supporting characters (the bumbling but loving Mama, the wonderful, supportive Dad and the delightful big sister) get a clue. And where our beautiful little heroine sings and dances, laughs and twirls, and shines her inimitable light on all those around her.

But first, let’s go back to April, 2008 ..


So I paid $240 yesterday for a balloon animal. And it wasn’t even a monkey. Brooke thought it was, though its creator was the first to admit that it had an EXTREMELY strong resemblance to a dog. Perhaps I should back up a bit.

As we approached Brooke’s 5th birthday (and by approached, I mean we were about 4 months from. Let’s just say Mama’s a little anal about planning parties) I asked her, as I always have, what she’d like to do for her party. Now in the history of Brooke’s birthdays, she’s never really seemed to understand the concept, and has never shown the slightest interest in helping to plan a party. So, that being said, I was floored when I brought it up on a drive into town and she made it clear that she had a plan in mind.

I had thrown out a couple of suggestions (the nearby kids’ gym? the tumblng house? the craft stop?) which were each shot down with an unceremonious ‘No’. Since no’s usually lead to dead ends, I wasn’t sure what to do next. I gave a shot at an opened ended question (not usually a wise idea) and said, almost to myself, ‘Well if you don’t want to do any of that, what are we going to do for your party?’ Imagine my surprise and delight when she firmly answered, ‘My party would be at home.’

I was so thrilled that she had an interest and seemed to have put some thought into this! Oh my gosh, I thought … we’ll have to have some kind of entertainment. Yes, I know how pathetic that sounds. What ever happened to the good old days of pin the tail on the donkey and a good old scavenger hunt? Yes, I know. I’d love a return to those days too, but life is a little different in our world. Here’s why.

Brooke is still in preschool. These are the days where we invite every class member, lest we leave anyone out. Besides that, I have to admit that I am so incredibly thrilled that Brooke has connected with some of the children in her integrated class, I want to do everything in my power to help foster those friendships. Sooooo, everyone it is. I just never thought of any other option.

Brooke’s ‘class’ is actually made up of two different parts. She spends 3 hours a day in an integrated room where a little more than 1/2 the kids have some sort of special needs and the other (almost) half are typically developing. She then spends the next 2 hours in an ABA based social pragmatics group with other children on the autism spectrum.

So, add those kids together, plus 2 others that are ‘friends’ because Mama and Daddy went through a ‘basics of ABA’ class (that became a defacto support group) with their mommies and daddies for 12 long, emotionally draining weeks, and what do you have? 24 kids, at least 2/3 of whom have some sort of special needs. Therefore, what you also have is a mom who has no idea how to get that group to line up for a rousing game of pin the tail on the donkey. So, that leaves me suggesting some local entertainers.

I suggested her new favorite children’s singer. No. Hmm. How about a clown? No. A magician? No. Uh oh. Then, almost rhetorically, ‘What are we going to do with all these kids at home for your party?’ And again, as though she’d been waiting to say it, each word slowly and precisely articulated, “I would have Big Joe at my party.”

Big Joe is a fabulous kid’s entertainer that she saw when the PTO had brought him in to do his thing for the kids at school. He’s this delightful story teller who comes with a trunk full of puppets, a repertoire of silly voices, and a wonderful connection to the kids.  Well, I was over the moon that she had something in mind (an interest! an opinion! the words to tell me!) so off I went to secure Big Joe.

Big Joe on retainer, handmade invitations on their way to all (gulp) 24 kids (and one favorite teacher!), the theme secured (Dora Halloween. Yes, Halloween. In April .. problem? I didn’t think so), cake designed, pizza ordered, house decorated to look like an ad for Nick Jr, 3 long tables and 24 little chairs rented, and we were ready to go.

We had set up the basement for the show and then planned to bring everyone upstairs for pizza and cake. Big Joe had the fantastic idea of making balloon animals for the kids as they filed in to keep them entertained before the show began. So, our proud birthday girl was first in line to get her balloon. Big Joe said, ‘OK, my dear, I have loads of animals I can make for you. I can make cats, dogs, bunnies, swans, snakes (hmm, I can make a snake I thought, just hand her the balloon), hats, horses and giraffes. So, of course, when he said, ‘So what would you like?’ she said, ‘A monkey.’ So he ran through his list again. And when he said, so which of THOSE would you like, Brooke?’ she got to say it again. ‘A monkey.’

Now here’s the thing. Brooke has some very consistent favorites, and, as is typical of a child with autism, she can be pretty particular about them. Color = red, Shape = star, Number = 2, Letter = Y, Animal = yeah, you got it  – monkey. So, she wanted a monkey. Anyone else thinking of that kid in The Wedding Crashers saying,  “Make me a bicycle, clown.”? Anyway, I digress.

Now Big Joe knows his audience and he confidently assured us all that although what he was about to make would have a striking resemblance to a dog, our little princess would absolutely love her ‘monkey.’ And he pulled it off beautifully. Ah, the power of suggestion. So she walked away happily clutching her monkey dog. Then the room began to fill. (Cue the doom doom ~ drama about to ensue~ music from Law and Order).

As the low ceilinged room filled, it became a sensory overload nightmare. The noise level skyrocketed. The kids ran from one end of the room to the other, children screamed for their parents, parents excitedly greeted each other. Brooke did what Brooke does. She shrieked and ran upstairs crying. We thought it wise to let her stay upstairs in the relative quiet and wait for all the kids to gather and get their balloons and then, when things calmed down and everyone was seated for story time, we’d head back down and join the party. We sat in her favorite chair and I sang in her ear to calm her.

So, for the first 20 minutes or so, Brooke’s party carried on downstairs without her. We broached the doorway to the stairs a couple of times but she balked immediately at the noise. But hey, it sounded like our guests were having a great time.

OK, time for the stories .. The big moment. The realization of my baby’s vision of her party. Big Joe. Telling stories. At home. With all her friends (and Joanie the teacher). Deep breath, here we go, Honey. You’re OK. Down the stairs. Mama will hold you. It’ll be OK. The kids are sitting nicely. But they’re laughing. Hard. And they’re wiggling around. And they’re gesturing along with Big Joe. And they’re shouting out excitedly. And the parents are laughing along with them in delight. And it’s her worst nightmare. And she panics. And runs. And we are upstairs. Again. And the party is going on without us. Completely. And she is shaking. And crying. And my heart is breaking for her. And for me. We sit in the chair. Again. I sing in her ear to calm her. Again. There are tears streaming down my face meeting hers. She curls up on me in the chair and rests her face on my chest. A mom walks into the room and tells me later she mistook us for a mother nursing a baby. I tell her that’s essentially what we were.

We can hear Big Joe from where we are. I encourage her to listen. At least maybe we can be a part of her party from here. I try to bring us to the door at the top of the stairs to listen better. It’s too close to the noise. She freaks, perseverating on the number 17. 17! 17! 17! We retreat. Again. Back to the chair. Again. I sing in her ear. Again. I comfort her. And me. Again.

Another little girl is now upstairs too. She can’t handle it either. I pass her mom in the hall as I hold Brooke, bouncing slightly as I sing. I’m holding a 5 year old, but I know that I look like I’m soothing a colicky baby. I pass another mom whose husband is walking her son around the neighborhood because he too had to escape the room. She sees my red eyes and quietly says, “This is what we do.” I feel better. And worse.

The show is coming to an end. Earlier, I had heard Big Joe telling the kids he was going to dress up as a princess in the last story. I’ve got it – a hook! I know she’ll want to see that. I sell her on it. She wants to give it a shot. We make it to the landing. We’re past the door. She hasn’t screamed. We’re making it down the stairs! This might work! I catch Joe’s attention and signal him to try to take the volume level down if he can. It’s too late. The kids are having a ball. They are laughing. They are yelling. They are having the great time we hoped they would. And all I want is for them to shut up so my sweet baby won’t lose it.

She’s in the circle! She’s sitting! Wait, someone jostles her. She’s looking around. She’s not comfortable. She’s getting anxious. I can see her body starting to tense. Damn it. She’s in an all out panic. It’s been 45 seconds and she’s yelling. And kicking. And looking up at me through tears, panicked, screaming at me, “I don’t want to stay!’ and it takes me a minute to piece together the words and understand her. And then I do. And then we’re upstairs. Again. in the chair. Again. And my heart is breaking for her. Again.

The show is over. Big Joe is packing up. And the kids are thrilled. And I’ve essentially just paid the nice man $240 for a balloon animal for my baby girl. So for heaven’s sake, please don’t tell her it’s not a monkey.

To be continued …

18 thoughts on “the $240 balloon animal (that wasn't a monkey) redux

  1. Oh, I remember reading this when I discovered your blog and went back to the beginning so as not to miss a single thing… made my heart hurt then, and that doesn’t change with the re-reading.

    I cannot wait to hear the happy new beginning!

  2. lord. we had this same party when miss m was little and had to have a “count” from sesame street party…i made numbers and little counts for weeks, and she screamed the entire time.

    spoiler: she learned to love her parties. i’ll bet Brooke does too?

  3. I’ve seen the pictures from this year and I *know* it’s sooo much happier and a raving success. But this? This just devastates me. Please hurry and write the rest? Hurry! Can’t cry all day you know! 😉 (What’s the emoticon for a funny, lopsided teary grin? That’s what I meant to do.)

  4. Yeah, we’re the family that didn’t do the full on birthday party until the boy turned 7. We learned the hard way at 3, and then settled into 3 years worth of backyard “parties” with 4 close friends and an hour time limit–just long enough to sing, eat cake and hand out goodie bags. But at 7, he was ready. I love the mom who quietly said, “This is what we do.”

  5. I did the same thing as JoyMama when I first found you – I read the archives. I remember seeing that photo of Brooke and thinking that she was the cutest birthday girl ever! And I totally identified with being a parent and handling sensory bombardment. It’s good to read this again, to remind ourselves of what a difference a year can make. Can’t wait for part 2!

  6. I remember reading this story. Its so awesome to write a blog and be able to go back and see all the progress our little ones have made. I hope that this year she had a great time!

  7. Mike ~ Big Joe was (and is) fabulous. We’ve seen him a number of times and he’s always a huge hit.

    He did a great job and made for a wonderful party for our guests. Unfortunately, thanks to her (then clueless) Mama, the party was just not something that could work for Brooke but hey, the rest of the kids had a blast.

    And yes, of course I tipped him generously.

  8. I also remember reading this story. This blog is a gift to Kendall – a beautiful record of her strength, courage and all the progress she has made. This blog is a gift to us – offering so much hope and encouragement. Can’t wait to read about the happy new beginning!

  9. I remember forking out a similar amount of cash for a gym party for my little one who spent the whole time sitting on my lap in a not very quiet corner. At least you caught on a whole lot faster than I did.
    Best wishes

  10. Didn’t you actually pay Big Joe $240 for a balloon animal, and to entertain the rest of your party so you could attend to your crying child….worth WAYYYYY more that $240 if you ask me.

    What happened to “He’s this delightful story teller who comes with a trunk full of puppets, a repertoire of silly voices, and a wonderful connection to the kids.” and “The kids were thrilled”

    I hope you tipped the guy.

  11. I’m sorry to hear about such a crazy time at your event. I’m an entertainer myself and I know how wild and crazy things can be sometimes.

    In fact, I just finished working a Walk Now for Autism here in Tampa and I have another Autism event this weekend I’ll be working at as well. So, I’m very aware of the different things that are associated with balloons and autism. From an entertainer’s perspective, it is sometimes very difficult to entertain a group of mixed needs children.

    I have to say though… I absolutely LOVE working with autistic children. As you mentioned, they usually know exactly what they want. For me, that makes things very easy. It is also great getting to meet their families. I’m always amazed at how awesome so many of them are.

    Best of luck on your next Party! I hope her 6th birthday was much, much better!

  12. Jonathan ~ thanks for writing. and thanks for bringing so much joy to our kids! it takes a really special person to do what you do!

  13. Pingback: send in the clowns « a diary of a mom

  14. Pingback: The Best Birthday Yet | Pucks and Puzzle Pieces

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