This was the weirdest birthday of my life, but it taught me about joy and human connection in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
My 28th birthday was this past Sunday. I spent it alone. I have never been a big birthday person for myself. With the exception of a 21st birthday I was far too drunk to enjoy, I’ve never had a birthday party as an adult, and, even as a kid, it wasn’t a huge deal for me. All I really do on my birthday is spend time with a few family and friends and host a dinner. For me, my birthday is just an excuse to bring a bunch of people I love into one room.
This year was going to be different. A couple friends finally convinced me to throw a real party, and another friend generously offered to help me plan it. We secured a rooftop on the Lower East Side that we’d have to ourselves. I invited a couple hundred people and welcomed plus ones. If I’m going to have a party, I’m going to do it right.
Obviously, none of that happened. I cancelled the party. There was no dinner with friends. My sister did not fly in for the weekend. My parents did not come to the city for dinner. My girlfriend and I didn’t even get to see each other in person. I was pretty sure that I wouldn’t feel it much. After all, I’ve never much cared about my birthday.
Yet, I did. I definitely did. It was a tremendously weird day. I was alone on a day that I had previously expected to be surrounded by people, including my closest friends. There was no escaping that let down.
Somehow, though, I also felt profoundly loved and deeply connected to those I hold dear. When the clock struck 12, I was on Google Hangouts with my parents and my girlfriend while we played Evil Apples on our phones. I woke up to messages of love and promises of celebrations after Corona. I enjoyed my walk to get some fresh air, and I came home to flowers and a balloon courtesy of my very sweet girlfriend. Throughout the day, I spent chunks of time getting FaceTimes from friends checking in and sending their love. And I ended my birthday as I started it: on Hangouts playing a vulgar and hilarious game with people I love. Shoutout to Zicky, Brett, and Rachael for joining part two.
So yes, I was alone. But I was not lonely. Not in the slightest.
In fact, I felt joy. I felt that brilliant and beautiful soul nourishing joy. I felt joy in seeing my loved ones “together” and smiling. I felt joy in the kindness shown to me by people online. I blushed hard as I ever have when my girlfriend shared with me the plans she had made for us. They were perfect. I was alone, but I was joyful, and I felt the full weight of the celebration.
It is a bittersweet time to be celebrating a birthday. It is frankly a bittersweet time to be celebrating anything at all. The world is sick, and people are hurting. People are dying, our healthcare system is going to be overwhelmed, and those on the front lines are suffering through their heroism. Things are bad, and they’re going to get worse. These are basic truths that anyone even moderately paying attention cannot deny.
It is also true that joy endures. There is joy to be found and to be cherished. Even though we certainly have to try a lot harder to create that joy, to see it, and, most importantly, to really feel it, it absolutely endures. It’s going to take real effort. We need to check in on each other, cut ourselves a whole lot of slack as we adjust, and get creative about how to digitize and virtualize the things whose absence we are already feeling.
Does this joy cancel out the stress or the anxiety? Does it negate the suffering in other parts of the world or down the street at the local hospital? Does it alleviate my frustrations about my globally inconsequential birthday party? No, no, and most definitely no. But it most assuredly makes a world of difference in how we navigate the stress, the suffering, and the cancelled birthday parties.
To everyone who made my birthday a joyful one for me, thank you.
To everyone who is having to cancel celebrations and get togethers, I feel you. And to everyone on the front lines fighting to protect all of our joy, thank you. That’s all of the doctors, nurses, cashiers, garbage collectors, truck drivers, delivery folks, food supply & service folks, journalists, scientists, pharmacists, caregivers, and everyone who is essential to our fight.
Remember, we’re in this together. And we will remain as such.
As always, be you be great.
Note: here are some useful links for accurate and reliable information regarding the COVID-19 pandemic: CDC, WHO, Harvard Medical School FAQs.