On the Eve of My (Second) Pandemic Birthday
Though the pandemic was officially declared on March 11th, my workplace did not introduce a two-week work from home protocol for nonessential workers until March 16th.
And so, the day before my birthday, I packed up my work laptop and a few key items from my desk — my Captain Marvel Funko Pop, my Spider-Man mug, and the notepad I use to keep a running list of work tasks.
On March 17th, I woke up irritated, more than anything.
I’d intended this birthday to be a special one, because I hadn’t really celebrated the last few years. A St. Patrick’s Day birthday can be a bit of an inconvenience when your apartment is too small to host your friends. I’d gotten tired of meeting up in bars brimming with people in green.
In 2019, my fiancé bought a house, so I excitedly planned a house party to ring in my 28th year.
When the pandemic struck, we cancelled the party. It seemed the right thing to do, however disappointed it made me.
I put on my usual face of optimism and planned a Google Hangouts party instead. We had a nice time with our little virtual scavenger hunt, but I couldn’t help mourning the big, in-person affair I’d originally imagined.
My actual birthday fell on a Tuesday. I’d taken a vacation day, intending to treat myself to my favorite solo activities. Coffee from my favorite shop, a treat from my favorite bakery, and then a massage before settling in somewhere with a good book.
All of this, too, failed to be an option. By the time my birthday rolled around, everything was closed.
While I knew there were bigger things to worry about, on that particular day I felt massively disappointed that I could have none of what I’d envisioned. I told my boss I didn’t want to “waste” a vacation day if I’d just be at home anyway (oh, how that mindset has shifted).
So, I set up my little makeshift workspace on the table in my one-bedroom apartment and set to work.
I received a text to check my porch, where I discovered a massive unicorn birthday cake and a bottle of wine which my partner had deposited there. I helped myself to the first slice while checking emails.
In spite of all efforts to make the day special, it was full of minor irritations. Emails from local restaurants with birthday coupons for dine in only that I could not cash in, reminders of ways I would’ve spent this day if not for the circumstances. Texts from friends with promises to get together soon, which ignored my irrational refusal to celebrate my birthday a moment after it’s passed.
I didn’t know then that I wouldn’t be seeing them in person for the next year.
In short, I spent my 28th birthday wallowing about what then seemed like bad timing for something that would be under control in a few weeks. If I could have told myself what was to come, I like to believe I wouldn’t have been so wrapped up in feeling sorry for myself.
But, I’ve always been a bit of a birthday brat, and as my 29th birthday approaches, I find myself reflecting on the past year using this birthday-to-birthday guidepost.
Shortly after my 28th birthday, stay-at-home orders began in Pennsylvania, and I decided to move in with my partner rather than stay alone in my one-bedroom apartment for an undetermined amount of time. A massive life decision put on an accelerated timeline thanks to the pandemic — the last full year of bachelorette living I’d intended cut short after a few short months.
Soon, I had an office in the spare bedroom and a sourdough starter in the kitchen.
It is a strange thing to admit that I look back on those early months of the pandemic with a sort of nostalgia. We didn’t yet know how bad things would be, and early spring quickly gave way to a warm summer. Perhaps it’s just me, but I find it hard not to be optimistic when everything is green and growing around me.
I spent afternoons picking fresh spinach and kale from the garden, making tuna salads that I ate on our porch in the sun. In the evenings, I’d knead together loaves of sourdough so they’d be ready to bake in the morning.
The big bad things of the world felt external to the little pleasures of making a home with my partner for the first time in my life. I think it was hard to comprehend the scale of what was happening, and impossible to imagine that we’d still be struggling to manage the pandemic a full year later.
As an introvert, I loved the invitation to slow down, work from home, and not feel pressured to pack my calendar with social gatherings. It took me a long time to start feeling the impact of not being with people face-to-face.
And yet… that sense of peace in my day-to-day conflicted harshly with the grim, massive reality of loss happening on global scale. I still struggle to fit these pieces together, to comprehend the numbers that flash up on the news.
Soon, I will turn 29 and mark one full year since the pandemic began shifting my daily routines. We’ve adapted since I scowled down at those “dine in only” coupons and mourned my insignificant losses. I’ll be able to get coffee in my mask if I choose to, or grab something curbside from the local bakery. I could— though I will not — get that massage.
But I’m also tired in a way I wasn’t then, worn out and hitting that infamous “pandemic wall.” I miss the way things were before but am terrified of going back.
When I’m watching TV, I am seized randomly with panic that everyone has forgotten to wear their masks. This reaction makes me wonder how this year has shifted our interactions for the long term. It is hard, sometimes, to imagine ever again sitting in a bar on St. Patrick’s Day being treated to free drinks by my friends. Or having them over the house without masks on to eat cake and play board games.
I am shaken by how one short year of mask wearing and distancing seems to have overcome the previous years of living life in the “before.” That when casting into the past, my brain can only seem to comprehend the “slightly less bad pandemic times” as opposed to reaching further back. Like some part of me has written off “back to normal,” and I’m not sure how true that belief will turn out to be.
I don’t have the answers or the timelines, but as the vaccine rollout carries on, I know we’ll have to continue having these conversations about what it means when the critical percentage of people are finally vaccinated. In some ways, I’m as uncertain about the future approaching 29 as I was one year ago. In some ways, I feel I never turned 28 at all, and the whole past year has been a strange, scary dream.