After Bunky’s diagnosis, once we plied her back to health with outrageous amounts of gluten free chicken fingers and banana bread, one of my goals was to help her feel like a normal kid again. No easy feat because every social situation, every family event, is almost always centered on food – and nothing proved more difficult than birthday parties.
I used to dread bringing Bunky to birthday parties even before celiac because she HATED them. She was terrified of crowds and burst into tears at the first bars of the Happy Birthday song. We made a monstrous error of judgment and had a party for her when she turned two. In a word: disaster. She was fine when it was just a few people, but once the crowd grew she totally freaked.
But the real issue was friend birthday parties, which seemed to pour in after her diagnosis especially when she started preschool. After a few big fails (like the frosted rice krispie treat I packed for a school celebration instead of a cupcake) I realized something pretty obvious: B wanted to be like her friends, which meant she wanted her GF treats to look just like the G ones.
I leapt at the chance to right this wrong for my girl. I was determined to make her treats look the same. It couldn’t be too hard, right? Especially for the school parties which were almost always cupcakes. Just get the cake and frosting type from the parent and bake my own version. No problem. Or so it seemed…
My first official attempt at imitation was a double chocolate cupcake with one m+m on top. Bunky was thrilled, as chocolate and m+m’s are her favorite things in the world.
I nailed it. Even the teacher was flustered by how remarkably identical mine looked next to the G version. The reality of how close we could have come to a gluten mistake went over my head because I was so thrilled.
Too thrilled. I got a little cocky.
There was just one small problem. People are fickle, especially kids, when it comes to birthday cake. They change their minds. A lot. There was the yellow icing that ended up being green. The vanilla cake that was chocolate. You get the idea.
Don’t get me started on the after school parties with professional bakery cakes shaped like princesses and fairies, decorated with sugar spun flowers and fancy piping along the edges.
You would think I’d have caught on by now, that I was attempting the impossible, but no.
The answer found me, finally, at a friend’s fourth birthday party this fall. A whole year after my initial promise to Bunky. This friend’s mom happens to be gluten intolerant and was such a tremendous help and support to me when B was diagnosed. She offered to bring cupcakes from a fantastic bakery, which I accepted, but I also asked her for the cake info so I could attempt a copycat for Bunky.
Purple princess cake. Whoa. All I could do was imitate the yellow cake and make some pretty purple frosting. That would have to be enough.
For some reason, though, I became obsessed with this cake. My mind went in circles about the princess theme, and how or if I could possibly make my slab of cake look special. Then the morning of the party, I had a sudden realization. It wasn’t possible.
My princess cake would not look like the birthday girl’s princess cake. This understanding stung. After all, I had been trying for a year to perfect my imitations, but I also felt something that surprised me: a sense of relief. I could let go of trying for perfection that was clearly unattainable.
The next day when we arrived at the party, the first thing I heard was another family oohing and ahhing over the gorgeous princess cake. I steeled myself, shaking off the cringe that automatically shot onto my face, and walked over to say hello. As I approached the table with the cake I couldn’t believe my eyes. It wasn’t purple at all, but pink. Pink!
The mom, who did absolutely everything to make sure all the snack food was safe for my girl, said her daughter changed her mind at the last minute. She was sorry she didn’t tell me. I brushed it aside, no problem, it’s okay. And it was, obviously! But my insides quaked as I took in Bunky’s expression. She asked me in a quiet voice why the cake wasn’t purple. I kept my tone neutral when I answered. The moment passed and the party was wonderful, filled with lots of friends, a cool princess art project that Bunky loved, then pizza, Udi’s for my girl, and cake. There was an issue with finding a gluten free fork of all things (note to self, bring flatwear) but Bunky ate her entire, rather large, purple frosted square and the cupcake my friend brought her. Around her all the other kids dove into their pink squares. I saw B watching, but the other kids were watching her too. Not everyone had two desserts.
She was happy. It was okay. I know she noticed the cake, though, because later I heard her describing it in vivid detail to her dad. How pretty it was. How pink.
But now I finally got it. This birthday party opened my eyes to what seems so obvious. No matter how hard I try to make my girl’s cake look the same, I can’t. No matter how much Bunky wants to be the same as her friends, she can’t. Because she’s different.
I’m going to have to explain this to her sometime soon. I will tell her our cupcake may not look exactly like the gluten one, but that’s okay.
Because it’s going to taste awesome.