Happy Birthday Lil D – Not so Lil Anymore

It isn’t a celebration unless we eat biryani, and that our family did – in two different continents.

I woke yesterday morning to the sound of bleating goats in the front yard. Normally it would’ve been the sing-song sounds of Lil D roaming the house, as he gets up pretty much as early on the weekend as he does on the weekday. But he is not here with me. He is far, far away, like a line out of a fairy tale.

I am in India. He is at home in Virginia with my parents. And I am not with him on the monumental occasion of his 13th birthday. But he is always with me.

I knew when we planned this trip to India that I would be missing two extremely important celebrations with Lil D – his birthday and Eid-ul-Fitr at the end of Ramadan. But the timing of our trip had to be now for a myriad of reasons. As I’ve mentioned before in previous posts, holidays and celebrations seem to have little meaning on Lil D, due to the severe nature of his autism. In fact, trying to make a big deal out of a holiday can have the opposite effect on him if it overly upsets his natural routine.

But still, I stubbornly hold on the semblances of “normal” celebration practices – we’ll have a special dinner and cake and candles on his birthday. He may not blow them out or even come to the table when the cake is presented, but cake will be served. On Eid holidays, we almost always take him to our congregational prayers with us, though it can be a stressful situation for all of us to be able to pray and navigate the crowds with him.

I don’t want to sell Lil D short – maybe inside he recognizes and appreciates the efforts we make to celebrate his birthday and include him in holiday celebrations in whatever way possible. Maybe it is as important to him as it is to us.

Or, maybe it just doesn’t register with him. Maybe he could care less. Maybe it’s just for us – his family – to do something extra on his special days like we do for our other children. A lot of raising Lil D and helping him to manage his autism is striking that balance: What do we teach him and expect him to do because that’s part of what it means to be a family, and what part of it is for our benefit – to make us feel like we’ve done something for him.

And so, in the days before his 13th birthday, I sunk into sadness at not being able to physically be with him on his special day. Not being able to eat biryani with him. Not being able to make him a cake or brownies. Not being able to take him swimming. (One of the few activities he enjoys, and even that is hit or miss.) And though I knew it wouldn’t rock his world not to have us there making a fuss, it rocked my world.

Then the morning dawned, and the goats bleated. And I woke in India, a trip made possible by the herculean efforts of family, friends, therapists, babysitters and infinite prayers. A trip made possible only by the grace of God. I went downstairs and Lil D’s baba and I petted the goats, which were prayed over and then sacrificed by my husband moments later as an act of sadaqa (charity) on behalf of Lil D.

On the stone patio behind my in-law’s home, the meat was cleaned and chopped up by a butcher and then parceled out to numerous people in need. We kept a little in our home to make Lil D’s birthday biryani. Because by God, we were going to eat biryani and cake in his honor.

I emailed my parents and made a date to do a Skype video call with them after we broke our fast in the evening and prayed Maghreb. By then, it was the morning of his birthday, and Lil D was eating breakfast under the watchful eye of my mom. We all crowded around the computer in an upstairs bedroom of my in-laws home in Hyderabad, with the sounds of the street and people calling to each other coming through the open windows.

There he was on the screen – a plush bear stuffed up his shirt, his favorite red Maryland Terrapins baseball hat perched on his head, making his sing-song noises. Bhai! Lil D! Meri Jaan (my darling), we all cried out – happy birthday!

“We’re making biryani for his dinner tonight and brownies too,” my mom told me. “We’ll make sure to take some pictures!” And in that moment, there was no sadness, no tears — just an ache to be with him and happiness to see him calm and comfortable in his home, in his routine, with family who loves him to the moon and back.

Oh my darling. I gave birth to you 13 years ago when I was a naïve young woman, married barely a year with no idea on how to raise a child. You made me a mother. You put Jannat (heaven) beneath my feet. You laid bare for me the depths of what it means to be a mother. You turned my world upside down so many times that I lost count. You revealed strength in me that I never knew I had. You have given me the gift of clarity, insight, realness, compassion, kindness, care, despair, anger, frustration, hope, determination and resilience. You have brought me to Him, on my knees, when there was nowhere left to turn.

As we watched Lil D on the computer screen, roaming about the house while eating his breakfast, he babbled maw-maw. “He said ‘Mamma’ when you said ‘Happy Birthday,’” my mom said to me.

And I chose to believe.

About Dilshad Ali

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