How to not celebrate a birthday during corona

by Brian on September 27, 2020

in A Parent in Israel,Cancer,Covid-19,Travel

When I turned 50, we took the entire family for an 11-day trek on the Annapurna trail in the Nepalese Himalayas. 

As we ascended to nearly 4,000 meters above sea level, we crossed paths several times with a man who had just turned 60 and was doing the same hike to mark the start of his seventh decade. 

I was taken by his stamina and strength and I vowed that, when I got to that age, I would be fit enough to continue my own worldwide adventures at high altitudes.

I turned 60 a couple of weeks ago, but we did not return to Nepal to hike again. Nor did we fly to Peru or Georgia or Slovenia or anywhere else on my bucket list of trails because, well you know, corona. No one is going anywhere these days. 

While an international family mountain outing might be out, it was not the only thing I had envisioned as a way to signify sixty. Also on my list: throwing a party with one of my favorite Israeli indie rock bands.

I went so far as to contact the group and they were interested. But how could we hold a concert in the midst of a pandemic? 

It would have to be outdoors. But I didn’t know anyone in the neighborhood with a backyard or garden that big. If it was out in the woods somewhere, would the event need a permit? Electricity? Toilets? Security? And then, would I demand that all the attendees wear masks the entire time? I couldn’t serve food or drinks because that would mean the masks would be coming on and off which would make me and other guests uncomfortable. 

This debate was before the latest lockdown started, of course.

“Oof, I wish my birthday didn’t fall in the middle of all this,” I said to my wife, Jody. “It would be OK if I was turning 58 or 59, but I was very attached to doing something special for 60.”

I’m not alone in the birthday dilemma – at more than six months in, more than half the world has now marked such a milestone (60 or otherwise) since Covid-19 upended the way we celebrate.

My solution: I wouldn’t acknowledge my birthday at all this year. I’d remove my date of birth from Facebook so I wouldn’t get all those prompted birthday greetings. I’d tell anyone who knew the date IRL (in real life) that I didn’t want any gifts, any cards, any hullabaloo whatsoever. Not this year.

My family wasn’t having any of that – they’d already planned a socially-distanced outdoor dinner at a restaurant in the center of town complete with heartfelt speeches and gag gifts. 

It was wonderful – how could it not be with a family like mine? – but when we bumped into a friend who was dining at a nearby table and she wished me a happy birthday, I bristled.

“I’m skipping 60 and going straight to 61,” I grumbled.

She nodded but clearly didn’t understand the significance of my declaration. Indeed, this was shaping up to be about much more than simple avoidance or denial. Rather, it was, for me, a way to reframe my “problem,” transforming a singular birth date into a year-long process, one that could provide for a modicum of hope – and not just for me personally. 

— Hope that when I turn 61 next year, we will have beaten the virus; that a vaccine will have returned some sense of the world we knew and that we won’t be living with the specter of death and disability literally a breath away.

— Hope that by the time I’m 61, the politics of 2020 that have sewn such discord and hate have been transformed; that there’s a different president in the United States and a different prime minister in Israel and that healing is not just about our physical health.

— Hope that between 60 and 61, the ailments that have bedeviled me personally have turned a corner; that I’ve been able to treat my maddening floaters so that I’m able to see properly again; that I’ve figured out a cocktail for my chronic insomnia that allows me to get more than four hours of sleep a night; that my cancer has, if not magically reversed course, then at least not gotten worse. And if it has, then whatever my next treatment is will generate a durable remission. 

Just before Rosh Hashana, I received an email with the Jewish non-profit Reboot Project’s “10Q,” an annual list of ten trigger prompts to reflect on for the High Holydays. These, too, can be a source of hope.

For 2020, Reboot sent out its usual questions (“How would you like to improve yourself and your life in the next year?” “Have you had any particular spiritual experiences this past year?”) – plus ten new ones.

“As a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, what is one thing that you find yourself reassessing in terms of the future?”

“How would you like to see society shifting in the coming months?” 

“Since the Covid-19 pandemic began, what is your greatest fear? What is your greatest hope?”

So much of life in general, and as the past six months in particular have emphasized, is out of our control. But at this time of year, during the 10 days of Repentance between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, I have to believe there is still room for hope. For me, for us, for the world. 

And for another hike or party – when I’m 61.

I first tried to ignore my birthday at The Jerusalem Post.

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