Trying Better

Photo by Jamie Novak

Photo by Jamie Novak

This column was originally published as part of my “Tuesdays with Madison” series at

Her brother was jealous.

“Do you think you’ll make it home in time for Madison’s birthday party?” I asked.  A college freshman attending school 3000 miles away from home, Madison’s brother is 16 months younger.

Madison was turning 21.

“Hope so, Mom, if all the connections go smoothly,” he said. “So, how exactly are we celebrating?”

“No booze, buddy,” I teased him. “But we will have a red velvet ice cream cake. And of course, Madison’s favorite, pizza.”

I could hear him smile on the phone.

“Sounds good, Mom. See you soon.”

“Text me when you land.” And he promised he would.

Meanwhile, I set the table and put the “You are Special Today” plate at Madison’s place. I pulled out the “2” and “1” candles, gathered her presents, and figured out how long I needed to thaw the cake before we could cut it.

Madison’s older sister and her husband confirmed their attendance, as did Madison’s youngest brother. Caregivers were in place to pick up Madison from her respite weekend camp and bring her home for the party.

We were ready to make some memories.

Hours later, the siblings arrived on time and helped me finish putting the food out.

“She’s here!” her sister said. “Happy Birthday, Madison!”

We hugged and high-fived and were soon eating pizza.

“Madison,” I said, starting our scripted conversation. “When is your birthday?”

“March 24,” she said in her musical Barney-like voice. The purple dinosaur was never far from her mind, often coloring her responses with his signature melodic but nasal tone.

“That’s right.  Good job, Madison,” I said. “And, how old are you?”

“I’m fine,” she shot back, slurring her words as she scarfed down another bite of pizza.

“No, Madison,” I said, looking down and away from her, remnants of my ABA training kicking in. I moved closer to look in her eyes, and repeated, “How OLD are you?”

“Nineteen,” she said softly, grabbing another pizza bite.

“No,” I said. “Try better.”

I touched her hand to get her attention.

“How OLD are you?” I said again and then prompted. “Twenty—”

“Twenty-one!” she spouted out, and then flashed a smile as if she’d hit her own jackpot.

“Yay Madison! Time for cake!” I praised her.

We lit the candles, sang “Happy Birthday,” and then moved the cake to the dinner table. But before I could cut it, Madison grabbed a fork and aimed for the side of the cake.

“Madison, wait,” I said, stopping her stab mid-air.

“But, Mom,” one sibling said. “Why not let her? It’s her birthday.”

“She’s 21,” the jealous one added.

Madison looked at me, her fork still suspended.

“Okay, Madison. Eat your cake.”

And she did.

First the icing. Then the cake. Then the chocolate-chip caramel-laced ice cream. And finally, she tried the surprise garnish, a chocolate-dipped peanut butter cup, a new never-before-tried treat.

We waited as she bit into the nugget, knowing it was just as likely for her to spit it out as it was for her to swallow and like it.

She chomped down, paused, and smiled.

“She likes it!” All the siblings cheered.

And we laughed with her and for her as we helped her celebrate in her own special way. She’s 21 and “trying better,” on the cusp of so many discoveries.

And so are we.