As I’ve been recounting my story and how I got into this cake/birthday craziness, I keep getting drawn back to one of the very first birthday parties I ever threw at My Father’s House. This was WAY before I really saw myself as cake decorator or would even call myself a baker. Ten years ago, I was clueless about cake design and I had no idea what fondant was. But I’ve always loved and valued birthdays and I wanted to stop the small tragedies of missed birthdays to stop for good at MFH.
Case in point…this cutie:
Nick* was an almost 5-year-old boy who had moved into our family homeless shelter after being recently reunited with his single father. Their story was so heartbreaking, I didn’t want to believe it was true, but here’s the gist: Nick had been in full custody of his mother since birth but his mom had succumbed to a dangerous life of drug addiction. The state had become involved and pulled Nick from the meth house where he had been seriously neglected and abuse. After being removed from his mother’s custody, Nick’s father suddenly became his full-time guardian after years of having very little contact with his son. Needing a stable place to start their new life together as a family, they were accepted to the program at MFH with open arms.
It was cute and awkward to see Nick with his dad; a tatoo-covered but soft spoken twenty-something who was still in shock of getting his son back after nearly 5 years of absence. They were really just getting to know each other for the first time and there were rocky moments, especially considering the trauma Nick had just experienced. But Nick’s dad was desperately trying make up for some of the years they had lost by being the best dad he could be.
As Nick’s birthday approached, I started asking Nick what presents he would like or if he had a theme that he would like for his party. I was sadly shocked when we started to discover Nick had no memory of ever having a birthday party in his life. In fact, he didn’t even seem to know much about birthdays in general, as he would give you a blank stare or confused look whenever the subject came up. Before he had come to MFH, there hadn’t been many people in his life who had taken the time to care for his basic needs, let alone notice when his birthday came and went.
I can’t even describe the injustice I felt when I heard about Nick’s missed birthdays. Of course, Nick’s experiences of abuse and neglect, family instability, and poverty were more serious issues than some forgotten birthdays. The lost birthdays were just a symptom of much bigger root issues of a dysfunctional family life. But still, my heart ached because I felt a birthday should be when life is celebrated and cherished. I wondered, if no one valued Nick on the day they were supposed to, did he ever feel truly loved? I hated that I had to ask the question.
I knew Nick’s party would need to be special to make up for so many years of failed birthdays. And the first thing that comes to mind when I think “special birthday” is there absolutely must be a homemade cake. Not that a store-bought cake is the worst birthday sin- there have definitely been many parties I’ve thrown that simply would not have had a dessert without a little help from the neighborhood grocery store. But I just know when I was little, I absolutely loved when my mom made my birthday cake. There is something so personal and sweet when someone takes the time create a baked good in your honor. So I set out to make one of my first homemade birthday cakes, in the hopes this simple act could communicate Nick was valued and cared for as he started a new chapter of his life.
During this time of my life, I was having a ball playing house as a newlywed and I was breaking in my brand new bakeware and kitchen gadgets at lightening speed. I would bring culinary goodies home from my part-time job at Whole Foods, tie on a stylish apron, crank up my Amelie soundtrack and whip up whatever my heart fancied. I would call it the beginning of my culinary awakening, as I fell in love with the art of creating delicious food. However, my cooking and baking was not without trial and error- I had many cakes half-stuck in pans, curdled custards, and frisbee-hard pie crusts. But it was all fun, and I remember being thrilled to have a new food challenge as I started planning Nick’s cake.
One trip to the local cake decorating shop for silver luster powder and two boxes of cake mix later, and I had my first birthday masterpiece:
On the day of Nick’s party, I remember being SO excited to see the look on Nick’s face when he saw all the decorations and the cake. We had gathered some gifts from the shelter’s shed where we kept the extra presents left over from Christmas. What a unique experience to be able to see a 5-year-old child have their first birthday party- I couldn’t hardly wait for him to walk in the door. And so we waited for him to come home with his dad to unveil all the surprises we had planned. And waited….and waited….
We had planned the party for 5pm and at about 5:45pm I was beginning to think I was going to be another witness to a failed birthday attempt for Nick. They finally arrived about an hour late, and although I was getting a bit peeved, I knew I needed to extend grace to Nick’s dad. After all, he was brand new to being a parent.
Anyway, once we saw the ecstatic smile on Nick’s face all was forgiven and we were swept up into his contagious joy as he opened his small pile of presents. When it came time for the cake, Nick initially bounced up and down with excitement, but as we started singing he began to squirm and cover his face. We gently explained that he was supposed to blow out his candles and make a wish, but he just violently shook his head and continued to bury his face in his hands. After several moments of unproductive coaxing, his dad eventually blew out the candles for him. It was normal behavior for maybe a toddler, but all the 5-year-olds I know are usually thrilled with this simple ritual and Nick was not typically a shy or scared kid. Who knows what was going on in his little head. Maybe he was overwhelmed by all the attention or confused at what he was supposed to do. Even though we weren’t able to understand exactly why he reacted this way, his behavior definitely confirmed the whole birthday experience was new for Nick.
After the candles were blown out, he was all smiles again and dove into his cake with the wild abandon that only little kids usually display around sugar- I remember he licked all the frosting off his cake first. Then he zoomed outside with his dad to try out his new remote control car, laughing and shrieking in delight. Nick’s first birthday party had been a success.
When I think of moments that “wreck” us, I’m thinking of when we witness an injustice that tears at our hearts and leaves us unable to move forward in life without taking action. For some it could be visiting a different country and witnessing extreme poverty; for others it could be as simple as watching a powerful film or reading a book which changes their perspective on an issue they didn’t fully understand. These experiences mess us up in a good way- they not only cause us to bring positive change in this world, but they ultimately bring us closer to the heartbeat of God.
Nick’s birthday was one of those wrecking moments for me. At the time, I felt I didn’t have many skills or professional experience to address the root causes of homeless with the families at the shelter. I wasn’t a social worker or a therapist- but I could throw a party for a kid who needed a little extra love. I knew simple acts of kindness sometimes can have the most affect on a person’s life and organizing a birthday party created normalcy for families amidst an otherwise traumatic time in their lives. And that’s why I’ve kept on throwing parties at homeless shelters- because it’s a concrete thing that I can do (small as it is), to further the kingdom of God.
So go on out there and get wrecked. I promise you won’t regret it.
On another note, if you want to have a good laugh, go ahead and get cake-wrecked on my favorite cake-related blog: Cake Wrecks Hi-lar-i-ous.
Side note: I have permission to use some photos, but I am going to change the names in my posts to protect past residents’ privacy.