I am still confused as to why I made a cake, at my friend’s request for her son. I don’t do cakes, at least not cake orders, I say to myself as I walk the few doors down to her house. I wish I’d said it to her. She’d requested I make one, saying she’d pay me for my ingredients and time. I’d tried to convince her to let me buy a nice pretty one that wouldn’t now have a crack down the middle. I finally chalked up my confusion to cultural differences, cracked open the recipe book and turned on my mixer.
The sprinkles are intact – my only and best attempt at decorating it. But the “3” candle falls over again and again as I walk, then stop to push it back up, then walk, then stop to push it back up. What am I doing? I think again. We pause to let a truck pass and I seriously consider just turning around and going home.
I’d made the cake early before the sun and my kids woke up since my infant daughter is sick and I knew would need much holding. I’d used my best stuff – nice American ingredients that were sent in packages or bought for high prices locally. But the cake is flat and simple and has a piece missing out of the corner, I see now. Why had I said “yes?” I am no good at this and feel the disappointment of my friend that is sure to come.
Her mother-in-law, with whom she and her husband and son live, answers the door. She is confused too. “Why did you bring a cake?” She asks me. But then she sees the “3” candle that has fallen over again. She shocks me with her next question. “Whose birthday is it?”
She keeps asking and talking. And I realize that this grandmother of the birthday boy doesn’t know that today is his birthday. He lives with her and has lived with her for all his birthdays. But she doesn’t even know when his birthday is.
I smile and laugh at her mistake so that I don’t cry. As if she simply forgot to buy his milk at the store instead of not just forgetting, but never even knowing, her grandson’s birthday.
I take a seat in their huge, rich house and wait for the birthday boy and his mom. And the confusion melts like frosting, while cracking wide open like the cake. I understand my friend and I don’t. I understand the weight of the criticism she endures for her disabled son, others always complaining, always blaming. I understand why my friend wanted me to make her son a cake, not because I’m so good at it (I’m obviously not) but because no one else will do it. I do not understand why grandparents whose first and only grandson lives right there don’t celebrate his birthday and never have when my own kids’ grandparents have to settle for computer conversations and packages.
The birthday boy is excited and wants to eat the cake. But he doesn’t want to eat it with a fork and plate, frustrating his mother. The fire on the candle scares him, even as his grandmother urges him on and on to blow it out, seeming to be exasperated at his apparent disobedience which looks more like fear and confusion to me. He hits his head on the floor and I’m no longer shocked like I used to be. My own son – just two weeks older than his friend – sits next to his friend, posing for a picture and blowing out his friend’s “3” candle for him. My son somehow seems to understand and yet doesn’t. My son follows his friend around, trying to speak to his friend in Indonesian which his friend barely understands himself.
When the grandmother goes to get something in the kitchen, my friend tries to pay me for the cake. And I refuse again and again because I just can’t be paid for something that should be, must be, a gift. My cake with the crack down the middle is the first birthday cake this boy has ever had.
My friend’s eyes are happy and sad. Her son’s birthday is being celebrated. But she needs more than a cake, more than I, in my own power, can offer. She needs Someone who was broken to fix what is shattered in all of us. I wish for her a bigger love, an eternal hope and a new birthday for her and her son that angels will celebrate.
I leave the house with my son next to me, both happy and sad, my heart breaking, cracking in two.