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College Students Need Birthday Love, Too

Photograph by Getty Images

Before my son was old enough for school, commemorating his birthday was easy. My husband and I would invite a few friends and relatives over for dinner, take pre-cake and post-cake pictures of our boy and call it a day.

In elementary school, his birthday parties were notched up a bit and had to be arranged weeks in advance. They were nothing like the merry little shindigs my mom would host for me in our backyard when I was in grade school. These parties were events that took every ounce of my project management skills to pull off.

Generational differences aside, by the time college rolled around, history seemed destined to repeat itself when it came to parental involvement in birthday celebrations. Just as my parents had done for my college-age birthday parties, I did for my son (with a bit of relief). In other words: Birthday? What birthday?

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Not to cry over spilled buttercream-iced cake with strawberry filling, but the only birthday acknowledgement I ever received from my parents while in college was when I spent a summer abroad and my mother arranged for a beautiful bouquet of wild flowers to be delivered to my dormitory.

I assumed it was because absence makes the heart grow fonder, but once home, I discovered the real reason. My father had sold my childhood home and was relocating the family to a city a thousand miles away. Happy birthday to me ...

Instead of fretting over how to celebrate my son's big day, falling squarely between his first day of class and his Thanksgiving break, I'm ashamed to say, it almost slipped my mind. The day crept up on me with the stealth of a rhinoceros charging after its prey.

I considered sending him a package. Sort of a birthday in a box. The mother of one of his classmates did this for her daughter to great effect. In it, she packed lots of confetti, party hats and favors, all manner of small gifts and a festively decorated cupcake encased in a clear protective box.

I remembered how much I would've liked my parents surprising me while I was in college, and promptly ditched that idea.

I could picture her daughter opening it, friends all around, gushing at the contents. I tried to imagine my son, surrounded by his friends, opening a similar box and being embarrassed beyond belief. As tempting as that seemed, I decided to save the "box" idea for mid-term treats (sans the party favors).

Popping by for a surprise visit crossed my mind. Then I remembered how much I would've liked my parents surprising me while I was in college, and promptly ditched that idea. Besides, I reasoned, my son is going to an out-of-state school. We'd have to drive three-and-a-half hours, each way, just to plant a birthday kiss on his newly aged cheek.

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On his birthday eve, I called to see what he had planned for his big day. Wrapped in guilt, I could hear the disappointment in his voice when he said, "Nothing."

I hadn't even sent him a card.

And so it was, bright and early the next morning, my husband and I and our three younger sons piled into the car and hit the highway bound for his university, presents in hand, a cake in the trunk and feeling somewhat disappointed that I couldn't find a box big enough to hold us, party favors and all.

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