Ed note: A HUGE thank you to Helena, my new favorite reader of all time (except you, of course!) who photoshopped “Brooke” into the cake. While I had the tools to blur out her real name out, that was as far as I could go. Helena, you rock!
Brooke had been nothing if not clear. Her birthday dinner would be at home. It would consist of her favorite things: Daddy’s broiled salmon, white rice and birthday cake. The birthday cake would of course be chocolate and, in pink writing it would say, “Happy 8th Birthday Brooke and Kiki.”
Oh, have I not told you about Kiki? Kiki is Brooke’s imaginary twin sister. She is apparently named for two of her inventor’s favorite characters – the unreasonably perky member of the Fresh Beat Band and Cassie the dragon’s little sister on the Dragon Tales.
She pops up periodically, asking for a turn at games or helping to choose a voice for the team cheer at dinner. I’m told that she’s actually just one of many extra siblings that roam around the house. Finally counting heads once, I think we came to a total of ten (including the – well, actual children). But Kiki is special. She’s her twin after all.
Though I’d convinced Brooke that Kiki’s name was better left off the big cake for her party with her classmates, I couldn’t imagine why we couldn’t indulge her on the family’s cake. I called the order in on Wednesday. (Yes, I ordered my kid’s birthday cake. Don’t judge. This is triage, people. Mama barely has time to breathe this week no less bake.)
“OK,” the woman on the phone had said, “I’ve got, ‘Happy 8th Birthday, Brooke and Kiki’, right? You must have your hands full with twins, huh?”
I took the easy way out and simply said, “Uh huh.”
When Katie came with me to pick the cake up last night, it was nowhere to be found. It didn’t really matter as there were plenty of cakes in the case, any of which the bakery attendant said she’d be happy to personalize. We chose the one we wanted and then, again, I spelled out the inscription. Katie stood at my side as the woman wrote down the names, making sure she was spelling them correctly. “OK, so that’s ‘Happy 8th Birthday, Brooke and Kiki. Twins?”
Oh geez. What the hell was I supposed to say now? The easy, “Uh huh” was no longer an option as it would have been followed by a very confused ten year-old saying, “Um, Mama? You don’t have twins!”
But for God’s sake, how does one explain that – OK, well, um, hmm, well, you see, someone we love has autism and well, people with autism can have some pretty interesting quirks. In this case, our girl likes to talk about her imaginary twin sister and it was kind of important to her to have both of their names on her birthday cake, and so listen – life ain’t always easy for this kid and if we have a simple and painless opportunity to indulge her just a tiny bit and to make her feel like she’s got just a little more control over a world that for her so often spins out of control, well, damn it, we’re on board. So no, no twins. But hey, thanks for askin’.
Since that explanation didn’t seem particularly feasible, I did the next logical thing. I stood there, stuck like a deer in head lights. I had no idea what to say.
And then there was Katie, who apparently knew exactly what to say. “Ooh,” she said, “Mama, can I tell her? Please?Please?” She was nearly vibrating with anticipation.
The poor woman still holding the cake looked thoroughly confused. I couldn’t blame her. Nor could I save her. I was too busy feeling really awkward and hatching a plan to grab the cake out of her hands as it was and run for the door. But Katie seemed to have it covered.
“Sure, baby,” I said with a shrug. “Have at it.”
“OK,” she said, launching right in. She was looking the woman right in the eye, ensuring that she had her rapt attention. So often I have to remind myself that she’s only ten. “You see, my little sister has autism. And she likes to think that she has a twin sister, even though she’s really just imaginary. And her name is Kiki. She really wanted her name on the cake too so my mom said OK.”
The woman listened intently and when Katie was finished, offered her three words in response.
And there was no doubt that she meant it. She was grinning from ear to ear as she headed back to decorate the cake.
As we left the store, Katie was on hyper-speed. She was talking a mile a minute as we reached the first stop light. “Mama, that made me so happy. I mean, that woman totally GOT it, you know what I mean? Like she completely UNDERSTOOD my sister. It makes me feel so happy and like HOPEFUL. Do you know what I mean that it makes me feel hopeful, Mama? Is that weird to say? But it does, it makes me hopeful that there are people in the world that can appreciate that Brooke has such an AMAZING imagination and can think of things like an imaginary twin sister and that hearing about it would make them so happy. I mean, that woman totally GOT it, you know? She said it was awesome and you could totally tell that she really thought that.”
Katie was FIRED UP. Someone GOT it.
One interaction. One moment of connection. One more human being who showed a willingness to think outside the box and to celebrate a different perspective. One more person who would make the world just a little more welcoming to her sister. And in turn, to her.
What more perfect story is there than that on this, the eve of World Autism Awareness Day and the kickoff to an entire month dedicated to increasing awareness? A kid. Telling her story, making an impact and feeling hopeful.
And for the record, both Brooke and Kiki LOVED their cake.