(we can't share photos of the girls, so i'm getting creative. this photo was taken in 2012, back in my old life in WI.)
"Are they having a birthday party, too?", Big Sis asked. She was hanging off a lifesize wooden bear statue outside a country themed diner, her face skewed into a confused expression.
"Who?" I responded, distracted by a larger crisis we had on our hands.
It was Big Sis's 8th birthday...a surprise we'd just discovered outside the restaurant, when their foster mom called to make sure we knew. We didn't know, because the paperwork we'd received weeks prior had listed her birthday incorrectly. Gabe and I were frantically trying to plan a birthday celebration on exactly zero minutes notice, in a city we weren't at all familiar with, for a kid whose affection and trust we were trying desperately to win.
Talk about being thrown right into foster parenting.
"Those people," Big Sis pointed across the lawn. "The lady said, 'Rick, party of 3', and then they got to go in. Is it because they're having a birthday party, too?"
"Ohhhh," Gabe said, taking a break from our frenzied birthday planning. "Well, party is another way to say 'group'. When you go to a restaurant, they'll ask how many people are in your group, or party, so they know what size table to seat you at. How many people are in our party?"
"One, two, three....FOUR. We're a party of four." She smiled, proud of herself for using the phrase correctly for the first time.
The girls continued playing on the carved bears, and once inside the restaurant, we ordered giant birthday sundaes, unsure if we'd be able to find birthday cake later in the day. The girls were delighted. The rest of the day went off without a hitch thanks to some quick thinking (god bless you, Yelp), as well as a woman at a theme park who shared her own unicorn birthday cupcakes with our girls (an angel from heaven), and the magic of a birthday that falls near Halloween (weekend trick or treating events, I'll sing your praises forever).
Throughout the day we joked with the girls about staying with our "party" in busy places. I was actually relieved to have tripped across that word. "Group" felt too much like a 3rd grade field trip, but we'd avoided "family" incase it felt too loaded for the girls. Their "family", in their minds, is probably their biological family or their foster family. Party worked well for us. Plus, it was fitting for a birthday outing.
The next day we had another visit scheduled and the girls asked to return to the same diner for dinner. Gabe put our name in at the hostess stand, and the girls played with the jukebox while we waited to be called. It was a quiet Sunday evening, so within a few minutes, the hostess came back.
"Gabe, party of four?"
"That's us! That's us!", the girls excitedly shouted at her, gathering their things from the waiting area and grabbing our hands.
The hostess led us back into the restaurant, past the table we'd sat in the day before and towards a larger booth in the corner. Little Sis dropped my hand and bounced ahead of the hostess, lifting her grey stuffed bunny in the air and dancing it past tables as she skipped by...delighted with the smiles and attention of other diners.
Big Sis walked behind the hostess, a few feet in front of me, seeming to think to herself. And then, confidently, as if to everyone and no one at all, she said:
"Family of four. We're a family of four."
"Yes, Big Sis," I said...trying not to tear up. "Yes, we are."