The entire month of September, we’ve been collecting supplies to help struggling families create memorable birthday parties for their children. Since it’s Rylie’s birthday month, it just made sense to connect the two. As I sat considering what stories to share next, I was struck by just how perfect the theme of birthday party celebration is.
Rylie and Brooklynn met the first day of first grade. We were new to the school and new to Castle Rock. In fact, we hadn’t even moved in yet. In the chaos of buying a house, working new jobs, raising two young children, and commuting from Aurora, I’d missed an important “first day of school” email. Apparently we were supposed to stay for a while on the first day and help our kiddos get settled in organizing their supplies and desks!
I walked Rylie to her classroom door and saw all the moms / dads standing behind their child’s desk instead of just kissing them goodbye at the door. I’ll admit, I freaked out a little. I was already going into work late, but I had a meeting and given my typical “the world might stop if I’m not there to facilitate its turning” manner, I was convinced that I couldn’t miss it. But I didn’t see how was going to get out of it, so I walked Rylie in the classroom. Honestly I think she was just as dismayed as I was that I had to stay. From her first days in preschool, she loved the autonomy and responsibility of school and relished being able to wave goodbye and walk into her classroom by herself.
We found her desk, and looked over to see a friendly smile from a beautiful blonde and her mom. Mom must have seen the desperation in my eyes because she introduced herself and her daughter. Brooklynn and Rylie connected immediately. They grinned widely at each other and eyed each other’s school supplies, each beginning the process of labeling and sorting them. I immediately asked what I’d missed about this first day of school, assessing my next steps. Shannon offered to help Rylie that morning so that I could get to my meeting. That was the beginning of it all.
The girls became fast friends and the family pretty much adopted Rylie as one of their own. Although, they had somewhat different interests outside of school, they had a connection that seemed to stand the test of time. This was true even after Rylie changed schools in fourth grade.
One of the things that kept the two girls connected was birthday parties and not just their own. Every year, pretty much from when they first met, Rylie and Brooklynn would help out with Brooklynn’s younger sister’s birthday parties.
I didn’t really realize how many parties they’d done together until I started looking at pictures. Pictures that I’m so glad that Shannon took because, goodness knows, I am terrible at that.
Early on, I think Brooklynn and Rylie were there mostly as an extra source of entertainment. Since the sisters were only a few years apart, the themes of the Amanda’s parties often were things that the older girls would enjoy too. As they got older, they took a bit more active role in facilitating the parties and got a kick out of being ‘in charge’ of certain aspects.
While these parties were always something that Rylie looked forward to, they became even more important after fourth grade when she switched schools. The girls’ diverse interests meant that they both got pretty busy and didn’t often have opportunities to get together. Without fail, though, we’d get a call as it got closer to Amanda’s birthday inviting Rylie to be part of the fun. There were times that Rylie would rearrange her schedule, and even a few when the party would be rescheduled, all so she could be part of it.
I don’t think any of us knew, at the time, how special these parties were to all of the girls. But as I look back at the pictures and see them all growing up together, I know they are and were cornerstones in a very special “sisterhood”. I’m positive that being able to help “run” the parties led to Rylie’s love of planning her own parties. I know that each of the girls felt extra important because of their role in the party.
Isn’t it beautiful that they had that bond - that connection - over something as simple as a cake, presents and fun activities?
I don’t really remember fully when Rylie started planning her own parties. In fact, I can’t quite recall if it was a gradual process where she just had more and more input, or if one year she just took over. What I do know is that she loved the planning.
Like many people, she loved the actual event and the attention it garners, but what she loved most was creating the experience for her friends. She loved the details and thinking through how it would all go down.
Four years ago, for her 11th birthday, Rylie decided on a Red Carpet themed birthday party. Her goal was to create a chance for everyone to feel the glitz and glamour of being on the red carpet for a movie premiere. Funnily enough, I have zero recollection of what movie was “premiering”, but I loved her vision for the experience she was trying to create.
For Rylie, this birthday fell in her sixth grade year. The year when she and many of her friends started showing more and more interest in make-up and fashion. Playing to this interest, Rylie sent out invitations to her Red Carpet party and asked each of the attendees to bring a dress to match the occasion.
While some of her friends, loved this idea, she also had a few friends, that would much rather wear sweatpants than a fancy dress. What I love about her friend group, is that they knew what Rylie was after and they totally played along.
Prior to the party, we had to pick out party decor, procure snacks that would make the evening just right and shop for her perfect red carpet ensemble.
A stop at the party store resulted in a fabulous background complete with gold stanchions and red velvet rope as well as radiant flashes. We picked up a plastic red table cloth to serve as the red carpet, a clapperboard, and a few photo booth style props.
For the movie premier, Rylie wanted her friends to have a variety of treats - all the things she’d drool over at the movie theater but we rarely bought. We picked out boxed candies: Skittles, Twizzlers, M&Ms, Sour Patch Kids, and Junior Mints. Each girl got her own reusable popcorn bucket for Ziggy’s delicious stovetop popcorn doused with melted butter and salt. Rylie scoured Pinterest for red carpet themed cake and ended up finding “popcorn” cupcakes. So we bought striped cupcake wrappers, made chocolate cupcakes, frosted them with white frosting and topped them with mini-marshmallows that were cut and colored to resemble popcorn.
Then came the ensemble. She wanted a “fancy” dress that was worthy of the red carpet, but she knew I’d be too stingy to buy her anything new. So she requested a trip to Goodwill. We scoured the racks and she tried on dress after dress. There was a lot of laughter in the dressing room that day since she really wanted a more “adult fancy” dress and she didn’t have the adult body to fill it out.
I kept picking out pretty dresses from the girls racks, but they were too “kiddish”. She kept going to the juniors section and straps would fall, sections would gape, parts were too long or too short. It felt a bit like we were doing the dress version of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Finally she found a dress, in the junior section, that was navy blue lace and had spaghetti straps that we could adjust so that she could move freely.
I loved that day of dress shopping with her. I loved the way we’d banter back and forth about the styles and appropriateness / inappropriateness of some of them. I loved the way she’d twirl in the mirror or giggle when a dress just slid right off her body. At the time, I figured it was a peek into the future - what it’d be like when we’d shop for homecoming or prom dresses. In hindsight, I see the gift that it was, since we never got to to that.
On the day of her party, Rylie asked that the girls bring their dresses and they would go through the whole pre-red carpet party prep. She set up a station for all the girls to paint their nails. They played around with some make-up and then donned their fancy attire.
One of my favorite memories of this particular party though was the way that Rylie included Tanner. She asked Tanner to invite his friend Max over to be the “security guards”. Both boys took their role seriously and dressed up in their security guard finest. Max even brought over some handcuffs in case the crowd got too rowdy.
The security monitored the actual red carpet where each girl had her moment in the spotlight posing for pictures both individually and as a group. Then they guarded the entrance to the movie screening room while the girls chose their treats. When the time was right, they opened the screening room and the girls piled in giggling and juggling their treasures. Once they were seated and their safety was ensured, Rylie released the security guards to get their own treats and then ‘disappear’.
For Rylie, no detail was spared. It was about creating the perfect experience for everyone involved. We each had a role and she had a special way of making sure that we knew were were important to her overall vision. There’s a part of me that really wonders what kind of experiences she’d create as she got older. While I’ll never know the answer to that, I do know that she taught me that the birthday party isn’t about the birthday ‘girl’ or even the presents, it’s about coming together, celebrating and experiencing each other.
Today, Rylie would have been 15 years old. She’d have been a sophomore in High School. I’ll be honest, it’s hard for me to really picture her in high school. There’s a part of me that can extrapolate that vision since we have some photos where she looks way older than she was. But there’s a large part of me that can only picture her as her almost 13 year old self… It’s a weird thing to see her friends grow and mature, yet have her forever frozen in time.
Frozen, may not be exactly the right word, since I can go back in time and see her as she was over the years. As I think of her on her birthday, I can’t help but go back to her first birthday party…
We were living in Michigan at the time and as a first time mom with a kiddo turning one, I wanted nothing more than to throw the best first birthday party. The funny part about a first birthday party is that it really seems to be more about the parents than the child. I don’t think any of us can actually “remember” our first birthday. Yet, I know countless parents who throw over the top soirees for their little ones.
I wouldn’t say that we went over the top; it was really just family and some neighborhood friends that came over for Rylie’s party. I didn’t have Pinterest inspired buntings and decor. There were not any games or favors for the guests, but I did want it to be “just right”.
In preparation for the party, I cleaned the house - sweeping, mopping, dusting, and shoving everything that ‘didn’t have a place’ in a closet (silently crossing my fingers that no little people would open said closets). We went to Costco and bought large quantities of meat to grill and prepared side dishes. In an effort to make the event super sweet and loving, I started a scrapbook which had pictures from Rylie’s first year. I put it out for guests to look through and had full intentions to add to it each year and have it present at subsequent birthday parties (ha, ha!).
I made a 9x13 sheet cake, specifically for Rylie. It was intended for her sweet chubby fingers to dig into and make the obligatory first birthday cake mess.
Everything seemed to come together for the event, but since I had a one year old and family in town for the party, I’ll admit I was a bit frazzled. Not long before the party was scheduled to start, I was running around doing last minute preparations. I frosted Rylie’s cake in bright pink frosting and wrote “Happy Birthday Rylie” on it. I set it on the counter, while I attended to a few other tasks and waited for Ziggy to return from a last minute trip to the store.
As I picked up a few rouge items that found their way out of the closets and drawers, I walked past the kitchen and saw our 90 pound yellow lab with his paws on the counter and pink frosting on his snout. I lost my mind! My father-in-law came running when he heard the choice words escaping my mouth and we shooed Pilsner away from the kitchen.
I stood staring at my 9x13 cake, tears flowing and not-so-silently cursing the dog. Finally I determined that I could cut off the part he’d gotten into and reshape the cake. So I set about the task and refrosted the portions that had become exposed in the trimming process. I moved the now more 8x8 cake to the back of the stove and went to change for the party.
A little while later, I heard some suspicious noises and found Pilsner was still able to reach the cake and had taken to eating more of it! More words were uttered and tears were shed, but I was determined to save the cake. Rylie’s cake was shrinking.
It happened again… apparently when one is focused on throwing a perfect party, one loses common sense and doesn’t realize that said yellow lab likes pink frosting…
Each time Pilsner got into the cake, I lost my mind a little more.
Ziggy likes to tell the story with a slightly different flair. Although he wasn’t at home to witness the magical shrinking cake and the very pink faced dog, his dad met him in the driveway with a word of warning. My father-in-law took the ice and beer from Ziggy and shoved him in the house to deal with me - the crazy lady that was convinced that the party was going to be ruined! I mean, how could I possibly throw the perfect first birthday with only a 4x4 cake for my little one to gorge on?!?
Luckily Ziggy has a way of calming me down. He reminded me that she was one and truly didn’t need a huge cake to make a mess in. Then he pointed me towards the cute cake we’d ordered for our guests and gently reminded me that no one would leave the party without a slice of cake. Then he set about rescuing the dog from my wrath.
This is a story we like to tell a lot. While it’s less about Rylie, it still is a fixture in our memories of her. Sweet Rylie had no idea that she was supposed to have a big pink cake to dig into. She was just happy to sit in her high chair, the center of attention, and stare at the pink square in front of her. With encouragement from the crowd, she tentatively stuck her fingers in the frosting and tested it out. Much to her delight, and probably that of most little kids, she was met with cheers. She gave us a skeptical look, but with some more encouragement she dug in. It wasn’t often that she got to indulge in that level of sugar.
While a cake doesn’t make a party, it sure has the ability to make the celebrated person feel special. Tomorrow, we’ll be at 105 West Brewing from 5-6:30 collecting items for “Birthday Bags”. We’re building these bags with goodies that can help struggling families create a special day for their loved ones. For more details on what we’re collecting and when we’ll be at the brewery, check out www.ryliesark.org/events. Stop by, have a beer (tips are donated to Rylie’s ARK), and let’s tell some cake stories!
Meghann and Ziggy Guentensberger are Rylie's parents. During their time in the hospital with Rylie and after her death, they began writing about their experiences. What started as a way to keep people informed of Rylie's condition, turned into a way for them to process all that was happening. After she died on May 26, 2017 they both continued to write as a way to process and heal themselves and occasionally inspire others. These writings are housed on the Rylie's ARK Facebook page.