By Kate Banigan-White
The Cupcake Man was, at first, innocuous. He was part of an activity my daughter Charlotte devised with two girls—children of dear friends. For several years we had been spending time together as families: dinners at each others’ homes, throwing birthday parties, working on political campaigns, and eventually vacationing together. We camped on Cape Cod one summer and then took a holiday to Washington, D.C., over spring break. We stayed in a large glass hotel in adjoining rooms, taking the Metro into the city each day. It was then, I would later learn, during some interlude between Washington Monument and Smithsonian Museum touring, that the Cupcake Man was invented. It would take the aftermath of tragedy for me to understand this.
Many parents know that children can be captivated by something borne by a group of kids, but for one child, it can take hold and take longer to let go. It’s a benign experience, this, but it can make you cringe: soon your daughter may see that she has held onto the Cupcake Man longer than the others. She might face the hurt that she is now alone with her love for this character, this game.
One recent night, I told Charlotte that we’d be having dinner with her friends Lisa and Ellie, and she lit up, collecting materials for the Cupcake Man’s fiftieth birthday party celebration. She said that it was an event the three girls had been planning for late January. Today it was January 24: perfect! She found the bags of balloons that we had purchased weeks ago, plus other signs and stories they had written during recent dinner get-togethers. She even cried when she thought she had lost the illustrated story, one I could picture but had never really read. We found it, and still I hoped that the other girls were as into this as Charlotte.
We kept our same basic dinner routine that we’ve had for years: the girls ate together in the kitchen at the high table, chattering and devising an activity culminating in a show. The grown-ups sat in the living room, eating vegetarian pasta out of plates on our laps, splitting a bottle of red wine. We could now talk, unencumbered by children’s ears. We knew we’d ultimately be thrust in the middle of the Cupcake Man’s fiftieth birthday party celebration, but we’d stave that off as long as possible. I felt mild relief at the buzzing in the other room, with Ellie stringing up streamers and Lisa creating makeshift cupcakes out of buttercrunch ice cream globs, graham cracker crumbs, and candy bits. Charlotte was not alone in this. Whew.
Six months before the Cupcake Man’s fiftieth birthday party celebration, my husband Dave—Charlotte’s father—died suddenly one summer morning at home after having an acute cerebral aneurysm. Only moments earlier, he was peeling plums and toasting bagels with Charlotte at the kitchen table. We had just returned from a vacation in Maine and were gearing up for a day of settling back in. Before taking our dog out for a walk and picking up the Sunday Times, I reached over Dave’s shoulder and took two casual bites out of his bagel slathered with cream cheese. I failed to kiss him then or say goodbye.
I returned from my walk and began playing a game of pretend with Charlotte as I had promised. Nothing seemed amiss and Dave was apparently upstairs. When he did not appear downstairs after a period of time, I checked on him, gasping at what I saw: my once vibrant husband, whose profile I had admired on a mountain just days before, was lying on our bathroom floor.
“Something’s wrong with Daddy,” I said to Charlotte as I raced to the phone. “I have to call 9-1-1.” As the police, paramedics, and fire truck arrived moments later, the only clear-headed thought I had was that now permanent memories were being formed in my eight-year-old daughter’s heart. I had to protect her. “I’m very worried,” I said, my voice shaking. “This is very serious. But we are going to be okay.”
This is the charge, after all, of a parent who now presides over her grieving child: to make it okay. To let your child be a child amid a tragedy, knowing that her mourning will be the mourning of little girl and not the grown-up sorrow that is accompanied by planning a funeral, re-negotiating work schedules, selling the car, applying for survivors’ benefits, and arranging a make-shift child care and dog walking schedule. My grief is consciously ebbing or flowing as I find a way to have a decent supper preceded by saying grace, draw a warm bath, and tuck Charlotte into bed at night, now without my mate, her father.
In the early weeks in particular, just a day or two after Dave’s death, Charlotte needed to play, and play hard. Quickly, she surveyed the sudden influx of weeping visitors armed with flowers and food and books on grieving children, and she was having none of it. She was grateful to be scooped up by friends and family to go swimming, visit an art studio, and run around in various backyards. Meanwhile, I stumbled through the fog of the constant doorbell, the hugs, and the tears, alternately collapsing alone in the heat of summer on my bed, fan spinning above me. Each of us, then, did what we had to do.
During our funeral for Dave, Charlotte bent down her head and drew pictures on a clipboard of paper while I sat rapt, clinging to every person, word, psalm, and hymn. All throughout the reception, she ran around with her friends and cousins, making up games. I was front and center in a receiving line of grievers, embracing hundreds who endured the awkward wait to search for the right words, the gentle touch. I needed to be there, and Charlotte needed to be elsewhere. She seems to have such fond memories of this that she has asked me several times when her cousins can return to finish the game they played in the church basement. That was so much fun.
I know that most grievers think that their lost one is special, that he or she possessed qualities that will be unsurpassed by any other living being. For Charlotte and me, this is beyond truth, the very reason we miss this man. He was the great creator of stories, mostly as a way of transitioning to the next fine thing. When Charlotte was a toddler, Dave would wake her up to “cat stories.” They would sit on her bed for long stretches, and he would tell an ongoing tale of the many stuffed kittens Charlotte had collected. Meanwhile, I was downstairs grinding coffee beans and scrambling eggs, so that the three of us could sit at the kitchen table for a cozy breakfast.
Dave was the inventor of games at all of Charlotte’s birthday parties, gathering the kids around the playroom floor, introducing musical hula-hoops, pin the whiskers on the kitty, What’s Different, and scavenger hunts. He also took Charlotte sledding on a huge hill near a local college. As they flew down the slope and marched back up its snowy paths, Dave made up a story. There would be a narrative flowing and this would guide their journeys as they made the arduous walk uphill. All this for the glory of the flight to the bottom. Whheeee!
Charlotte’s way of mourning is mysterious to me. It’s evident in her anxiety at night, when she asks me to feel her heart and mine, making sure they are beating well, and when she staggers into my room, asking me if I am alive. In the early weeks, it poured forth in the deep dark of night when she would all of a sudden let out a wail like I’ve never heard before. Mostly though, it’s tucked away someplace, in her foul mood on a Saturday morning or in her defiance over small things: brushing her hair, locating her socks, completing her nightly homework.
The Cupcake Man’s fiftieth birthday party celebration might possess clues into Charlotte’s broken heart, and also, perhaps, her path through the loss of the man who invented him. The night we had supper at our friends’ house, the swirl of activity over the character picking up speed, my friend Jill said, “I think this whole Cupcake Man thing is intense.”
This is when I first realized that this game had special significance. My initial instinct was shame at the exposed neediness, my daughter’s sorrow as well as mine. Jill said that her daughters played the game now because they thought Charlotte wanted to, but they didn’t mind. She reminded me of its origin: it happened during some transitional period along the Washington Mall, where we had been the spring before. Maybe it was when we were waiting for the double-decker bus tour—though my memory then is of Dave organizing an impromtu soccer game with the three girls on an open green space. It was sunny and warm, and he had, somehow, carried with him a soccer ball, just waiting for time between activities.
Perhaps the tale was told just before we entered the cool marble space and gazed up at Abraham Lincoln on his throne. I had barely noticed it because my beloved was always inventing stories during down time. I adored that he did this, but paid precious little attention to the details.
At first, I thought it was odd, too. I suddenly fancied this ongoing game as a problematic expression of grief, a resistance to letting go of something and someone forever gone. Now this once-benign character took on an ominous tone, like a creepy clown. As we, the grown-ups, one of whom was now missing, reluctantly filed into the kitchen filled with streamers and balloons, eating the ice cream globs and singing Happy Birthday to the Cupcake Man, I thought I would die of sadness, right then and there. I cried silently to myself as Charlotte and I drove home in the dark. She, on the other hand, chattered happily in the back seat. She had had such a good time.
At bedtime, after Charlotte had me feel her heart and mine, making sure, once again, that they were beating well, she told me that she loved the Cupcake Man. “Why?” I asked. “Because he’s fun,” she said. “Because he’s all about celebration, and that’s fun.” I kissed her goodnight, and went into the bathroom to brush my teeth. Standing at the counter, I lifted a paper there, one that had been evident for weeks and weeks. I had seen it, but never read it. The paper included the by-lines and introduction to the Cupcake Man. It was written in Charlotte’s tell-tale perfect penmanship with sprinkles of misspellings. It read:
Cup Cake Man
By: Charlotte lisa Ellie
And help with Jill Sam and kate
An arigenle started
Cup cakes all over the world have been sold Vanila too, Chocolate
too blue red purple
and orange and yello
and green and brown
But, the Cup Cake Man — Yea, Yay.
He was a good, good man.
I can see him now: dancing around a fountain with the kids, near lunchtime, when we are idle. Abraham Lincoln presides over us at the end of the mall, on his throne, and words inscribed in his shrine tell us a story. Nearby, there is a place filled with soldiers’ names etched into a low-lying wall—each has a narrative all of his or her own. People file through to read the names and pay respect to the unspoken histories.
Meanwhile, Dave’s forty-three-year-old self is smiling, his graying hair is sparkling, his imagination brimming over. I could have been anywhere, really, which may account for my dim recollection of the Cupcake Man’s creation: stealing away for a solitary look again at Julia Child’s kitchen, the Greensboro lunch counter, or the sculptures of Louise Bourgouis. Maybe I was seeking stocking-stuffing treasures in some museum store, while my mate distracted our daughter. Most likely, I was right there, watching the whole character unfold and without seeing the specifics; I simply saw Dave, Charlotte’s father, leaping around the gleaming water. All I felt was unfettered joy. Maybe.
For my child, grieving over the inventor of such a sweet presence, I wish for her an ongoing celebration, without the burden of it being strange. Cupcakes all over the world. Monuments, history. He was, indeed, a good, good man.
KATE BANIGAN-WHITE is a clinical social worker living in western Massachusetts with her family. She grew up in Louisville, KY. She has had essays published in The Daily Hampshire Gazette, Hampshire Life, Patchwork Farm Journal, and the anthology Not What I Expected, published by Perugia Press.