Before I go, I have something to say

Happy Birthday, Gosh Darn It

There I stood, facing one of the most terrifying tasks expected of women. I’d already done enough, I thought, giving birth, changing diapers, tying shoes, monitoring TV, standing in line for parent-teacher conferences. But no.

I was standing in the dining room, at the head of the table. It was my son’s birthday. He’s old enough to make his own cake, but this is a tradition that dies hard, and I wanted to do it. It was a few days after the actual date, but better late than never, when it comes to chocolate and gift wrap.

A year ago, he’d been home for his birthday, too. I was sure I could put together a cake to celebrate, even though it had been only two weeks since I’d had surgery. I was getting around fine, although my family informed me that the anesthetic was still coursing through my system, making me say and do some funny things. So what? I thought. I can be the entertainment and the baker.

The thing is, my husband’s birthday takes place just two days before my son’s. I was just as sure I could put together a handsome hazelnut Bundt cake for him, after discovering this was his favorite kind. It was high time I extricated the Bundt pan from the cupboard.

That cake was to have chopped nuts strewn on top. To accomplish this, you first greased the pan, then pressed some nuts in, and finally poured the delicious batter in. Pop it in the oven, set the timer, and wait. My daughter was “mom-sitting,” so she kept me company while it baked. (This is a good thing, given my tendency to go into the other room, sit down with a newspaper, and forget all about turning the burner down when something boiled or turning the cake a quarter turn every fifteen minutes as it baked. Cooking? Who’s cooking? Oh, I’M cooking!) The timer rang, I took it out, tested it with a toothpick, and put it on a rack to cool, as much as that’s possible on a summer afternoon.

Then came the moment of revelation – inverting the cake onto the plate it would be served from. Usually, this is – forgive me – a piece of cake. But oh, what a disaster! Blame the shortage of butter; blame the overabundance of nuts, or maybe their size. For whatever reason, a third of the cake remained stuck in the pan, and did not want to come out.

Thankfully, this was a Family-Only event, so it didn’t matter that some of us got perfectly formed pieces while the rest of us got, well, pieces. It all tasted great.

Apprehensions aside, I turned, the next day, to the recipe I’d torn out of a magazine for Dan’s cake. (Good Housekeeping? Family Circle? I no longer read most of those, but I have recipes dating back decades from magazines now discontinued, like Mademoiselle and House and Garden.) It looked really good. Even though it was obviously dreamed up by a marketer employed by some Big Food Corporation, and designed to induce the purchase of all kinds of name brands – Jell-O Pudding, Cool Whip, Philadelphia Cream Cheese, Nilla Wafers – every time I looked at that photo, I was a goner. I had to make this thing.

Surely I could do this. I mean, the hazelnut cake turned out; it just stuck to the pan, that’s all. I’d had the energy to accompany my hubby to Hy-Vee to get all the name-brand products, stuff not usually found in our cupboards. I sat down to look over the instructions. But just as I approached the counter to begin, I had to sit down again. Everybody knows it’s hard to cook sitting down, and my heart goes out to all of you bakers and cooks who’ve figured out how to do it from wheelchairs.

But not me. I knew I couldn’t do it, not when I felt like napping every ten minutes. So I asked Allison to please stop at the store and pick out an ice cream pie for her brother. I made my apologies to him, and he was fine, at least until I showed him the photo of the chocolate mousse torte I’d intended to construct. “WOW! That looks really good!” he exclaimed heartlessly. “Next year,” I promised, never dreaming I’d be in the hospital again in 2012.

Once again, I’d been discharged from the hospital (a different one this time) weeks before. But while they had again filled me with drugs, there was no anesthesia involved, and I felt fine. Close to fine, anyway. Fine enough. (But let me just say: What is it with hospital stays replacing real vacations every summer for the past three years? I mean, geez! I’m sick of this, I tell you! Sick! Oh. Ha, ha.)

But I did it. With a lot of help from Bob, who kept those Nilla wafers standing at attention around the edge, and smoothed the filling in perfectly. The birthday boy himself inverted this refrigerated concoction from its cake pan onto a plate, and, no kidding, we gasped when it emerged. A little more Cool Whip, a handful of strawberries, a sprinkling of hand-curled chocolate, and there it was. And there I was, standing at the head of the table.

So what did I say, at the grandiose moment? “Happy Birthday”? “Thank you, everyone”? No. What I said was, “I hate this! Why is it the woman who always has to cut the cake? (the pie, the torte)” But I did it, with a lot of moral support from the team. And it was too rich and too fattening, and too, too good. I would do it again. With the help of my own NASA team, we can do anything.

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