When a Birthday Becomes the Last Moment of Normalcy

A woman in Astoria felt more connected than ever to her community. Then the pandemic hit — and celebrations took on a whole new meaning.

Written on December 14, 2020

It was a frigid Saturday in January a little over a week after my 26th birthday — the beginning of a year that has since decimated our sense of routine and stability, altered our relationships with everyone from friends and family to neighbors and lovers, and forced us to question pretty much everything we know to be true about the world around us.

“Happy birthday to you…”

Typically, by the time my birthday reminder pops up on my calendar, the New Year still feels fresh. And even though we were celebrating my birthday a little late due to travel plans, work deadlines, and scheduling conflicts (which sounds laughable now), this year was no different.

People were excited by the start of a new decade — it truly felt like a new lease on life. In addition to the typical resolutions, they booked roundtrip tickets to Tokyo and Mexico City, planned nuptials at French vineyards in the countryside, and made promises to see more Broadway shows and try more Michelin-starred restaurants. Anything felt possible in January. I know when I pictured 2020, I thought I’d be traipsing across the U.S. for weddings, flying twice a month to see my partner, and bird watching in Texas with my mom to celebrate her much-anticipated 60th, among other plans that seem quite lofty now.

“Happy birthday to you…”

I was nearly ready to blow out the candles on a rainbow-tiered, candy-filled cake my best friend and her boyfriend (now fiancé) made. We were gathered at my favorite bar in Astoria, Diamond Dogs. David Bowie references aside, over the past four years, the cozy, wallpapered bar has always been a haven for everything from casual get-togethers to intimate happy hours and solo drinks on the way home after a long day. I have always been comfortable there.

Even in lockdown, my closest friends and I have sought the solace of their private backyard, of course, featuring hand sanitizer on every table, including a particularly large vat by the entrance. Despite the city’s new rules and regulations regarding bars and serving alcohol, the bartenders have continued to inject humor and levity into every interaction (I’ll never forget “eating” what they described as a “Nashville Chicken Sandwich” the last time I went in November).

“Happy birthday, dear Emily…”

Rainbow birthday cake lit with “Happy Birthday” candles and covered in sprinkles

At that moment, as my face was lit by a warm candlelit glow, I took a moment and looked around at all their beaming faces looking back at me. The questionably harmonic sound of their voices wishing me well faded as time slowed down, if only for a moment. I relished in the overwhelming sense of connectedness that felt like a jolt of electricity rushing through my entire body. It was a feeling of friendship fulfillment I haven’t felt as strongly since that night.

I was so aware that this group of people had all ventured out — and in a snowstorm, no less — simply to celebrate another year of my existence on this earth. I had been anxious all afternoon, thinking no one would come (the weather was so dismal that I’d barely wanted to leave my own apartment, let alone ask other people to leave theirs), and yet here we were, hours later, taking over an entire corner of my favorite bar and seeing the windows fog up as we laughed.

“Happy birthday to you!”

When I blew out the candles and started cutting heaping, M&M-covered slices of cake, eager to try a bite (at this point, I’d been talking up this cake for weeks — I was that excited), I was surrounded by friends from all the avenues that have intersected to create what has become my New York experience.

Best friends who were brought together by a fateful commute home were conversing with former classmates who had evolved into trusted confidants. Former coworkers who became some of my closest friends were suddenly getting to know the people who’d changed me for the better and had become my chosen family. There were friends starting families, starting new jobs, and discovering something new about themselves.

Who knew we’d all find a sense of connection for the sake of a delicious smear of buttercream frosting?

I was so full of love and contentment — I had finally found my people, and they even got along! Never had I felt so lucky or grateful. As COVID-19 has ravaged our neighborhoods, our city, our country, and our world, I think about how much our relationships have been stretched and strained since then, and how it all felt so unbelievably far away in January. Never would I have imagined that birthday celebrations would evolve into arranging elaborate contactless deliveries of cakes, coffee orders, and other treats, hoping a Postmates delivery can evoke the same thought and care as a multicourse birthday dinner.

So many people have left the city in droves (and obviously have been since the pandemic hit) due to financial hardship, sprinting toward their next life stage, or merely feeling the disillusionment that occurs when a city that’s promised you everything falls short. I still believe in the power these historic streets hold — the magic surging on every block — but for many, the city just feels cramped, lonely, and bleak, an island that feels more like a relic of the movie-quality moments their memories have crafted.

As my next birthday arrives, now only weeks away, I’m not sad that there won’t be a large celebration. And I’m certainly not sad to miss a likely hangover from a French 75 made with a splash of cognac or an even likelier sugar coma from all the cake and ice cream I’d consume in a 24-hour period. What saddens me at my core though are the connections that have faded away or have become too strained to salvage since the last time we were all together.

I know I’ve certainly pulled back from reaching out to many of the very people who were there that night — there’s only so much to say when you’re no longer able to safely see someone in person, especially with the limitations that a quarantine pod provides.

This year, and all the heavy experiences we’ve shared as a result, has made it impossible to maintain connections that aren’t yet deeply rooted. Even the slightest disturbance, disagreement, or stressful situation can cause a sprout of a relationship to shrivel up.

It’s true that everyone’s capacity for change and stress is at an all-time low these days, and after months of finding unique ways to celebrate and connect, I’m exhausted — and I know I’m not the only one. When I think about the coming year, my birthday isn’t even high on my own list of priorities. I spend my days looking forward to a vaccine and being able to reunite with my family in Nebraska after more than a year of separation. I spend my nights dreaming that I’ll soon be able to see my partner, who works as a pharmacist in Chicago, after more than nine months apart.

Instead of planning a busy birthday weekend for myself, one I’d usually fill with museum trips or an Airbnb upstate, lavish desserts, and movie tickets to the Angelika Film Center or IFC, I’m mourning those precious moments of the past that verge on nostalgia, cognizant that the exact group of people I’m missing most, who have become some of my dearest friends, will likely never meet again and certainly not in that context.

By the end of that blustery night, the bartenders loved us as much as we loved them. With the icy snowfall and the chilly gusts of wind, they had prepared for a slow night, and we made sure that when they closed, they felt as full as we did. The next morning, my face still hurt from smiling and my feet ached from the shoes I wore as I read through the thoughtful cards my friends had left me. Now I can’t even picture wearing mascara, let alone opting to wear shoes for an extended period of time that don’t strongly resemble house slippers.

I’m not sure how I’ll end up spending my upcoming birthday. All I can say for certain is that there’s a high chance I’ll be ordering takeout (and a very low chance I’ll be hosting a Zoom birthday). There’s just something about marking up a dim sum menu with a golf pencil that makes even the loneliest days more enjoyable. No matter what my celebration looks like this year (or doesn’t look like), all I can do is hope for a better outcome a year from now when we can start to heal from the pain and despair we’ve endured since March when the first wave of cases made their indelible mark on our city.

I can only hope that people will yearn for that level of connection again when we’re not collectively processing so much in such a short period of time. I hold onto the memory of that birthday party, before all this, hopeful that I will feel that sense of fullness and that reprieve of loneliness again someday — perhaps when the dust of this year finally starts to settle.

I am an experienced copy editor, content marketer, and branding expert who’s passionate about D&I + supporting next-gen leaders in tech.

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