On having cake and eating it, too.

Two Saturdays ago, Elbee turned one to as much fanfare as any kid, who won’t remember a single thing that happened to her that day, can possibly imagine. We bought her a string of fine pearls: her first wedding present or, if she thinks marriage is shit for the birds, that fancy thing she wears because it’s Tuesday and she’s fabulous. We rented out an indoor play space. I crafted party decorations and made a carefully-organized playlist of songs I could hardly listen to for the way they took me back to driving home from the hospital or rocking a newborn or launching into spontaneous dance to quiet an impending crying jag. The Papa Progenitor hired a photographer I didn’t know about until we pulled into the parking lot and saw her standing there with a zoom lens. Elbee’s great-grandmothers (along with over 30 other people we genuinely like) showed up to help celebrate. And there was cake. Lots of it.

There was the cake we ordered for guests: a tallish rainbow confection topped with gum balls, that was met with the ooohs and ahhhs you’d expect when you pay someone to make cake fancy.

And then there was the other one: The one I made myself just for Elbee because we couldn’t identify a single baker in all of Boston whom we trusted well enough to cook sans our daughter’s allergens. So I took a stab at it, and my handiwork vaguely (or quite accurately) resembled unicorn poop crushed below the heel of a nasty-ass giant. It was a multi-colored caketastophe.

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I might have appreciated the shear irony of the whole situation a little sooner if I could have stopped myself from wondering, even for a moment, how something that was supposed to go so very right could possibly go so totally wrong.

Instead, I thought to last July 11. That was the Wednesday after the Sunday we noticed a not-insignificant amount of blood in Elbee’s poo, the Wednesday after the Monday Baby-Daddy returned to work, the Wednesday after the Tuesday on which Elbee was diagnosed with food allergies and allergic colitis, the Wednesday Elbee choked on her own vomit and I joined the ranks of parents who get to save their kids’ lives. (To be clear, giving back-pats to an actual baby is nothing like the synthetic one on which you practice to get that wallet card that says you’re CPR-certified.) And that was only the beginning.

Elbee cried often, laughed rarely and hurt much. We learned she suffered from serious GERD. Nearly once a day for the next couple of months and a few times a week after that until she was no less than seven months old, and despite an aggressive regimen of grown-up medicines and consults with some of the best doctors in the world (literally), our kid projectile vomited whole meals, gagged on purees and puffs, developed texture aversion and, finally had the good sense to reject all but a bottle of a hypoallergenic, pre-digested formula which is, largely, still as much as she eats. At 10 months old, she was enrolled in a clinic for children with feeding disorders. She doesn’t self-feed bottles or sippie cups. She refuses most food offered to her by her parents. (She associates us with meal-time trauma because we had the misfortune of being with her when she experienced it. It might have been a daycare worker or a grandparent, but it wasn’t. It was us. And, to be fair, mostly it was me. Post-Traumatic Feeding Disorder is a thing. A real thing.) Elbee’s never tasted a baby biscuit or a bit of mac-n-cheese, never picked at a piece of toast or enjoyed an ice cream cone. And then there’s this: Docs suspect so much stomach acid may have deadened her taste buds so she may not even be able to taste (and therefore, can’t really enjoy) what she’s eating. “Yummy” ain’t no thang.

The cake – despite all this – was supposed to be wonderful. It was supposed to be the sort of confection fit for a kid who would eat it, even though we suspected she wouldn’t. (We didn’t care.) There had to be a cake. It had to be awesome. And making it was supposed to restore a little normalcy to the lives of folks for whom the word “normal” was maybe a little like, well… “yummy.”

Ingredients: Heaps of love, loads of heart, a dash of a hope. Blend. Set oven to, “F— off, universe.” Yield: Catharsis.

This one time, we took our kid to back-up care. We warned all of the teachers there that, though our child was seemingly plenty old enough to feed herself and wildly intelligent, and though she possessed superior fine motor skills, she was unable to handle her own bottle. Later, one of them laughed as she recounted the way Elbee sat across from her on the floor, mouth open to indicate it was time to eat. She likened our daughter to a “baby goat.” She was unthinking. (That’s euphemistic for “dumb ass.”) She was like lots of people. Enter the laundry list of folks who, though with the purest of intentions, and, sometimes, even when they know better, or even when they know nothing, reassure us our daughter will – without question – be well. Usually, their kids were “picky eaters,” too. And usually, by repositioning a spoon or heating food to the right temperature or carefully-timing meals, they developed voracious appetites. They “just grew out of it.”

But dollars to donuts their children – who, while they may have consumed nothing but peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for a whole week that once when they were little –  never formed a spontaneous play group in  the waiting room of a feeding clinic, sharing a sensory table with their best new friends: a couple of bitchin’ cool kids with high-functioning autism and GI tubes. We’re not somehow worse off. We’re just different. And, hell, maybe those peanut butter and jelly kids are in a bad way. Maybe they’re boring.

“Normal” ain’t no thang.

The more I stared at that cake, the more I knew it was true. It looked like shit. And worse, it didn’t even taste that good. So I laughed and I laughed and I laughed. I laughed like someone crazy. Like someone on the brink. I laughed because it was funny and because I couldn’t believe my eyes. I laughed because I could. I laughed because it was the night before the party and much, much too late to do anything about it save embrace my reality. Surely a photo of this confection-passed-through-the-ass-of-a-unicorn would go absolutely viral on Cake Wrecks! I’d be so proud. Or, if not proud, I’d have a good story.

The next day, we bequeathed to our daughter a string of fine pearls. We jazzed up the likes of that indoor play space with the crafts I made myself. We switched on the playlist of special songs (Dylan’s “Forever Young,” Tom Petty’s “Wild Flowers,” a disco remix of “‘C’ is for Cookie,” the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” Damn straight, Mick Jagger.) The incomparable Nitya Rao took photographs. Elbee’s great-grandmother delighted in the spectacle. (Elbee really learned to walk that morning!) And, at last, it was time.

So we gathered around a long table to sing “Happy Birthday” to a kid who probably didn’t even realize the whole day was for her, and we went through the motions of presenting her with the shitty ass cake we didn’t expect her to touch but hoped she might.

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And then we watched, with bated breath, as this happened.

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And then this.

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And this.

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And this.

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Later that afternoon, she’d cry because I offered her some applesauce. It didn’t matter. I’d think back to that morning and the way that something that was supposed to go so very right really did. Even when it looked all wrong.

“Wrong” ain’t no thang.

Ingredients: Heaps of love, loads of heart, a dash of a hope. Blend. Set oven to, “F— off, universe.” Yield: Catharsis. 

Which looks like this: Unicorn poop crushed below the heel of a nasty-ass giant (or the palm of a small human).

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About Projected Progenitor

Projected (adj.) (prə-ˈjekt-ed): From the 15th Century Anglo-French 'projector,' from Latin 'projectus.' Devised in the mind, predicted. Progenitor (n.) (prō-ˈje-nə-tər): Middle English, from the 14th Century Anglo-French 'progenitour,' from Latin 'progenitor,' meaning 'to beget.' An ancestor in the direct line, foreparent.
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2 Responses to On having cake and eating it, too.

  1. Wow. Easily my favorite post of the month. Thank you so much for sharing it. First of all, I am so sorry for all of the feeding issues you have experienced! This all sounds incredibly stressful and discouraging…to say the least. I so hope that things slowly but surely get better for her. Secondly, I have to admit that I laughed out loud when I read your description of the cake – so funny. I love that you said that it even tasted bad…but then…

    I am just ALL choked up with happy tears about Elbee’s love for this all-of-a-sudden beautiful cake. In a moment, it became the most beautiful cake I’ve ever seen. I can’t even imagine what it felt like to watch her eat it (actually EAT it!) as her mother/baker.

  2. Ashley Hajduk says:

    You, Lady Wordsmith, always make me cry a little and smile a lot. Thank you for sharing your incredible journey.

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