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.
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.