A few months into quarantine, on the flatbed of my copier, I found a crude drawing of three characters marching purposefully to the left. It looks like a painting on an ancient Greek vase, though not silhouetted, because then you couldn’t see the buttons on Mickey Mouse’s shorts. All the characters are saying “OMG,” apparently in response to the gigantic message emblazoned across the top of the page: “FACHIN PARTE SOON.”
Seven years of interpreting the grunts, squeaks, slurred babble and Neolithic orthography of our three little girls led me to the conclusion that there was to be a “fashion party.” We didn’t know when it would take place, just that it was ominously “SOON.”
My dread over the impending event nearly made me forget my middle daughter’s fourth birthday, which was, in fact, soon after this notice was surreptitiously copied and taped all over the house. “Is the fashion party for your sister’s birthday?” I asked the oldest. “Ugh, no, daddy. She gets a birthday again?”
Have you ever tried to put a bouquet of helium balloons in the back of a minivan? It’s like wrestling a bear with a dozen heads, one of which occasionally explodes. I did it, though. In an annual ritual of paternal devotion, traditionally performed at our local Party City, I masked up to rob the universe of a few precious drops of normalcy. They didn’t last long; I took them and the balloons back to a house where no one was furiously cooking and cleaning and decorating in anticipation of the usual invading army of tiny freeloaders dragging their captive adults. “To hell with it,” we said, “no one is coming over this year. Let the spirits of dust and clutter and gift wrap carnage have the whole damn house, now and forever.”
We settled on a parade for her, so that parents and friends could scream their birthday wishes from the safety of their cars. The problem is that we live on a dead-end street. I don’t mean a cul de sac; there’s an actual wall at the end. A drunk driver plowed through it a couple of months ago, but he was running from the police, and smashing into walls to get away from cops isn’t necessarily frowned upon here in Southern Indiana. We actually think it’s kind of cool. Still, you’re not supposed to pass through, so the parade participants had to do a quick qualifying lap, then circle back around for the “real” “parade.”
Even without the dead ends, if you’ve attended one of these makeshift parades for a child’s birthday, you know that they are both profoundly sweet and sad all at once. People you’d normally be drinking with drive by slowly enough that you can read their signs, see their streamers and funny hats and maybe even identify them. The whole thing is over in 15 minutes. Then, the cars disappear, coming back sometime maybe, but who knows when. Soon?
The kids scampered away from a woman who’s been like an aunt to them, but they didn’t recognize her in the “Mortal Kombat” mask, nor did they understand that the thing wrapped in latex she was hurling into our yard was a carefully sanitized birthday gift. Our three girls all congregated around another van whose driver stopped to shout muffled pleasantries with my wife, while two of their friends were hanging out of the windows. They handed dandelions back and forth to each other, laughing like it was a real party, while all the parents were paralyzed because we didn’t know what the rules were, or if we were going to follow them.
Then, we saw a whole class full of kids spill out into a school playground less than 100 steps from our house, some of them masked and some not. We’ll all have to explain that one, we thought. We did a pretty good job of fielding Easter — that’s easy. The introductory birthday seems to have gone OK. But Halloween is coming and Thanksgiving and Santa Claus and another birthday and another birthday and another. It’s OK, we keep saying. Things will be back to normal soon.
We project so much of our own grief and anxiety onto our kids that it’s worth wondering if they are grieving or anxious at all. I’m not even sure what a “party” means to them now. Looking at a bunch of heads on Zoom? A parade of sedans and SUVs with faceless drivers? Shouting at each other under a gazebo for 10 minutes while everyone eats their own sandwich out of a plastic bag? What will they miss? What will they be expecting? What do we need to explain?
I don’t know what “soon” means to them either. Hell, I don’t know what it means to me.
When we were still driving everywhere, one of them would dump some milky substance in the back of my car at least once a month. For a day or two, the scent is barely noticeable. For a week, it is the worst thing anyone has ever smelled. The creatures in their booster seats howl at me, asking when the stench will go away. “Soon.” Then, all of a sudden it’s gone, like it was never there to begin with, and we don’t think about it until it happens again.
Soon is no longer a source of anxiety — or hope — once you forget what you were waiting for. We say “they’re growing up too soon,” and yes, that makes me anxious. But already I forget their little sayings, their malapropisms, their ever-vanishing, babyish peculiarities, unless they have been documented somewhere. And even then I refuse to look at the proof, because thinking too much about that kind of loss probably isn’t healthy.
Better to look ahead. I know there’s a FACHIN PARTE SOON because the notices are still taped all over the house. I can’t take them down, because I’m still waiting for the party. I hope I didn’t miss it.
Dan Canon is a civil rights lawyer and law professor. “Midwesticism”is his short-documentary series about Midwesterners who are making the world a better place. Watch it at: patreon.com/dancanon.