Pandemic birthdays, how some choose to celebrate

THE WASHINGTON POST – Colette Komm and her friends walked up Central Park West on Saturday, carrying what looked like an enormous coronavirus particle and hanging from PVC pipe, “like an animal we were going to roast”.

New Yorkers enjoying the gorgeous day kept stopping the crew to request a photo and the answer to the natural question: What the heck is that? Komm explained it was a seven-pound piñata that they were taking to the park to destroy with a wooden stick.

The group of 10 tied it to a tree branch, and each took a swing or two. One swung underhand, imagining smacking the virus. The death blow went to the respiratory therapist in the group because, Komm said, “if anyone deserves to smash this thing to smithereens, it’s him”.

He put quite the hole in it, candy and hand sanitiser flying everywhere. But the bottom still clung on. Like the actual virus these days, it found itself on its last protein spikes. So Komm took one more big swing to finish it off. “Everyone was like, ‘This is the most fun we’ve had in a year,’” she said.

The cause for occasion: celebrating her second pandemic birthday. Remember those birthdays last March, when COVID-19 still felt new? Zoom was still a novelty. Friends drove by and honked their horns. They were decent enough substitutes. Maybe even charming ones.

Remnants of a birthday piñata representing the coronavirus. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

Some didn’t get to have celebrations at all. Plans were ruined, trips cancelled. Even still, it all had the feeling of a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing – a story to tell.

But now these unfortunate Pisces and Aires have to do it all again. Some still feel too burned by last year’s disappointment to muster any effort, while others have decided on some sort of safe celebration, pandemic be damned. There’s no right answer here. Maybe you can turn these lemons into lemon cake. But for some, it’ll still taste sour.

DC’s Sarah Rutherford, who just turned 31, is one of the few whose celebration improved with her second coronavirus birthday, which she spent hiking in Big Bend National Park in West Texas after two months as a “digital nomad” in Austin. A far cry from her first, when her co-workers were packing up the office and couldn’t buy her a pie from her favourite local shop – so they handed her a photograph of one instead.

Nikki Miller-Ka takes her birthday seriously: It’s “the only day that is yours, that belongs to you”. She usually likes to celebrate with a “grand affair” involving great numbers of friends and family members. One year, she took herself to Paris. And she always does some volunteer work.

Last year, though, she couldn’t do any of that. Instead, she picked up crab legs from the grocery store, made a cake and shared both at home with her boyfriend. Some friends stopped by to drop off gifts while keeping their distance. “Not that it wasn’t special,” she said. “But, it really was kind of lacklustre.”

This April, she’ll turn 40, and she doesn’t want to give the pandemic another victory. She’s considering an all-day Zoom, in which friends can drop by whenever they would like throughout the day to share a digital drink or two. She’ll invite guests to donate to their favourite local charity in an increment of four.

Then there’s Komm and her piñata. The cathartic Central Park festivities were a far cry from her 38th, which she calls “the birthday that was lost to history”. She returned to New York City from a trip minutes into her birthday, a little after midnight March 13, 2020. The dinner she had planned with her friends was quickly replaced with trips to five stores to stock up for shutdown.

“It was really the worst pandemic birthday, because it wasn’t really a birthday,” she said.

It was the day the United States declared a national emergency, when everything shut down. “It wasn’t before it happened, when people could still celebrate, and it wasn’t after, when people could commiserate.”

The second one had to be special. So, she made a coronavirus piñata. She had considered filling it with a smaller coronavirus piñata. But her apartment already housed a coronavirus disco ball she made earlier in the year.

“I was just like, ‘How many coronaviruses does one girl need?’” Her friends were grateful for the decision.

For some, the occasion of a second pandemic birthday can conjure wistful memories of a first. Nicole Shanique had what promised to be a life-altering 35th birthday. She was headed from her home in New York to London on her first solo trip, and she was beyond excited.

Her flight would have been on March 13. “I was very, very sad on the day of. I was ready to push myself out of my comfort zone,” Shanique said. The idea of travelling to a foreign country by herself as a woman originally gave her pause, but she planned to push through her fear. She never got the chance.

So, this year, the idea of planning anything just feels exhausting – she doesn’t want her hopes dashed again. Instead, she’s going to wait until things normalise and finally take her trip.

If nothing else, she’s grateful nothing like this ruined her childhood birthdays. “We’re adults. We can say, ‘OK, fine. This happened. We’ll do something else,’” Shanique said. “But if you’re a child and this happens to you, I can’t even imagine.”

Parker Boynton can. Her first pandemic birthday in April originally promised to be a true barnburner, by a four-year-old’s standards. She’d been talking about it nonstop for months, said her mom, Kelly Boynton. It was going to be her first big birthday party.

Instead, Kelly was forced to improvise. She used the video service VidDay to compile birthday messages from Parker’s preschool teachers, classmates and extended family.

“We sat her down on her birthday and played it for her,” Kelly said. “She replayed it another five times.

“She spent the next year talking about ‘When COVID is over, I’m going to have a party,’” Kelly added. They live in California, where cases remain high. Maybe they’ll have a small outside gathering of Parker’s preschool friends. Maybe she’ll see her grandparents.