I don’t know which is sadder: that my 14-year-old couldn’t have a real birthday party because his birthday happened to fall right in the middle of a nationwide coronavirus lockdown, or that he didn’t even ask for one in the first place. He didn’t ask for anything except brownies. “If you can find eggs,” he said with a defeated shrug. The store had been out of eggs the last couple of times I’d gone grocery shopping.
Ugh, stab me in the heart, why don’t you.
Like so many kids all over the world, my kids have accepted the inconveniences of shelter-in-place. Kids are notoriously adaptable and resilient. They adjust quickly to new normals and are generally more hopeful and optimistic than most adults. And, especially with older kids, when you explain why things are a certain way, they generally accept the explanation. My family has close friends who are severely immunocompromised, so even before schools and businesses started closing, we were already having conversations about how important it was to keep our dear friends safe.
My son also researched about coronavirus on his own and, not realizing I was doing my own research so I could write articles about it, sent me links explaining its origin, its rate of spread, its incubation length and how long it lived on surfaces. Even before quarantine, he embraced the importance of social distancing and hand washing. When school was cancelled, he hardly complained when he realized that it meant his science trip to the Florida Keys also had to be cancelled, or when we realized that, in all probability, he would not get to finish eighth grade with his friends, most of whom will not attend the same high school. This was confirmed last week.
His tacit acceptance of a lack of celebration on his birthday, on top of all the other things he quietly accepted… man. It broke my heart. To be fair, we are all okay. We are healthy, we enjoy our time cooped up together more than seems reasonable, and I’ve been extremely fortunate that I so far have been able to keep enough income coming in to pay our bills. I have nothing to complain about, but my kid not getting to celebrate his birthday — and not complaining about it — fucking broke me. Of course, I could make him a tray of brownies. I could get him a gift card to order extra skins or whatever they’re called for his favorite online video game. But I wanted to do something bigger. I wanted him to feel celebrated and loved by his friends and family.
About a week before the day, my sister shared a video with me — a friend of hers had recorded a line of cars driving by on her street. They were playing music, waving signs, honking, shouting out the window. It was a birthday parade.
Perfect. I don’t know enough local people to create the kind of traffic jam on the video my sister sent me, but I was fairly certain we could manage to get a few people to drive by and make a fuss for my kid.
I didn’t want to advertise my address on my Facebook page because my profile isn’t private enough, but I was able to create a private event and invite some local friends and family to drive by. I posted a few pics of my son on the event page and invited friends to drive by in a specified half-hour time frame and just generally act a fool in front of our house.
I kept it a surprise for my son, and when the time came, lured him outside by telling him we were going to play hopscotch. (We have resorted to playing my ancient childhood games out of boredom and the necessity to move our sedentary bodies, and my kids are enjoying it more than any of us expected.)
When the first car came by, my son thought it was just his friends being nice and that it was pure coincidence that we happened to be outside at precisely the time his friends drove by waving signs, blasting music, and screaming “Happy birthday!”
When a second car came by and created a similar amount of spectacle, he got suspicious. He wondered if a couple of his friends had gotten together and planned to surprise him. It wasn’t until the third car drove by, our cousins honking, hanging out the window, and shouting happy birthday, that he realized for sure that something had been orchestrated on his behalf.
I don’t know what I expected his reaction to be — just a smile, a few laughs, maybe? After all, what’s a few minutes of watching your friends roll by compared to an hours-long actual, in-person birthday party, right? But what happened instead is that he kept saying he couldn’t believe he “got a parade” for his birthday. He said it was “the best birthday ever.” Our last-minute birthday parade was a huge hit.
So, if your kid happens to be unlucky enough to have a birthday during shelter-in-place, try out your own birthday parade! We only had eight cars come through, nothing like the hullabaloo from the video my sister sent, and yet it still made a huge impact on my son. He felt remembered. He felt loved. He felt celebrated.
And, of course, if you can’t swing a birthday parade, there are other awesome ways to make your kid feel celebrated on their big day. Throw a Zoom party, or get a few folks connected via Google Hangouts, or watch a fun movie together using Netflix Party.
Despite the relative comfort my family has been fortunate enough to maintain during this time, there is still a level of trauma my kids have had to absorb. Pandemics are scary — they just are, and none of this feels normal. And yet, how many people will get to say, “Hey, remember that time my friends threw me a birthday parade during the pandemic?”
Yeah, I think my son’s 14th birthday is one he will not soon forget.