I’m about to turn the big 3-0 in October which means my Facebook news feed basically consists of sonograms, profile pictures of toddlers, and people “checking in” to their new houses. Occasionally, a picture of a ring or lavish engagement photos will surface. Basically all of my friends are engaged or married, have kids, and are buying houses. We all know what happens to friends when they go through that stage in life…people tend to go off the grid for a bit, enmeshed in their new “grown-up” roles. People particularly don’t have time to deal with chronic illnesses. They have a 3-year-old. Or they’re a newlywed. Or they’re trying to paint the kitchen. They have a lot on their plates and they don’t want a side order of “sick people”. That’s what makes the story I’m about to tell you all the more outstanding.
My boyfriend and I are friends with this couple that we’ve known since before they were married. We were at the wedding, we celebrated the birth of their daughter, and when her first birthday rolled around, we happily drove to Connecticut to attend. The plan was for everyone to eat pizza and cupcakes and to let Addie open her presents and then she would go to bed and the grown-ups would hang out, drinking cider and beer and playing “Cards of Humanity.” It was a far cry from the frat parties and clubs I used to go to when I was in college but I dare say I had a better time at the one-year-old’s birthday party. Addie’s parents are a couple named Scotty and Mel and you will not find two nicer people. In most cases, people like one half of a couple more than the other, even if only by a small margin, but Scotty and Mel are the exception. Wonderful friends, wonderful parents, wonderful travel companions. You really should meet them sometime. However, as they prepared for their first child’s very first birthday, they once again proved themselves to be the exception to the rule.
Mel contacted me via a Facebook message before the party to make sure of my allergies. I thanked her profusely for asking and told her not to worry about it, that I would make sure I brought something I could eat. I didn’t want to put anyone out. Besides, I reasoned, she had other things to think about.
The big day finally came and pizzas lined the kitchen table. I was glancing at them, sizing them up and trying to figure out if they contained any of the cheeses that trigger my allergies, when Mel walked up beside me and said “They only have mozzarella and provolone cheeses on them. No Asiago, Parmesan, or Romano. I checked.” She smiled as she said this and there was no trace of aggravation in her voice. She also spoke to me in a normal speaking voice. What I mean to say is, she didn’t raise her voice and risk embarrassing me but she also didn’t whisper as if I should be ashamed of my dietary restrictions. “There’s one without any meat, too!” she said as she walked over to clean up a spill. She had remembered my “no pepperoni/sausage/ham/any kind of delicious meat you might get on a pizza” restriction.
Then it was time for the birthday girl to have us sing to her and eat her very first cupcake. Mel brought out a beautiful tray of chocolate cupcakes and placed one in front of Addie, who loved it. Secretly, I was a little bummed. Chocolate cupcakes. Chocolate is a definite no-no for me. It may as well be called Insta-Migraine. I sighed inwardly and straightened up. Now was not a time to be selfish. There was no reason the birthday girl or anyone else at the party should have to adhere to my dietary restrictions. As we finished watching Addie enjoy her very first cupcake, trays of cupcakes were passed around to the grown-ups. Including a tray full of vanilla cupcakes with vanilla icing that Mel had made especially for me. I almost cried. It was *SO* nice not to be left out of every treat. I could be a part of the party and not stuck in the corner munching on pretzels while everyone else had birthday cupcakes. I could participate! There was still a slight nagging feeling, though. It’s hard to feel different from everyone else all the time and I was very aware that I was holding a white cupcake while everyone else’s were brown. I pushed the feeling away. I was being silly.
Scotty reappeared from putting Addie to bed (a feat which he accomplished absurdly quickly) and he came and sat down next to me. “Mind if I swipe one of your cupcakes?” he asked, smiling. I held the tray out to him. He leaned in, as if to share a secret. “I actually like vanilla better anyway,” he said quietly, taking a bite. In that moment, I was no longer different, no longer left out, no longer conspicuous, no longer the sick girl with all the allergies and triggers. I was Michelle, at a party, enjoying cupcakes, games, and friends. I was normal. It’s not easy to make someone with a chronic invisible illness feel normal. Some people just don’t care and some people are so overly-concerned that it’s almost more trouble than if they’d just left things alone in the first place. But Scotty and Mel had struck the perfect balance: they didn’t freak out or loudly discuss my needs in front of the other guests. They made an extra batch of cupcakes so I wouldn’t be left out of the celebration. Scotty ate one of “my” cupcakes and told me they were his favorite anyway, which allowed me to feel less conspicuous and less like a burden for having my hostess whip up an extra batch of cupcakes.
These are such simple things. I don’t even know if Scotty and Mel realized they were doing them at the time or rather how much their words and actions would mean to me. In the grander scheme of things, they took time out of planning their first child’s first birthday party to consider my special needs. This is not something I will soon forget. All it took was a vanilla cupcake and a whisper to make me feel included, normal, and well-cared for. The next time it seems like one of your chronically ill friends “needs too much’ or “has too many restrictions”, just remember how little it can take to make a HUGE difference in their lives.