Our first birthday party for our son didn’t happen until he turned three. His first birthday was overshadowed by a battle to help my mom beat cancer. His second birthday was trumped by the one-year anniversary of her death. But by his third birthday, the timing finally felt right for a celebration. To my surprise, his train-themed party completely changed the way I thought about birthdays.
I remember my mom throwing fun parties for me as a kid. It seemed like a breeze to host my birthday at the zoo, the grand Ohio Theater, or even at a friend's home on a lake, a few hours out of town. She baked homemade sponge cake with real butter icing, my favorite. Themes included Strawberry Shortcake, Holly Hobbie, and frogs, which I still have a thing for today.
For our son’s first party, we rented an actual train car at a local park, to host 13 toddlers and their parents. The food budget was top priority, since my mom always enjoyed a party with good, hearty food. Plus I wanted to accommodate our vegan and gluten-free guests just as heartily (welcome to LA). To save money, I figured I’d make the decorations myself and my husband could bake a “train cake.” Easy enough, right?
Wrong. For us first-timers, everything was more challenging than expected. Food procurement was surprisingly tough. Good luck finding vegan, gluten-free cupcakes that aren’t punishingly dry (I wound up with three different dessert options to please all crowds). I feared having a “Pinterest Fail” of a birthday cake, so I begged my husband to do some dry runs. Everything about planning took longer than I thought, from making a play list of train-themed party songs to choosing color-coordinated utensils and napkins.
The night before the party, my overly ambitious decorating plans had me cutting and crafting until dawn. The final run of the cake came out of the oven around 1:00 am. My husband had all 64 train wheels glued on by 3:00 am. Cake stand with edible train tracks was ready to go by 6:00 am. It was nuts for us newbie parents, but the results spoke for themselves: Our son seemed beyond happy, and that made it all worthwhile.
I still wished my mom could have been there to witness her grandson’s joy and awe while everyone sang him “Happy Birthday.” I could finally say to her, “Mom, I had no idea how much effort it takes to throw your kid a birthday party!” She would smile and chuckle, either admitting that it wasn’t easy for her either, but more likely teasing me that I always make things more difficult than they need to be.
I used to think of birthdays as a time for people to celebrate themselves. Now I see them as a time to celebrate the women who make our lives possible. Our birthdays are milestones for our moms, too. My son’s third birthday is the three-year anniversary of my giving birth to him. It marks three years of me providing for my family as an actor. And it marks two years of surviving without my best friend and safety net, my mom.
The day after Jack’s party, I went back to work, just like my mom would have done when I was a kid. Tired and sleepy, I hopped aboard a train bound for San Diego Comic-Con to speak on a panel about Asian-Americans who create, write, draw, and play superheroes. I was invited because I voice Batman’s sidekick, Katana, in the animated show Beware the Batman. Of course, I know the real superhero is my mom.
I wish I could go back to those birthday parties she threw for me. I'd thank her for making my life possible, showering me with love, and making it "seem" so easy to be be a working mom.