By Paula Halpin
It was meant to be the birthday party to end all birthday parties. A proper “knees up,” as my Irish grandmother used to say. A year ago, my daughter-in-law turned 50 on March 15. My own daughter marked her 40th the day before. Their joint celebration was to take place at my daughter-in-law’s home in Toronto on the 15th.
What could go wrong?
Only in retrospect did I think of the significance of that date in literature. In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, a soothsayer warns of something bad happening on the “Ides of March.” Julius was later murdered on March 15 by a group of treacherous Roman senators. “Et tu, Brute?”
In our family, adult birthday celebrations tend to be low key – usually featuring a special dinner, a tasteful gift, a sparkly hand-made card from the kids or grandkids. But this one would involve pulling out all the stops; throwing caution to the wind; rolling back the carpet; playing music at full blast; dancing till dawn (or at least till 9 o’clock); and generally having the kind of happy, noisy shindig that would have had the neighbours calling the cops had they not been invited to join in.
In the run up to the big day, finger food recipes were googled, champagne was stocked in the drinks’ cabinet, and a playlist was put together by the eldest grandchild, a music student. Birthday cakes — featuring two kinds of chocolate with chocolate truffles on top for good measure — were ordered from the local patisserie.
Fairy lights were strung throughout the house. Draft speeches were jotted down on the back of envelopes. Little ones plotted with their Dads about gifts for Mom. What to buy? Where to hide the packages until the big day? Airbnbs were booked for out-of-town guests. The buzz grew.
And then BAM! Out of nowhere came Covid-19, a microscopic party-pooper that heartlessly blew up the Great Canadian Birthday Plan. Suddenly large swaths of the world were in lockdown. People were told to stay home. Businesses closed; countless jobs were lost. Shopping moved online; Amazon’s already huge profits went through the roof. Schools shut down; kids cheered but soon began to miss their friends and teachers. When hair salons closed, grown women wept and wore ponytails.
Subways and buses ran at only 10 per cent capacity. Planes and trains sat idle. Churches were shuttered. Parents struggled with finding daycare; those working from home had to hastily combine offices with virtual classrooms. Streets were deserted. Dogs balked at yet another “walkies.”
The usually bustling Toronto grew silent.
Meanwhile, at my safe house in the Gatineau Hills, the carefully chosen gifts for the birthday girls sat unwrapped on an armchair in a corner of the bedroom. A landscape my husband had painted for his stepdaughter leaned forlornly against a wall in the hall. The train tickets went into the recycling bin.
I had been all set to spend a weekend away from home, enjoying the pleasures of the city and visiting with my precious grandchildren — grandchildren, it turns out, I would not see for months, maybe years. A heart-scalding prospect that keeps me awake at night.
I did at least have a short virtual visit with my dejected daughter on her birthday, across a dodgy Zoom connection. I doubt the bunch of red balloons I had positioned behind me even showed up on her screen.
Having my plans thwarted in this cruel way had me weeping in the bathroom, cursing the coronavirus. I went for long walks trying to cope with the feelings of helplessness, loneliness and fear that threatened to consume me. I had to talk myself out of baking a compensatory chocolate cake that only I would eat. And where would I find 90 candles in a lockdown?
I began to see my home as a sort of progressive Scandinavian prison — light-filled with bookshelves and pillows and WIFI, but still a prison.
Then the cases and deaths began to mount. The pandemic began to expose the hidden inequities in the healthcare system and to amplify the many injustices that plaque our society. Our elders began to die alone in nursing homes. Hospitals became overcrowded. Exhausted healthcare workers appeared on TV, red-eyed and sad and barely able to speak. At that point, I ditched my self-pity and began counting my blessings.
I saw that I was fortunate to live in a place surrounded by lots of glorious green space that I could enjoy without fear of contagion. I saw that even if I could only connect with a few people, at a distance, their eyes above their masks were wordlessly acknowledging our shared experience. I saw that I was blessed to be retired and not at risk of losing a job or having no money for rent at the first of the month. I saw that we could at least hug our dogs. So, like many (although, as it turns out, not enough), I sucked it up and put on a mask.
We have had a year now to reflect on the missed birthday and wedding celebrations, the cancelled graduations and family trips, the virtual funerals. We have had to figure out things like the chat function on Zoom calls, and whether a whole turkey makes sense for just two people at Thanksgiving.
We have gained a new appreciation for the importance of real-live connection with those we cherish. At a time when being with our loved ones would have really helped, we have had to settle for virtual visits. I suppose we are fortunate to live in the age of technologically advanced communication, but it is not the same, not even close. Nothing beats sitting at a dinner table having my teen-age grandsons pass the potatoes and tell me about their lives. Or to have my granddaughter snuggle with me on the couch while I read her Harry Potter.
We take solace where we can while we wait for this terrible pandemic to be over. We look for moments of joy. We hold on to hope. In a recent essay, New Zealand writer Emily Perkins described what the end of Covid-19 in her country looked like: “And suddenly, astonishingly, we’re out. A crisp blue autumn has given way to cold flat skies. Who cares! It’s level 1! Outlines are sharper, people are beautiful, all is possible. We gather in a pub to hear a politician talk about environmental change. We gather at BLM support rallies that call for decolonisation. We gather to watch sport…”
If and when the vaccine comes our way, my clan will gather in 2022 to finally celebrate the 50-40 birthdays. By that time, my daughter and daughter-in-law will be two years older, but no matter. There will be tears and hugs and cake and everyone talking at the same time. It will not happen on March 15, however. We will not tempt fate.