My son’s 11th birthday was March 29th, and as it approached ― deep in the heart of COVID-19 social distancing — I tried to assure him that, though he couldn’t have a party, he could still have a fun day of close-to-home family activities. Our family of five would have a backyard water balloon fight, I promised. We’d get donuts from his favorite bakery. I’d even let him go to town decorating our house with a can of spray chalk in one hand and a can of silly string in the other.
I knew my son was disappointed, but I hoped he’d understand the necessity of the sacrifice. We had a heart-to-heart about the good reasons why everyone is keeping their distance right now. I tried to explain the science of self-isolating in terms he’d understand: that though staying close to home (and away from friends) feels sad, it’s actually a way to show we care for others. We could be carriers of the coronavirus even when we don’t feel sick, I told him, and the last thing we want is to spread disease to any of our friends.
Our talk seemed to soften the blow. But in truth — even though I’m not a birthday-party-every-year kind of parent — it hurt my heart to know that my son wouldn’t be celebrated by his friends.
Then on the eve of the big day, a friend (and fellow school mom) texted: “Will you be home tomorrow at noon? We have a surprise.”
Uh, sure, I replied. We have no plans. Now or, like, ever.
The following day, on my son’s birthday, our family assembled in front of our house to await the promised surprise. I figured my friend and her son — who’s been in the same class as mine since kindergarten — might stop by with a card or some little gift they’d managed to score on Amazon. But it really didn’t matter to me what the surprise held. I looked forward to any visit from friends, any little gesture that might brighten my son’s day — and, I admit, mine. (These days, even a visit from the mailman is a thrill.)
So I was stunned when, at the appointed hour, a caravan of cars rounded the corner of our street, all decorated with streamers, happy birthday signs and even an 8-foot inflatable football player in the bed of a truck.
Incredibly, our group of friends and their kids — five families in all — had organized to drive by in a celebratory, socially distanced parade! Honking unreservedly, they slowly cruised past our house and then doubled back to give us another view of their handmade signs and décor. From each vehicle hung a child yelling, “HAPPY BIRTHDAY!” at the top of their lungs. One threw candy, another popped confetti from a tube. Our street was soon covered with a glorious detritus of sweets and shiny paper.
From the front seats of each car, my own friends called to me, too. We shouted what catching-up questions we could: “How are you holding up? Are you doing okay? Do you have enough toilet paper?” Even though we have an ongoing group text, something about these small snatches of conversation seemed to highlight our hunger for in-person communication. I found myself in tears just seeing their faces without the barrier of a screen.
My son, meanwhile, was grinning from ear to ear, a picture of preteen shock and awe. Not normally an effusive kid, he declared over and over, “This is so awesome!” and “This is the best birthday ever!” My other two kids agreed, un-subtly voicing their hopes of getting parades for their own upcoming birthdays.
Though the parade didn’t last long, it seemed to infuse our whole family with an afterglow of delight for the rest of the day. For hours, none of us could stop talking about how wonderful it was to see our friends all in one place, how creative their decorations were, how mischievous of them to organize without telling us. Without a doubt, the parade was far and away the most exciting thing to happen to us in weeks — and I couldn’t help reflecting on how the extreme slowdown in our social calendar emphasized the novelty of participating in anything like an event. (An in-person event, no less!)
“I’ve come to realize that this season of slowing down has made gestures of friendship all the more precious to me.”
Since my son’s birthday parade, I’ve come to realize that this season of slowing down has made gestures of friendship all the more precious to me. It’s not that I can’t talk to friends as often as I used to; obviously, phone calls, email and texts make communication as easy as the touch of a button. It’s that with the uptick in anxiety caused by the virus situation, I increasingly crave personal connection and any meaningful show of solidarity.
If I can’t leave my house, I want to feel I’m still part of something greater than myself, whether my nation, my friend group or even a 10-minute parade — and I want my children to feel that, too. Seeing my friends show up so enthusiastically for my son scratched this itch in the very best way. It was a reminder that we all need community, now more than ever.
Their thoughtful celebration was a demonstration, too, that necessity is indeed the mother of invention. When a pandemic nixes some of our usual ways of connecting, good friends think outside the box. (It probably doesn’t hurt that boredom can boost creativity. Just look at all the inventively goofy things people are posting on TikTok during the quarantine.) More and more people, it seems, are finding novel ways to maintain their sense of community from afar — which we need more than ever in this time of increased isolation.
The day of the birthday parade, after all was said and done and our friends drove away, our family cleaned the street of the celebratory debris. But there’s one red streamer caught on a rock that, weeks later, I still haven’t picked up. I’m saving it, I suppose, as a reminder: Shinier, happier days will come again. When birthday parties and other gatherings resume, I’m thankful to know my son (and I) will have treasured friends to share them with.
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