Birthday in a Pandemic

July 15, Wednesday.

Uy, wake up na,” my brother Ton calls from below the bunk bed.

“Is there food?“ I ask.

“Yes pancakes,” he says. “Courtesy of Lui.”

My mom also wakes me up moments later. “Is there coffee?” I ask her.

“Yes,” she says. “The Dream Coffee.”

On that note, I sprung up from my bed. I arrived at my mom’s place just the day before, and had planned to spend my birthday week there.

I was never one to make a big fuss over birthdays. Every year, I knew what to expect come July: a series of dinners with family, close friends, and old friends.

My family birthday celebrations would look like this:

The celebrant would have to inform everyone in advance to block off the date (usually during the weekend) of the dinner. The celebrant had the power to choose which restaurant we’d dine in and make the necessary reservations. At the actual dinner, everyone was free to order what they want.

The closest thing we had to a celebratory act happened after our meal. The celebrant would order whichever dessert they liked the most from the menu and that became their “birthday cake.” The rest were free to order their own desserts.

We never sang “Happy Birthday” in those dinners, as we were private and reserved about those things. We just ate our dessert, like any normal family dinner, and that was that. 

My birthday this year was different, and I’m sure that anyone who already celebrated theirs felt the same.

By June, I already knew that this pandemic was not going to end by the time by birthday came. The general community quarantine (GCQ) was still at play, so that meant that 1) most restaurants only did takeout or delivery, 2) meeting groups of friends was out of the question, and 3) all birthday-related arrangements at home had to be planned in advance.

Despite all the possible roadblocks that were in the way, I had one resolve: I needed to see my family on my birthday. I haven’t seen them in months, and it would’ve been too heartbreaking for me if I had to spend this birthday away from them. 

This resolve got me to make the necessary arrangements to be with them for a good week. And looking back, it was the very same thing that taught me what I wouldn’t have otherwise learned had it not been for this pandemic. 

I don’t know about you, but in the weeks leading to my actual birthday, I usually find myself mentally preparing for what to expect on the day. This period always brings with it a sense of excitement, dread, expectations, appeasement, hope, and despair. In short, fluff. 

But what this pandemic did for me (and I’m sure, all of us!) was throw in this REALLY WILD CARD where a lot of the expectations and fluff that used to be so accessible and necessary for to us to celebrate have now either disappeared or become too much of a pain or hassle to purchase.

What is left for us then, with this volatile and hostile backdrop, when it is so taxing to pay, plan, and power our way through another milestone?

Why, none other than the things that remain worth your resolve, energies, time, and efforts.

As I write this, my heart breaks as I know that not everyone this year would have the same opportunity, luxury even, as I did. But today I write this just so I won’t forget about the kind of birthday celebration I had this year in the midst of a pandemic:

Eating pizza and chicken with my housemates. Officemates, dear friends, and housemates pitching in to buy me a blueberry cake (cake #1).

Going to my mom’s. Receiving a chocolate cake (cake #2) and gifts from my high school barkada. Having pancakes and coffee for breakfast. Eating Mom’s spaghetti for lunch. Boardgames in the afternoon. Receiving a sushi cake (cake #3) from a good friend. My dad’s car breaking down along Ayala Avenue after picking up my strawberry shortcake (cake #4). My mom’s care taking a detour to get the cake and our takeout dinner.

My family setting the table at the back corner of my lola’s (grandmother’s) house. Laughing when we found out that the restaurant my dad excitedly recommended for takeout was from a Facebook ad he came across (dinner was okay).

My dad’s side of the family joining us to blow the cake (we sang Happy Birthday this time!) and eat it. Playing the Pandemic the board game—ironic. Losing the game, and laughing when we heard my dad (who didn’t pay attention to the game’s instructions) randomly mutter, “I’m sorry.” 

Attending a Zoom birthday party organized by my group of friends—complete with a special performance, party games and prizes, surprise greetings from other friends, prayers, and lively conversations until one in the morning. Finding out the next morning that I had a rum cake coming from two beloved friends (cake #5).

As someone who never really made a fuss over birthdays, you could already imagine how low my expectations were of this one. I didn’t expect much this year, given how everything in the world was going.

But God did something different this year; not just in the celebration, but also in my heart. He removed all the fluff and the expectations and meaning-making that I subscribed to every July, and showed me the real treasures that lay beneath all that. And for that, I could say that this was one of the best birthdays I’ve ever had.

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